In a late-night statement on April 7, Secretary of State Pompeo, discussing the escalation of fighting around Tripoli, said: “We have made clear we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.” Pompeo noted that there was no military solution to Libya’s woes and urged Libyan leaders to return to U.N.-brokered political negotiations. This statement suggested that the U.S. government had jumped off the fence on which it had been perceived to be perched, landing solidly on the side of talking, not fighting. With Haftar’s forces encountering greater resistance in Tripoli than anticipated, and given growing alarm about potential civilian casualties from indiscriminate attacks, Pompeo’s statement, met with relief in Tripoli, generated hope that a face-saving way to halt the fighting and resume preparations for a U.N.-facilitated national conference of Libya’s leaders might be possible.
Merely a week later, President Trump undermined Pompeo and flipped the United States over the fence onto the side of Haftar’s unilateral military assault. On April 19, 2019, the White House confirmed that Trump called Haftar days earlier, on Monday, April 15, and “recognized Field Marshall Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and security Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” Shamefully, on April 18, the United States joined Russia in blocking any U.N. Security Council action calling for ending the fighting or censoring Haftar’s attempt to pre-empt a political solution with military action. The Security Council, given Russian and American blocking, proved unable even to condemn the ominous amassing of weaponry by all sides, in violation of resolutions passed by the council with U.S. support.
With the White House now publicly applauding Haftar, a long, drawn-out, devastating battle over Tripoli seems inevitable. Trump has snatched leverage for diplomacy out of the United Nations’ hands. Powerful militias from the coastal city of Misrata, mobilized to defend Tripoli, and others opposed to Haftar (and ostensibly backing the internationally recognized government headed by Fayez Serraj, the authority that—warts and all—the United States and the rest of the international community has heretofore officially supported) show no signs of backing down. Given their fierce animosity to Haftar, they are unlikely to be bought off as some local militias were during Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army’s march south and then west in recent weeks. The indiscriminate nature of the fighting foreshadows the potential of widespread destruction and civilian casualties. Over 30,000 are already displaced out of a city of approximately 1.2 million inhabitants. For all of Libya’s chaos since Gadhafi’s fall in 2011, the number of civilian casualties has remained relatively modest compared to the Syrian and Yemen catastrophes. Unfortunately, that seems about to change.
As appealing as Haftar’s pose as a supposed strongman might be to an authoritarian-infatuated White House, he is not Libya’s savior.
As appealing as Haftar’s pose as a supposed strongman might be to an authoritarian-infatuated White House, he is not Libya’s savior. The stability he promises would rest on brute force that would incite violent opposition. Posturing as an anti-Islamist to the West, he draws on Salafi support linked to Saudi Arabia. His so-called national army includes militias and those who have committed horrific human rights abuses. Haftar has resisted the U.N.’s call for even brief humanitarian pauses, to allow civilians to flee hostilities, and in a widely circulated YouTube video threatens to shoot deserters in the head. The most preposterous reference in the White House read-out of the Trump-Haftar call is the reference to a “democratic political system,” given the disdain Haftar has shown for democracy and elections. Indeed, one of the motivations for Haftar’s move on Tripoli was to derail the mid-April national conference, a process with hundreds of Libyans representing the political and geographic diversity of the country to chart a way forward toward elections.
While Haftar has for years received clandestine support from France and more overt backing from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s belated embrace played a more direct role in encouraging Haftar’s decision to move now onto Tripoli. In Riyadh, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received Haftar on March 28, meetings at least believed to have filled Haftar’s financial coffers in advance of his conquering of Tripoli. Apparently a disastrous war with unspeakable human costs in Yemen is not a sufficiently cautionary note for Riyadh.
While present on the ground since March 2016, Tripoli’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has failed to gain traction or popular support. International recognition, as even Fayez Serraj must recognize, is not the same as national legitimacy. The GNA’s survival depends on militias of dubious loyalty and respectability and the reality of patronage and corruption derived from national resources distributed across the country to all competing factions, Haftar’s forces included. But GNA leaders, recognizing the popular yearning for stability and normalcy, had at least signed onto the national conference process that was starting to generate momentum and enthusiasm. Haftar disdains a political process with an outcome he cannot control and claims he can create the stability Libyans desire by force. At great civilian cost, Haftar’s forces may be able to conquer Tripoli. But given widespread rejection of Haftar in Western Libya, Tripoli’s fall would not end Libya’s political and human agony. A Haftar victory would likely marginalize moderate forces and motivate extremists.
We do not know the content of the actual phone call and have only the White House spin, but it is not clear what President Trump hoped to gain in having a public statement that encourages Haftar’s military assault on Tripoli rather than focuses on saving lives. It is surely no coincidence that Haftar’s indiscriminate shelling of Tripoli neighborhoods started on Tuesday, a day after his call from Trump. One also notes that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Trump in the White House just a few days earlier. Might Sisi have taken a lesson from Turkish President Recey Tayyip Erdoğan’s phone call with Trump in December? Erdoğan convinced Trump to overrule his secretary of defense on the U.S. troop presence in Syria, leading to Secretary James Mattis’ resignation. Did Sisi peddle the “Haftar-is-stability” snake oil to Trump so persuasively that Trump dismissed Pompeo’s wiser approach dismissing the possibility of a military solution in Libya? Was a Sisi pitch reinforced by outreach to the White House from the Saudis, Emiratis, and others?
The United States, in summer 2018 and February 2019, demonstrated its effectiveness in playing a constructive, determinant role in solving looming crises in Libya’s oil crescent. U.S. success rested in part from Libyan confidence in perceived U.S. credibility and objectivity, compared to what Libyans saw as competitive meddling by France, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and others in promoting parochial national and ideological interests. Ironically, this Libyan-held perception of relative U.S credibility stemmed from U.S. disengagement and lead to frequent Libyan calls for renewed U.S. attention: U.S. absence made the Libyan heart for the United States grow stronger. Now, Trump has indeed focused on Libya, at least in terms of one phone call. But his engagement on behalf of Haftar has destroyed the very asset—the perception of credibility and objectivity—that should have been deployed to help the U.N. and others prod Libya’s squabbling leaders to the negotiating table.
As it stands, the White House read-out will likely be cited by Haftar and backers to escalate, rather than end, the violence. Only a clear, direct, unambiguous, public demand by the White House to halt the fighting and initiate a political process can reverse the dangerous perception that Trump likes what Haftar is doing, no matter how many must die.