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Biden adviser travels to Middle East to discuss the situation in Libya, Gaza and Yemen

Jake Sullivan has met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
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REUTERS/TOM BRENNER  -   US President Joe Biden

A month after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington is returning to the Middle East to reaffirm its role as a mediator and observer in the region's conflicts. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President Joe Biden, has travelled to the region along with Brett McGurk, White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. The two travelled to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to address key issues such as the political landscape in Libya, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Yemen. 

Elections and mercenaries, the main issues in Libya

Libya has been mired in instability and chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2014. Following a ceasefire agreed in 2020 between the warring parties to the conflict, it was agreed to organise elections which, after being postponed several times, will finally be held on 24 December. In addition to the civil war, several foreign powers have intervened in the conflict, even sending mercenaries to support the different sides

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REUTERS/TOM BRENNER - White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan

During the meeting in Cairo, Sullivan and El Sisi discussed the organisation of the elections and the "withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries". Russia, for example, is strengthening its support for Khalifa Haftar through fighters from the Wagner group. Turkey has also sent fighters fighting for the Government of National Accord (GNU).

"They (Sullivan and El Sisi) agreed to intensify coordination bilaterally and with international partners on preparations for the upcoming elections in Libya, as well as the withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries," said the statement issued after the meeting. Sullivan and El Sisi also discussed the "unification of the armed forces".

The future of these paramilitaries is one of the main challenges facing the international community regarding the Libyan situation. Many countries reaffirm the need to expel these mercenaries, although others, such as Sudan, warn of the danger of returning these fighters to their countries. These groups include a large number of Sudanese, Syrians, Turks and Russians.  

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PHOTO/REUTERS - File photo of the Libyan city of Sirte

"The president emphasised the importance Egypt attaches to the success of the political track and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Libya," said the communiqué issued after the meeting.

Cairo is playing a key role in the Libyan political process. In September, El Sisi met with Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. The Egyptian president stressed the importance of the upcoming elections and pledged his support for them.

Egypt also played a significant role following the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in May. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with both former Israeli minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Hamas leader Ismail Haniye to consolidate the terms of the truce. In addition to the maintenance of the ceasefire, the meeting also discussed efforts to rebuild the Gaza Strip. 

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Foto de archivo - Naftali Bennett y Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi

Ahead of the trip, the White House stressed "Egypt's role in promoting security and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians following Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet's visit to Egypt earlier this month".  The meeting between El Sisi and Bennet in Sharm el-Sheikh "laid the groundwork for deep ties going forward", the Hebrew prime minister said. 

Yemen, another key point on Sullivan's Middle East tour 

Earlier, Sullivan travelled to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The main focus of the meeting was Yemen, although they also discussed "a range of bilateral, regional and global issues". Since 2014, a bloody war has been raging in the Arabian Peninsula country, which has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The conflict is also constantly violating the human rights of Yemenis. Riyadh is a major player in this war, as it is engaged in a confrontation in the country against the Houthi rebels, a Shiite militia with links to Iran

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AFP/ FAYEZ NURELDINE - King Salman's son, Mohammed bin Salman

According to a senior US diplomat, Sullivan and bin Salman discussed efforts to establish peace in Yemen. "They had a detailed conversation about the conflict in Yemen and both sides supported the efforts of the new UN special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, and agreed to intensify diplomatic engagement with all relevant parties," he said. Also present at the discussion was Tom Lenderking, US Special Envoy to Yemen.

Sullivan used the meeting with the Saudi prince to thank "Saudi Arabia's hospitality in allowing thousands of at-risk Afghans to transit through Saudi territory". Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement and Saudi Arabia's human rights record also featured in the meeting. In this regard, Sullivan stressed "the values of US foreign policy under President Biden's leadership and the importance of human rights in US relations with its partners and allies"

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PHOTO/AP - In this April 13, 2017 file photo, Yemenis present documents to receive food rations provided by a local charity organisation, in Sanaa, Yemen

Sullivan also met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. 

All three states visited by Sullivan and McGurk are important US allies in the region. However, relations between Washington and Cairo are currently not at their best after the Biden administration decided to suspend $130 million in military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns.

Since Biden's arrival in the White House, ties with Saudi Arabia have also suffered. Recently, Riyadh signed a military agreement with Moscow, after Biden decided to declassify documents on the 9/11 investigation following multiple requests from family members pointing directly to Riyadh

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PHOTO/ Saudi Press Agency via AP - Saudi Arabia's king chairs video conference of G20 world leaders and other bodies from his office in Riyadh.

Likewise, last February, Biden's government published a report on the investigation into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in which it points to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the main person responsible for the death of the Washington Post columnist. The Democratic leader also decided to remove the Houthis, who are at loggerheads with the Riyadh-led coalition in Yemen, from the list of terrorist groups.

The US has no plans to "normalise or improve" relations with Syria

On the sidelines of the US Middle East tour, a State Department spokesperson in Washington said the US government has no intention of establishing formal ties with Damascus. The war in Syria, like the war in Yemen and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is another major issue in the region.

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AP/GHAITH AL-SAYED - Scenes like this have been commonplace over the past ten years in Syria.

"The United States will not normalise or improve diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, nor will we encourage others to do so, because of the atrocities inflicted by the Assad regime on the Syrian people," the spokesman told Reuters after a journalist asked if Washington was supporting rapprochement between Jordan and Syria after Amman reopened its main border crossing with Syria.

Washington suspended relations with Syria in 2012 and has since imposed sanctions against the war-torn country that began in 2011