A State Department official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the move is aimed at boosting U.S. support for Libya’s recently formed unity government, which is scrambling to navigate factional tensions, restore security and basic services and chart a path toward the elections, which are scheduled for Dec. 24.
The appointment also signals an intensification of American attempts, up to now unsuccessful, to persuade Turkey, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and other powers to end their roles in turning Libya into a major proxy conflict on Europe’s southern edge. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters are deployed in Libya in support of two rival factions, one based in Tripoli, the capital, and the other in the country’s east. Outside nations have also provided advanced weaponry including fighter jets, drones and air defense systems.
“By ramping up our diplomatic engagement with Libyans and with the international community, I think the idea is to try to move more effectively towards some sort of a neutral and balanced reduction and withdrawal of foreign forces,” the official said.
Russian paramilitary fighters, mostly contractors with the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group supporting the eastern faction, and troops from Turkey, sent by Ankara to assist a previous U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, have not reduced their ranks despite years of international conference and high-level Western appeals. While fighting has largely paused since last fall, the potential for renewed clashes remains.
“Because you have numerous forces facing each other, separated only by about 50 kilometers [31 miles], there is a risk of miscalculation,” the official said.
The move marks a potential turning point in American engagement in Libya, after years in which the Trump administration focused its foreign policy elsewhere. Since taking part in a Western-led military campaign that helped topple Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, the United States has urged European countries to take the lead in Libya. Under President Donald Trump, a U.S. policy of “active neutrality” was at times complicated by conflicting signals about which side Washington was supporting.
The official said that Khalifa Hifter, the strongman whose 2019-2020 campaign to capture Tripoli plunged the country into another acute crisis, had not actively opposed the creation of the recent unity government, which U.S. officials see as a promising sign.
“As long as he maintains that posture, I think he’s doing himself a favor in the eyes of Libyan citizens,” the official said. “And I think it makes it possible for us to treat him as an important actor in this process.”
In addition, major elements of the electoral process must be hammered out in coming months, including the question of whether Libyans will elect a new president directly or via a parliament, and when a potential constitutional referendum might take place, officials said.
“Nobody’s under any illusion that this is going to be simple and straightforward,” the official said. “But again, any group that tries to stand in the way of these elections risks running into a buzz-saw of unhappiness from the public that really wants to see this happen.”
Ben Fishman, who served as a White House official for Libya during the Obama administration and is now a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, said the appointment was a much-needed move to increase the U.S. focus on Libya.
“The key challenge for Ambassador Norland will be to maintain pressure on the different Libya factions to proceed with their commitments to the political road map and maintain the cease fire while at the same time urging the external actors involved in Libya, such as Moscow, Ankara, Egypt, the UAE and the Europeans to cooperate,” he said.
Fishman said there was a “reasonable chance” that some foreign fighters might depart as pressure grows from a more unified political front.
“But each side can point to the ongoing presence of external forces who supported their rivals in the civil war to scuttle the process,” he said.