An unexpected phone call between President Trump and a noted Libyan warlord has ignited controversy and confusion in recent days over U.S. policy toward Libya, where a U.N.-backed government is struggling increasingly to fend off a rival government tied to the warlord’s forces, who now control most of the nation’s oil assets.
Mr. Trump startled U.S. allies and upended American diplomacy in the North African nation last week when he spoke directly with Libyan militia leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who commands the rebel forces. During the April 15 phone call, Mr. Trump reportedly praised Gen. Haftar’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.”
The White House insisted Mr. Trump had spoken frankly with Gen. Haftar in the call, as his Libyan National Army forces were engaged in an offensive to topple with its rival, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli.
News of the call — which the White House only revealed days later — came barely a week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had gone to lengths to express the administration’s “deep concern” over Mr. Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli. Mr. Pompeo pressured the militia leader to declare an “immediate halt” to his assault.
European allies have appealed for clarification of the U.S. stance, amid fears Mr. Trump had unexpectedly embraced the views of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who strongly back Gen. Haftar.
“It remains to be seen what the actual policy is,” said P.J. Crowley, a State Department official in the Obama administration. “The United States has long supported [the GNU] [and] has encouraged Haftar to be a constructive force.”
Mr. Crowley said Gen. Haftar, a U.S. citizen who once lived in Northern Virginia, “seems to be hellbent on taking over and is seemly acting at odds with U.S. policy and obviously at odds with the established U.N. process that the United States has supported.”
The U.S. this month announced an abrupt withdrawal of military forces from Tripoli amid a deteriorating security situation and growing belief that Gen. Haftar’s forces were on the verge of capturing full control of the country’s capital.
But after strong advances earlier this month, Mr. Haftar’s militia was reportedly getting bogged down outside Tripoli as both sides rushed reinforcements to the battle. U.N. officials said the fighting has left 264 combatants and civilians dead, 1,266 wounded, and more than 32,000 Libyans displaced.
Mr. Haftar’s forces controls the eastern part of Libya, including most of its key oil-producing regions, which may have been one motivation behind Mr. Trump’s move.
Jeffrey Feltman, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and former State Department official, said the Haftar call could be linked to the Trump administration’s planned expansion of sanctions designed to cut off Iran’s vital oil sales, part of a larger U.S. push to pressure Tehran over its military build-up and backing of U.S. enemies in the region.
“I can’t help but think that there’s not a coincidence that Haftar has physical control of Africa’s largest oil prices and the fact that Trump decided to embrace him,” Mr. Feltman said.
The State Department rejected the idea the U.S. is sending mixed messages. “We have voiced our deep concern at the highest levels about instability in Tripoli, which is endangering the lives of innocent Libyans,” a department official, speaking on background, said Tuesday. “We continue to believe that General Haftar can be an important part of a political solution.”
U.S. diplomats have also has met with the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the official said.
The U.N. has encouraged the Libya’s GNA and Gen. Haftar’s forces to negotiate a peace deal, though indications have been that the fighting will continue.
“This is not going to be easy,” Mr. Feltman said. “It’s not worth destroying Tripoli over this. Let’s get back to negotiations. Let’s get back to a peace process.”
Emadeddin Badi, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said the international confusion about the way ahead could be bad news for Libyans.
“Between an inconsistent U.S. policy stance and a complacent European Union, Libya may well be set to witness its longest war of attrition yet,” he wrote this week.
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