Libya is spiraling toward its third civil war in less than a decade, creating a foreign policy crisis for the Trump administration in a strategic oil-rich corner of North Africa amid rising fears that jihadi terrorist groups are once again exploiting the power vacuum opened by renewed violence in recent months.
The administration has spent the past two years trying to avoid getting sucked into the vortex, apparently hoping anti-jihadi rebel leader Khalifa Haftar — a former Libyan army colonel with alleged CIA ties — would topple the weak, internationally recognized government in Tripoli that analysts say is protected by radical militias.
But with Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army now mired in its months-old push to capture Tripoli, there are signs that the White House is shifting posture, backing a cease-fire and reviving a U.N. peace process aimed at reaching a deal between Mr. Haftar’s forces and those upholding the government in Tripoli.
“The situation is presenting a complex challenge for the Trump administration,” said a source close to American intelligence on Libya, who pointed to a little-reported joint statement that U.S. officials signed in mid-July with France, Britain, Egypt, Italy and the United Arab Emirates backing an immediate cease-fire.
The statement, which said “there can be no military solution in Libya” and warned of “terror groups” exploiting the political void, was issued just months after President Trump unexpectedly reached out to Mr. Haftar in a phone call from the Oval Office to praise the military leader and his forces.
During the call in April, Mr. Trump said he “recognized [Mr. Haftar‘s] significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.” The two also “discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system,” the White House said in a statement after the call.
At the time, the administration was refusing to support a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a cease-fire and an end to Mr. Haftar’s campaign on the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
Because the call was made public, U.S. officials are downplaying the notion that a major U.S. policy shift is in the works.
The White House and the State Department declined to comment on the confused state of play in Libya. But one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition on anonymity, asserted that “this is not a policy shift — we weren’t supportive of the cease-fire statement several months ago because we just didn’t think it was the right time.”
A State Department official told The Washington Times on background that the U.S. believes that “lasting peace and stability in Libya will only come through a political solution.”
“We call on all parties to rapidly return to U.N. political mediation, the success of which depends upon a cease-fire in and around Tripoli,” the official said.
An enigmatic figure, the 75-year-old Mr. Haftar has become famous in national security circles over the past three years based on his background. He was reportedly once close to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and played a key role in the coup that brought the obscure army colonel to power in 1969.
Mr. Haftar is believed to have had a falling-out with Mr. Gadhafi sometime in the late 1990s, at which point he moved to the U.S. and was the subject of unconfirmed media reports that he cultivated ties with the CIA.
How the situation in Libya ultimately plays out could have major implications for global oil markets. The country has some of the world’s biggest proven reserves, but production has plummeted since Gadhafi was ousted and killed in 2011.
Militant attacks on oil infrastructure in recent years sent production plummeting to less than 300,000 barrels per day, a fifth of the output in 2010, when Libya was a formidable player in the OPEC oil cartel.
The lost revenue, coupled with a scramble to control what production was continuing, has left the government in Tripoli bankrupt. The predicament is compounded by Libya’s popularity as a route for migrants from other African and Middle Eastern countries seeking a passage to Europe.
The flood of refugees from Libya and the proliferation of smugglers have sparked political and humanitarian crises in European countries. On Friday, Libyan coast guard officials said they had recovered dozens of bodies of Europe-bound migrants as search operations continued. Up to 150 people, including women and children, are believed to have died when their boats capsized in rough Mediterranean waters.
A recent article by the German magazine Der Spiegel said many migrants are interned in brutal camps, kept in slavelike dependency and in some cases conscripted into military service. More than 50 African migrants were killed when Mr. Haftar’s forces bombed a weapons facility beside a major refugee camp outside Tripoli on July 3.
Then there is the threat of jihadis, who analysts say are exploiting the lack of a functioning government inside Libya.
“If fighting between Haftar’s forces and militias loyal to [the Tripoli government] continues indefinitely, the problem of regional terrorists like Islamic State, al Qaeda and other groups being able to feed off the instability won’t go away,” said Bill Roggio, an editor of the Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington.
“The instability allows these groups to recruit, train, obtain and smuggle weapons and attack weak points in the country and in other countries nearby,” Mr. Roggio said. “If the two main Libyan factions weren’t fighting each other the way they are right now, they’d have greater resources to take on the terrorist groups that still operate there.”
Churning beneath the chaos is a deeper geopolitical fight that has drawn a number of outside countries into the Libyan power struggle.
Egypt and the UAE are backing Mr. Haftar as a secular force with the aim of crushing any chance that Islamists will have a government role. Other countries, led by Turkey and Qatar, back the Government of National Accord, headed by Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj and more tolerant of Islamist political factions.
The U.S. official who spoke anonymously with The Times said it was particularly significant that Egypt and the UAE had signed the joint statement calling for a cease-fire because “obviously they have a close relationship with Haftar.”
The official also pointed to sensitivities surrounding Muslim Brotherhood political factions in Libya and asserted that Turkey and Qatar are “much more pro-Muslim Brotherhood and hence more closely aligned” with the Government of National Accord.
A source outside the U.S. government but closely affiliated with Libyan political factions said the Muslim Brotherhood factor plays heavily into how key U.S. officials, including Mr. Trump and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, view the situation.
“There’s a disconnect between the way President Trump and Ambassador Bolton are looking at this and the way others, including Obama-era people at the State Department, are seeing this,” said the source, who added that the Trump-Bolton view is that Mr. al-Sarraj and the Tripoli government were effectively put into place by the former administration.
The idea, the source said, is that Mr. al-Sarraj and the Tripoli government are akin to Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, who was elected president after the 2011 revolution, and that Mr. Haftar is akin to Egyptian Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Mr. Morsi in a military coup in 2013 and classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Enter the lobbyists
Adding to the murkiness is the fact that the different factions in Libya have all signed on with powerful U.S. lobbyists.
Justice Department foreign agent registration records show Mr. Haftar and his Libyan National Army are paying some $2 million to the Texas-based firm Linden Government Solutions to help with “international coalition building” and “general public relations.”
Company President Stephen Payne says in the filing that Mr. Haftar “is dedicated to stabilizing Libya, eradicating ISIS and al Qaeda, and ensuring free and fair elections for the first time in almost a decade.”
On the other side, the government in Tripoli hired the Washington-based firm Mercury to improve its image just days after the White House revealed Mr. Trump’s phone call and public endorsement of Mr. Haftar. Politico first reported the contract in May.
More recently, Prime Policy Group hosted Ahmed Omar Maiteeq, a top deputy in the al-Sarraj government, in Washington and represented him on a pro-bono basis in meeting U.S. officials.
A source close to the government in Tripoli told The Times that “the whole goal is to promote a cease-fire and set the conditions so there can be a government of national unity.”
“Our guys see a significant role for Haftar in a unified government, but obviously they also want to survive themselves,” said the source. “If they got a government together and Haftar was the head or the co-head, maybe he could bring the militias into the fold. Maybe there could be peace.”
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