President Donald Trump’s White House has given short shrift to Libya. In contrast to former President Barack Obama’s administration, US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) under Trump has been mainly committed to fighting the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and countering the expansion of Iranian influence. Yet, given that Trump entered the Oval Office a month after the defeat of ISIS in Sirte (the extremist group’s last stronghold in 2016) and that Iran is playing virtually no role in the Libyan crisis, it is hardly surprising that Libya has been a low priority for this White House.
At the time of Trump’s victory in November 2016, many analysts were trying to imagine how the 45th American president might change Washington’s course in the North African country. While the Obama administration worked closely with the UN-respected Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, there was good reason to believe that Trump would work to align Washington with Libya’s rival government, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). This “secular” government in eastern Libya is allied with General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). The HoR/LNA view the GNA as illegitimate and filled with Islamist “terrorists.”
By the time of Trump’s election, the GNA had proven to be weak and ineffectual, governing little territory beyond Tripoli, and beset by many internal rivalries.
By the time of Trump’s election, the GNA had proven to be weak and ineffectual, governing little territory beyond Tripoli, and beset by many internal rivalries. Thus, given the GNA’s problems and Trump-the-candidate’s rhetoric about the Muslim Brotherhood being a “radical” movement, his adulation for Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi (one of Haftar’s key external sponsors), and his penchant for authoritarian strongmen, expectations that Trump’s policies in Libya would be pro-Haftar were reasonable.
In fact, officials in Tobruk welcomed Trump’s triumph over Hillary Clinton. One lawmaker in the HoR, Tarek al-Jaroushi, announced: “I strongly support Trump because of his and the Republicans’ resolute and decisive attitudes . . . . The Republican Party, which understands the truth about [ISIS] and the positions and the victories of the Libyan army, will support us.” The HoR put out an official statement to Trump: “We hope for your support . . . , and we call for the lifting of the arms embargo on the Libyan army which is waging a war against terrorism.”
Washington’s Disengagement from Libya
Trump’s White House essentially outsourced Washington’s Libya foreign policy to Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Moscow, Paris, and Rome. As such, a power vacuum began to emerge that several of Washington’s NATO allies and close partners in the Arab world have sought to fill to further their respective national interests.
Rather than officially shifting sides in Libya, however, the Trump administration largely disengaged from the North African country’s civil war. Trump’s White House essentially outsourced Washington’s Libya foreign policy to Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Moscow, Paris, and Rome. As such, a power vacuum began to emerge that several of Washington’s NATO allies and close partners in the Arab world have sought to fill to further their respective national interests.
The external players that proved to be most influential in terms of shaping the Libyan civil war have been Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These two Arab countries stepped up their interference in Libya shortly after Haftar launched Operation Dignity in May 2014, which both the Egyptian and Emirati leaders strongly supported, largely because it furthered their interests in weakening the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions in Libya.
Cairo and Abu Dhabi’s direct military intervention in the war-torn country began in August 2014 with strikes against Haftar’s enemies. Although the US, UK, and other Western governments condemned the Egyptian/Emirati interference as damaging to Libya’s democratic development, the strikes marked a major watershed in the UAE’s foreign policy and underscored Abu Dhabi’s willingness to accept major risks to counter the forces of political Islam in armed conflicts thousands of miles from the Persian Gulf. Such military action by Egypt and the UAE also signaled the extent to which Cairo and Abu Dhabi had major differences with the Obama administration regarding the question of who in Libya was a “terrorist,” as well as both Arab capitals’ lack of confidence in Trump’s predecessor to lead the fight against “extremism.”
France too has established itself as a strong backer of Haftar. With Paris supporting the eastern commander, there has been a major clash of visions for Libya between France and Italy, fueling a row between the two western countries. France’s pro-Haftar position has also created overall division within the EU bloc on Libya. Beginning in 2016, the Russians also began providing various forms of support to Haftar notwithstanding Moscow’s nominal recognition of the GNA’s legitimacy.
Libya’s Violent New Chapter
Despite the GNA having international legitimacy, Haftar saw that as irrelevant to facts on the ground, where his LNA had amassed control of more territory and onshore oil reserves than any other actor competing for influence in post-Qaddafi Libya.
Haftar’s external backing from Egypt, France, Russia, the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia gave enough confidence to the Benghazi-based commander to launch Operation to Liberate Tripoli on April 4, 2019. Haftar concluded that with Washington disengaged while other strong global/regional powers were increasing their support for his forces, the time was opportune for pursuing a military victory. Despite the GNA having international legitimacy, Haftar saw that as irrelevant to facts on the ground, where his LNA had amassed control of more territory and onshore oil reserves than any other actor competing for influence in post-Qaddafi Libya.
On April 15, only 11 days after Haftar launched his westward assault on Tripoli, Trump lent Haftar moral support in a phone call amid his campaign to eradicate “terrorism” from Libya. This Trump-Haftar phone call led some experts to become increasingly confident in their analysis that the UAE’s agenda in Libya was heavily driving the US administration’s dealing with the North African country’s civil war. Also, given that the phone call between Trump and the Benghazi-based commander took place shortly after President Sisi’s visit to the White House, the Egyptian leader likely influenced Trump’s thinking on Haftar too.
Yet the administration’s policies and statements have been contradictory. Secretary of State of Mike Pompeo, who at one time labeled Haftar a “militia leader,” quickly reasserted that Washington officially supports Libya’s UN-recognized government, despite Trump’s praise for Haftar suggesting otherwise. The administration’s lack of a cohesive foreign policy vis-à-vis Haftar’s westward advance reminded many experts of the White House’s similarly dysfunctional reaction to the blockade of Qatar in 2017. During the immediate aftermath of that crisis erupting in the Gulf, the president publicly embraced a position that contradicted the stances affirmed by the State Department and Pentagon just hours later in support of the US-Qatar alliance.
