The Trump Administration Tries a New Policy in Libya

The Trump Administration appears to have settled on a Libya policy that aims to bring about a reconciliation between the warring parties. This followed a confused—and confusing—policy last spring that oscillated between a call by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for halting an offensive against Tripoli by Libyan strongman and leader of the so-called Libyan National Army, General Khalifa Haftar, and a warm phone call between President Donald Trump and the same general. This new American policy orientation comes as Haftar directs his forces to launch a new offensive against the Libyan capital for what he sees as a final assault whose aim is to control the whole country.

The new and more coherent policy seems to reflect growing concerns in Washington that a prolonged conflict improves Russia’s chances to become further entrenched in Libya though its assistance to Haftar. It also points to a worry that the so-called Islamic State (IS) will rebound by taking advantage of the ongoing chaos in the country.

The United States has called for a cessation of hostilities and for ending the assault on Tripoli, which began in April. Earlier this month, Pompeo said the administration is interested in working with Russia to end the Libyan conflict. But the chances for success and the potential for an intra-Libyan compromise between the United Nations-supported Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and Haftar appear to be slim as many outside players are aiding the opposing factions militarily despite a UN arms embargo on Libya.

Undercutting the State Department

In early April 2019, as a new offensive was being launched by Haftar against the GNA in Tripoli, Secretary Pompeo testified before Congress that “we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.” However, a week later, Trump phoned Haftar in what was seen as a policy shift. A White House readout of the call noted the US president “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.” That Trump referred to Haftar by his self-anointed title of Field Marshal was meant to signal that perhaps the president and his national security advisor at the time, John Bolton, saw the Libyan strongman as the savior who would stabilize the country and rid it of Islamist elements, including Libya’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood which supports the GNA.

The phone call with Haftar occurred shortly after Trump met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in the White House and a Trump phone call with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (both Egypt and the UAE have been stalwart allies of Haftar and have aided him militarily, despite the UN arms embargo). This led some observers to conjecture that the Trump policy shift was also a result of the entreaties of these two leaders.

Trump may have been persuaded by Bolton that if Haftar took over the whole of Libya and agreed to higher oil exports, that could—in addition to the benefit, in their minds, of squashing Islamist elements—ameliorate the effects on the oil market of the US policy of squeezing Iranian oil exports.

Moreover, Trump may have been persuaded by Bolton that if Haftar took over the whole of Libya and agreed to higher oil exports, that could—in addition to the benefit, in their minds, of squashing Islamist elements—ameliorate the effects on the oil market of the US policy of squeezing Iranian oil exports, which is part of Washington’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.

In any event, the Trump policy of siding with Haftar was not successful, as Haftar’s military offensive against Tripoli stalled when various militias opposed to him rallied to the side of the GNA. Politically, Trump also ran into some opposition in Congress, even from staunch allies like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said the Trump phone call with Haftar added a sense of “imbalance” to the Libyan situation. Graham called on the administration to “reject military force as the solution to the problems in Libya.”

Congressional Concerns and Bureaucratic Pushback

Congressional opposition was manifested this autumn with the introduction of a bipartisan bill in the Senate, S.2934, titled the Libya Stabilization Act, which called for sanctions on “individuals fueling violence” in Libya. It also required the US administration to report to Congress on foreign government involvement in Libya and to formulate a “strategy to counter Russian influence.”

There also was dissatisfaction within the State Department and Pentagon over Trump’s phone call with Haftar. Not only did the president’s policy shift catch officials by surprise but it ran counter to what US officials believed were important political and strategic objectives.

By late September, a new policy seems to have emerged, helped by the fact that Bolton was sacked by Trump. This enabled Pompeo’s views on Libya to predominate. Trump may also have been distracted by other issues, such as the impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine affair and, therefore, was willing to delegate the Libya portfolio back to the State Department. Furthermore, in the course of subsequent weeks, Trump may have been less willing to follow the advice of President Sisi on Libya because of Washington’s strong disagreements with Cairo over Egypt’s intended purchase of advanced Russian Su-35 fighter jets.

By late September, a new policy seems to have emerged, helped by the fact that Bolton was sacked by Trump. This enabled Pompeo’s views on Libya to predominate.

Although Haftar is now in control of some 80 percent of Libya and has fought against extremist groups like IS, he is seen increasingly by the Washington foreign policy establishment as more of a destabilizing, rather than a unifying, force. Moreover, for those in the State Department bureaucracy who believe that democracy promotion—or at least the goal of representative government—should be an integral part of US foreign policy, Haftar is the antithesis of what that would entail. They undoubtedly share the assessment of the UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, that Haftar “is no democrat.”

Growing Concerns about Russia and IS

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has received considerable military assistance from Egypt and the UAE, with the latter providing drones and armored vehicles, plus a reported sum of tens of millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia. However, it seems that military assistance from Russia to the LNA has been the most disconcerting to US officials not only because it has been instrumental in prolonging the civil war and partly responsible for high civilian casualties but also because it has enabled Moscow to become more entrenched in Libya via Haftar.

