The middle east is burning again: first it was the fascinating ascent of the brutal Al-Qaeda spinoff ISIS, creating its own Caliphate in northern Iraq and in the process taking over a third of Syrian territory as well as all of its oil infrastructure. Then, the latest iteration of the Israel vs Gaza conflict has now claimed over 1000 lives and is dragging virtually all neighboring countries into it as well. And the cherry on top is that the Libyan "liberation" by the US has just gone full circle, as the country is is now witnessing one of its worst spasms of violence since Gadhafi’s ouster. End result: nearly two years after the deadly attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, moments ago the US once again shuttered its embassy in Libya, this time in Tripoli, evacuating more than 150 Americans to Tunisia. This is happening just 24 hours after the US Secretary of State was literally next door in Egypt, assuring the region that peace and stability are just around the corner.
More than 150 Americans have been evacuated from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya, amid spiraling militant violence aimed at the Libyan government. "The U.S. together with other countries have decided that because of the freewheeling militia violence that is taking place particularly around the embassy ... it presents a real risk to our personnel," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters during a trip to France.
American officials told NBC News that the 158 Americans, including 80 heavily armed U.S. Marines, left the embassy compound early Saturday in a caravan of SUV's and buses and drove west toward neighboring Tunisia. Besides the Marines who were the embassy’s security force, the caravan was also protected overhead by two American F-16 fighter jets and unmanned drones that shadowed the group on their drive.
At least two American warships, a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Ross and a guided-missile cruiser, the USS Vella Gulf, were nearby in the Mediterranean in case additional military protection was needed, officials told NBC News.
While there appeared to be no direct threat of an attack against the embassy, the rising violence in Libya recently prevented delivery of food and other vital supplies to the embassy over roads now largely controlled or threatened by rebel militant forces, the officials added.
While it needs no reminding, CBS does so nonetheless, that "the move marks the second time in a little more than three years that Washington has closed its embassy in Libya. In Feb. 2011, the embassy suspended operations amid the uprising that eventually toppled longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. After the formation of a transitional government in July, 2011, the embassy reopened in September. Gadhafi was killed in October of 2011."
The Obama administration has been particularly sensitive about security of U.S. government employees in Libya since the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in the country’s second largest city of Benghazi that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The administration is still fending off criticism from Republicans and others that it did not either enhance security in Benghazi or evacuate the mission due to rising violence in that city in the months prior to the attack.
The Benghazi mission was abandoned after that attack and never reopened. The embassy In Tripoli has been operating with reduced staff since but has remained open even as the violence intensified.
But wait, didn't Brent drop recently because the political situation in Libya was getting better? Recall from Goldman:
On July 2, federalist rebels handed the central oil terminals of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider back to the Libyan government, with a combined capacity of 560 thousand barrels per day. The government lifted the force majeure on July 6, allowing the NOC to start marketing crude from the ports. This development points to a potential sharp ramp-up in Libyan oil production from its current 320 thousand barrels per day level as well as a ramp-up in exports that have been erratic so far this year. This has led to a decline in crude oil prices, with Brent prices down nearly $2.00/bbl since Reuters first reported this deal and currently trading near $110/bbl, although the lack of further deterioration in Iraq, where exports remain undisrupted, has also contributed to the broader decline in prices over the past two weeks.
In Tripoli, the militias are fighting mostly for control of the airport. They are on the government’s payroll since authorities have depended on them to restore order.
The U.S. is just latest in a number of countries to have closed down their diplomatic operations in Libya. Turkey on Friday announced that it had closed down its embassy and militia clashes in Benghazi have prompted the United Nations, aid groups and foreign envoys to leave.
In Tripoli, clashes near the international airport have forced residents to evacuate their homes nearby after they were hit by shells. On Friday, the official Libyan news agency LANA reported that explosions were heard early in the day near the airport area and continued into the afternoon.
The battle in Tripoli began earlier this month when Islamist-led militias — mostly from the western city of Misrata — launched a surprise assault on the airport, under control of rival militias from the western mountain town of Zintan. On Monday, a $113 million Airbus A330 passenger jet for Libya’s state-owned Afriqiyah Airways was destroyed in the fighting.
The rival militias, made up largely of former anti-Gadhafi rebels, have forced a weeklong closure of gas stations and government offices. In recent days, armed men have attacked vehicles carrying money from the Central Bank to local banks, forcing their closure.
Libyan government officials and activists have increasingly been targeted in the violence. Gunmen kidnapped two lawmakers in the western suburbs of Tripoli a week ago and on Friday armed men abducted Abdel-Moaz Banoun, a well-known Libyan political activist in Tripoli, according to his father.
Finally, there is of course the obligatory spin:
To be clear, our embassy in Tripoli is not closed. We have temporarily suspended operations. Difference is an important one.— Marie Harf (@marieharf) July 26, 2014
Full statement from the State Department on the evacuation:
Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya.
We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves. In the interim, staff will operate from Washington and other posts in the region.
Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top Department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly. Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions.
This relocation was done over land, with our personnel arriving in Tunisia this morning, and traveling onward from there. We are grateful to the Government of Tunisia for its cooperation and support.
We will continue to engage all Libyans and the international community to seek a peaceful resolution to the current conflict and to advance Libya’s democratic transition. We reiterate that Libyans must immediately cease hostilities and begin negotiations to resolve their grievances. We join the international community in calling on all Libyans to respect the will of the people, including the authority of the recently-elected Council of Representatives, and to reject the use of violence to affect political processes. Many brave Libyans sacrificed to advance their country toward a more secure and prosperous future. We continue to stand solidly by the Libyan people as they endeavor to do so.
Turns out "it does make a difference after all."