Some in Congress have also expressed their backing for Sarraj’s government and have demanded that Washington adhere to the UN process in Libya. Recent reports of US-made arms sold to Abu Dhabi and Paris being transferred to the LNA have enraged some US politicians, including Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member. In fact, Menendez even threatened to push for a halt on weapons sales to the Emiratis depending on the outcome of probes into Abu Dhabi’s suspected role in the transfer of US-made anti-tank missiles to the LNA.
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has urged Secretary Pompeo to outline a cohesive Libya policy that respects the GNA’s international legitimacy and is not based on supporting Haftar. At the same time, other elected officials in the US have asked for the Justice Department to begin investigations into Haftar’s alleged war crimes, which is significant given that the Benghazi-based commander is a dual Libya-US citizen.
Although it is unclear whether lobbyists will succeed in terms of effectively changing the US’s strategies vis-à-vis Libya, that both Tripoli and Tobruk are investing such resources into their lobbying campaigns in Washington speaks volumes about their perception of the US as the game-changing variable in Libya.
With the US lacking a clear position in Libya, both Sarraj’s government and the Tobruk-based administration are spending millions of dollars on lobbying efforts in DC. Yet this is no reason to expect a quick resolution to the conflict. As highlighted by the GCC crisis, the impact of lobbying on behalf of Arab governments is polarizing. Regarding the debate in Washington over Libya, lobbyists will likely further reinforce the clashing narratives of both Serraj and Haftar’s administrations. Although it is unclear whether lobbyists will succeed in terms of effectively changing the US’s strategies vis-à-vis Libya, that both Tripoli and Tobruk are investing such resources into their lobbying campaigns in Washington speaks volumes about their perception of the US as the game-changing variable in Libya.
Nothing is Certain with Trump
US foreign policy is difficult to predict, and there are currently more questions than answers in relation to the White House’s plans for Libya. Despite Trump’s keenness to support strongmen across the MENA region and rumors of Haftar coming to Washington to meet with Trump and/or National Adviser John Bolton, it is doubtful that the US would officially switch sides to formally back Haftar. The GNA’s international recognition plus growing outcry from human rights organizations that accuse the LNA of serious crimes will prompt lawmakers and American diplomats to use their leverage to pressure the White House into not abandoning the UN-led peace process and the GNA in favor of the HoR/LNA.Recent setbacks in Operation to Liberate Tripoli—mainly attributable to stepped up Turkish support for forces aligned with the GNA and improved coordination between these anti-Haftar militias—demonstrate the LNA’s inability to achieve a decisive victory. Although Trump may hold a favorable view of Haftar and maintain extremely close relations with the Arab regimes that sponsor the Benghazi-based commander, it would behoove the White House to realize the dangers of helping Haftar as he continues pursuing a winner-take-all approach to Libya’s civil war. Despite the GNA’s shortcomings and the legitimate criticism which it deserves, the US investing its resources in an aspiring strongman for Libya’s future would harm Washington’s vital interests in North Africa. Rather than embracing policies in Libya that encourage more sides to reject concessionary moves at the roundtable, which are necessary for ending Libya’s civil war, the administration should apply pressure on the various states involved in Libya’s conflict to try and bring them closer to a lasting political agreement.
Just as ISIS exploited the Libyan civil war’s violence in 2015/2016 to carve out its areas of influence, this renewed violence since April has given ISIS much more oxygen to breathe again. With its enemies on both the GNA and LNA/HoR sides concentrating less on fighting ISIS, and more on fighting the civil war, ISIS sleeper cells can operate more easily. Without a political settlement, Libya will remain trapped in a chaotic conflict that ISIS will prove to be most capable of exploiting.Nonetheless, some difficult facts about the current situation in Libya must be recognized. Because of the past three and a half months of Libya’s civil war, the conditions on the ground in the beleaguered country are far less conducive to a political settlement than they were at the beginning of this year. US policymakers must accept this reality and recognize the extent to which Trump’s contradictory policies and overall disengagement from Libya heavily contributed to Haftar’s thinking that his westward assault could decisively wrap up this conflict. Problematic is that Haftar does not appear ready to return to the negotiating table, and it is questionable whether he ever will.
“I don’t know that there is a political solution that [Haftar] would accept other than complete domination,” one former US official told Congress. Given his deep-seated vitriol for the Muslim Brotherhood, he may well continue fighting in pursuit of establishing military regime under his leadership that governs all of Libya and bans the Islamist movement’s local offshoots as terrorist groups.
Even with a coherent American strategy for Libya that aligns the positions of all the relevant parts of the US government, it is far from clear how much success Washington will have in helping wind down Libya’s nightmarish conflict.
Unfortunately, Libya’s future appears grim. Even with a coherent American strategy for Libya that aligns the positions of all the relevant parts of the US government, it is far from clear how much success Washington will have in helping wind down Libya’s nightmarish conflict. In a rare occurrence, on July 16 Egypt, France, Italy, the UAE, US, and UK issued a joint statement on Libya. The six countries called for a de-escalation of violence, a ceasefire, and a quick return to the roundtable for UN-led talks. Undoubtedly, there is much irony given some of these governments’ support for Haftar. Nonetheless, this statement is welcome from the standpoint of those interested in seeing Libya’s proxy war cool down.
Yet it remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of the LNA’s foreign backers changing course, or simply rhetoric that is pleasing to the international community’s ears.