With U.S. Troops Already in Libya, U.S. Now Supports Arming the Fledgling Government

Susan Jones | May 17, 2016 | 6:30am EDT
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center,, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, left, and U.N. Libya envoy Martin Kobler attend the ministerial meeting on Libya in Vienna, Austria, Monday May 16, 2016. (Leonhard Foeger/Pool Photo via AP)

(CNSNews.com) - In addition to the U.S. troop presence in Libya, the United States plans to send weapons to Libya's Government of National Accord, to help quell the Islamic State spillover from Iraq and Syria.

Speaking in Vienna on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the international community will support Libya's U.N.-established Presidency Council "as it seeks exemption from the U.N. arms embargo to acquire those weapons and bullets needed to fight Daesh and other terrorist groups."

Kerry said the U.N. arms embargo "does allow for the Government of National Accord (GNA) to request weapons if it needs them specifically to secure the country and to combat Daesh."

The U.N. arms embargo will continue to be enforced, Kerry said, as he made a distinction between "legitimate arms requests" from Libya's fledgling government and arms transfers to "people outside the GNA's authority."

"So it's a delicate balance, but we are...supportive of the fact that if you have a legitimate government and the legitimate government is struggling against terrorism, that legitimate government should not be made the prisoner, or it should not be victimized by virtue of the U.N. action that has been taken that has always awaited a legitimate government.

"So we believe it makes sense, but obviously, carefully sculpted. And that's what we will make sure we do."

Kerry said Libya's anticipated request for weapons "obviously has to be discussed" and processed at the United Nations.

Libyan Premier Fayez al-Sarraj said his government would soon submit a weapons wish list to the Security Council for approval.

Later Monday, at the State Department briefing, a reporter asked spokesman John Kirby, "Do you expect any imminent arms transfers to the Libyan government?"

"Well, I don't know -- I don't want to parse the word imminent, so I'm not sure what you mean in terms of imminent," Kirby replied. "But as the secretary said himself, the embargo that's in place does allow for the GNA to request exemptions and that we would certainly consider and certainly look upon favorably on -- on requests made by the Libyan government, the GNA, in terms of the material that they might need."

Kirby continued: "As far as I know, there's been no such request yet, so it's difficult to -- to say how, quote/unquote, 'imminent' the provision of any arms or material or training might be. We just -- you know, this was just decided on now by the international community today that they would do this, that they would look favorably on this, and I think we just need to let the process take -- take effect."

"I thought it might be helpful for people to understand whether or not this was likely to happen anytime soon," the reporter followed up.

Kirby said depending on what Libya's Government of National Accord requests, the international community -- acting through the U.N. -- would have to decide whether to grant the request, and how "we would resource it, staff it, logistically provide for it."

"So there's a lot of decisions that have to get made."

Kirby said although he is reticent to "describe the word imminent," he believes the international community will "move with as much alacrity as the system will permit them to move. But as the secretary said himself and as you noted...there's -- there's a balance to be achieved here because we obviously need to make sure that whatever's provided is provided in such a way that it can't end up in the wrong hands, which is the purpose for the embargo to begin with, which was in place since 2011."

Over at the Pentagon on Monday, a spokesman said the announcement in Vienna has not resulted in "any particular marching orders to us."

Spokesman Peter Cook said the plan to send arms to the GNA simply "spells out some of the next steps of support for the Government of National Accord."

Asked about the U.S. troop presence in Libya, Cook was less forthcoming:

"I'm not going to get into details, as you know, other than to acknowledge what we have previously -- that there are small teams of U.S. forces that are on the ground effectively meeting and getting a better sense of the players on the ground, so that we have a sense of, for example, ISIL's presence in Libya, the level of strength as well as some of those other forces on the ground.

"But I am not going to characterize it other than to say, these are small groups of Americans who have, again, maintained a small presence in Libya for that specific purpose.

Another reporter asked Cook, "Am I understanding that this is a fixed group of people that does not come in and out?"

"No, you should not interpret that," Cook responded. "This is a small group, and as we've said, there have been teams that have -- it's not a permanent presence. And I'm going to leave it at that."

Cook added that the U.S. troops in Libya have been "doing good work in providing us information that we think is important." He said that good work includes collecting information on "the situation on the ground" but is not an effort to engage in training.

"We're trying to identify groups on the ground...and certainly looking for groups that are willing to take on ISIL."

Cook also said the troops are monitoring the political situation, as the Government of National Accord takes shape amid all the fighting in Libya.

Kerry, speaking in Vienna Monday, said the GNA "is the only entity than can unify the country," and he said it is "imperative to put the international community's full weight behind the Government of National Accord" as it tries to establish itself in Tripoli.

"Nearly five years ago, Libya overthrew a dictator," Kerry said. (It did so with military intervention ordered by President Obama and supported by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)  

"The question mark that we have to ask ourselves even still today is: What is Libya going to look like five years from now? That's what motivated us to come here (to Vienna) today and build the consensus that we have produced.

"Libya has an opportunity to be a safe country for its citizens or it could be a safe haven for terrorists, trapped in division and chaos and beset by personal, international, and tribal rivalries. Or Libya could be a country with a functioning government, with an entrepreneurial economy, and a population that is both diverse and unified at the same time.

"The choices required to shape Libya's future are in the hands of its leaders, and they were here today. But they're going to need our support, and if they do their part, we are here today to say that we're willing to do ours. For the sake of Libya's future, we need to seize this moment."

At the White House on Monday, spokesman Josh Earnest said the United Nations will review the GNA's request for weapons "and determine whether or not that is a request that can be agreed to in a way that doesn't exacerbate our concerns that those weapons could fall into the wrong hands."

Earnest noted that President Obama has ordered two military strikes inside Syria in recent months to take out Islamic State leaders operating in that country.

"And that continues to be an option," he added.

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