Russia’s military assistance has been chiefly through the so-called Wagner Group, made up of mostly Russian mercenaries with ties to the Kremlin—these now number between 600 and 800 fighters in Libya. Using such mercenaries gives Russian President Vladimir Putin some deniability and cover, as he and other leaders of foreign governments are supposed to adhere to a UN arms embargo on Libya. The ruse, however, does not appear to be fooling anyone. For his part, Putin wants to show to his allies, like Haftar, that he is an effective power broker in the region.

Trump has sometimes expressed encouragement about Russia’s role in the Middle East. In the wake of his decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria in October 2019, for example, he said—seemingly in reference to Turkey and Russia—that “others have come out to help, and we welcome them to do so.” The Washington bureaucracy, however, has not been so positive about Moscow.

In December 2019, the US military said that one of its unmanned drones, lost in November near Tripoli, was brought down by Russian mercenaries or Haftar’s troops operating a Russian air defense system. The US AFRICOM commander told the press that while individuals who shot down the drone probably did not know it was a US remotely piloted aircraft, “they certainly know who it belongs to now, and they are refusing to return it.”

In addition to the concern about Russia, the US military has stepped up its attacks on IS in recent months in Libya, using drones and other aircraft. In September alone, US air attacks reportedly killed 43 IS militants in Libya. Two months later, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, likening the anti-IS fight in Libya to the phrase “mowing the lawn,” added, “every now and then you have to do these things to stay on top of it so that a threat doesn’t grow, doesn’t resurge.” Seeing an opportunity in the uptick in violence between Haftar and the GNA over the past six months, IS had tried to rebound in Libya because the warring sides were more interested in fighting each other. It should be noted that both Haftar’s LNA and some militias loyal to the GNA have fought against IS.

In addition to the concern about Russia, the US military has stepped up its attacks on IS in recent months in Libya, using drones and other aircraft.

Diplomatic Overtures and Pressures

Reflective of the new policy of trying to rein in Haftar, in late November US officials met with the Libyan strongman at an undisclosed location in the Middle East. The US delegation, led by Deputy National Security Advisor Victoria Coates, pressed Haftar to stop his offensive on Tripoli. Accompanying Coates were the US ambassador to Libya, a high-ranking official from the US Energy Department, and a brigadier general from US AFRICOM, probably to underscore to Haftar that the entire US government apparatus, including the White House, was behind the new policy. (That appeal to Haftar evidently has not been heeded as he declared his latest assault on the capital on December 12.)

An unnamed US official told The Washington Post that “the message to Haftar was very clear, that we feel a military incursion into Tripoli would be disastrous right now, or ever.” US officials also emphasized to Haftar the “very negative potential outcomes” from Russian involvement. In line with this message, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told journalists that he was pressing European countries to sanction the Wagner Group.

Meanwhile, US officials are also speaking to the GNA. They have underscored to both sides the need for “free, fair and meaningful elections,” which have been put off because of the ongoing violence in the country. But that does not mean that the United States sees the GNA as the solution to Libya’s problems, either. An anonymous US official emphasized the following to The Washington Post: “I don’t see a Haftar solution; I don’t see a GNA solution; I see a Libyan solution.”

Enter Turkey

Getting Haftar and the GNA to reconcile may be a bridge too far, despite ongoing UN efforts, renewed US engagement, and the interest of some European countries like Germany, in a political solution. In reaction to the outside military assistance to Haftar, the GNA under Sarraj has received military support from Qatar and Turkey. In fact, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has lauded the expanded security and military accord he signed with Sarraj in November which includes the possible deployment of Turkish troops in Libya. Sarraj also met with Erdoğan after Haftar’s latest demarche, amid increased speculation about Turkish troops in Libya.

Sarraj’s attempts to cultivate closer ties to Turkey have not been without controversy; his endorsement of Turkey’s expanded view of what constitutes its territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where significant natural gas deposits have been found, has earned him the wrath of Egypt as well as Greece.

However, Sarraj’s attempts to cultivate closer ties to Turkey have not been without controversy; his endorsement of Turkey’s expanded view of what constitutes its territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where significant natural gas deposits have been found, has earned him the wrath of Egypt as well as Greece. Egypt’s tiff with Turkey over the eastern Mediterranean, in addition to the two countries’ opposing views on the Muslim Brotherhood, has probably made Sisi angrier about Sarraj and even more inclined to support Haftar.

Recommendations for US Policy

The new US policy toward Libya could be encouraging since the Trump Administration appears to have dropped the strongman option and is working toward a negotiated political settlement. Ongoing violence in Libya, enhanced in large part by Haftar’s offensive, is not going to bring peace to the country nor is it going to be a hedge against an IS comeback. But to get to the point where there is a genuine adherence to an arms embargo and support for a political compromise, Washington needs to weigh in more heavily with the outside players to have them desist from providing military assistance to the warring parties. Instead, Washington should urge them to use their clout with the faction they support to come to the negotiating table. In the meantime, the United States should continue to press Haftar to halt his latest military operation.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here