General Khalifa Haftar, the military commander of the loosely affiliated Libyan National Army (LNA), a militia that receives military support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), and Egypt, has engaged with the world’s top leaders in order to shore up support for his ongoing military operation to take over Tripoli. After securing critical regional support for his offensive, Haftar earned an endorsement from the world’s most powerful country, the United States, after President Donald Trump reversed U.S. policy and seemingly gave support to the LNA.
In a phone call early last week, President Trump stated support for General Haftar’s “ongoing counterterrorism efforts” and expressed a “shared vision” for Libya. Trump’s statement is an unmitigated reversal in U.S. foreign policy toward the war-torn country—aimed at appeasing regional Gulf allies in their fight against Islamists in the region, containing Iran, and safeguarding self-defined U.S. national security interests in Libya. Previous U.S. policy in Libya consisted of remaining relatively neutral in the conflict and passively supporting the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is currently fighting for survival against the LNA. President Trump’s embrace of one of the most polarizing actors in the conflict—an unprecedented position—will signal a crucial turning point in the latest phase of Libya’s proxy war for regional players and polarize key European allies.
On April 19, the White House released a readout of President Trump’s phone call with Haftar. The text “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” While the carefully worded statement did not explicitly indicate support for the LNA’s operation in Tripoli, the announcement alluded to Trump’s support for the military campaign. The readout was released five days after the two spoke, and a week prior to a meeting with one of Haftar’s foremost patrons, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The following week, President Trump spoke with UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayd al-Nayhan (MbZ). President Trump and MbZ, who also serves as the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE armed forces, discussed Washington’s “continued support for the United Arab Emirates’ national defense and strengthening alliances in the region.” That same day, the United States declined to endorse a United Kingdom-drafted United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire in Tripoli.
With the backdrop of significant losses on the ground for the LNA, Trump’s statement of support could not have come at a better time for General Haftar. As LNA forces continue to lose both the forward momentum it had at the onset of the campaign and a public relations fiasco following reports of war crimes committed by the forces, President Trump’s statement was the exact morale boost that the LNA desperately needed. The decision by President Trump to support Haftar’s role in fighting terrorism provided an immediate fix to the operation’s legitimacy crisis, which was masqueraded as an operation that would clear the capital of “terrorists.” It has primarily targeted Islamist militias and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates.
General Haftar joins a growing list of strong-men authoritarian and despotic leaders in the Middle East who have cozied up to President Trump: Sisi, MbZ, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman. The KSA, UAE, and Egypt comprise a notable coalition of patrons that not only back Haftar, but that also work together in their battle against political Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The three are key nodes in the U.S. effort to counter Iranian influence in the region. The latest phase of their proxy war is currently being played out on the frontlines of the battle for Tripoli.
The Saudi-UAE-Egypt bloc has been engaged in a cold war against Islamist groups for decades, viewing the political movement as a creeping threat to preserving a regional order that guarantees permanent power in the hands of Arab monarchies. The bloc has primarily waged this war through harsh crackdowns on political Islamists within their borders and by ensuring these groups do not receive support in other countries, such as Libya. Haftar’s unwavering stance against fighting terrorists in all forms—political Islamists included—makes him an essential ally for Gulf countries, and for the Trump administration, which considers the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization.
Additionally, the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia both recognize Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization and as responsible for destabilizing the Middle East. The conflict between the bloc and Iran is played out through influence over regional domestic political systems of weak or failed states. As the Trump administration cracks down on Iran through the use of secondary economic sanctions to prevent Iran’s selling of oil on the international market, the conflict in Libya will increasingly become more significant to U.S. national security interests.
President Trump’s announcement that he is ending waivers on several countries to import Iranian oil will force Iran’s oil exports down to almost zero barrels a day, likely driving the global price of oil up. In order to mitigate any sharp spike in oil prices, the Trump administration will turn to OPEC allies, primarily Saudi Arabia, to increase production to compensate for an estimated 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. Trump’s statement of support for Haftar came on the heels of the announced waiver rollbacks. Haftar, who controls Libya’s oil region, as well as Libya’s two largest oil fields, may end up playing a pivotal role in Saudi Arabia’s strategic plan to preserve steady oil prices, possibly relying upon the Libyan ally to increase oil production.
Trump’s latest support for Haftar will by no means translate to any measured or tangible uptick of U.S. military engagement in Libya’s conflict, nor contribute to any change in the stalemated battle for Tripoli in terms of U.S. material support to the LNA. It, however, will serve as the required green light that the Saudi-UAE-Egypt coalition requires to restart military assistance for the LNA. Less than 24 hours following the White House announcement, an alleged drone, believed to be based out of a UAE drone facility at al-Khadim airbase in southern Tripoli, conducted multiple airstrikes in the capital. If further evidence mounts that implicates renewed military support by the bloc to the LNA, it will undoubtedly be met with hostility by Turkey and Qatar, who present themselves as an ally and benefactor of Islamist groups. Renewed military involvement by the UAE and Egypt may likely spark renewed support to LNA opposition groups by Turkey and Qatar, forcing European allies, who hold significant stakes in Libya, to endorse factions that best serve their national interests.
Italy and France have long quarreled over policy in Libya, with many suggesting that their competing agendas in the country have contributed to the drawn-out nature of Libya’s crisis. Last week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met with his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi in Rome to discuss the military escalation in Tripoli, agreeing that progress in Libya cannot come without a “solid Franco-Italian agreement.” Following Trump’s support for Haftar, this will become extremely unlikely.
Aligned with the KSA, UAE, and Egypt, France has supported Haftar since the beginning of his initial military operation in Eastern Libya by providing operational, tactical, and intelligence support. France has significant stakes in Libya, particularly in the energy sector and in efforts to combat transnational insurgencies. After the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, France outlined Islamist insurgencies in North Africa and the Sahel as a top national security priority, and the Macron government considers a strongman like Haftar to be the only solution capable of combating non-state actors.
France currently stands alone as the sole European backer of the LNA. Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy have all taken an assertive position on the importance of de-escalating the crisis in Libya and brokering an immediate ceasefire in the country. President Trump’s support for General Haftar will only polarize European allies and threaten to upend any hopes of short-term unity in the international community on the situation in Libya. Italy, in particular, may break away from its European allies as it seeks to preserve its energy and business investments while securing its cap on migration. Italy, which has close business ties with key local businessmen, politicians, and militias from Misrata, may choose to stick by these Libyan partners, who currently back the GNA.
Just last week, Qatari Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani met with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome. The two discussed the ongoing situation in Libya, indicating a possible Italy-Qatar-Turkey coalition if European leaders follow Trump’s move and endorse different factions in the conflict. European leaders were caught off guard by President Trump’s support, eliminating any chance of a unified international call for restraint that could have put an immediate stop to the civil war. President Trump’s new position will likely alienate European allies on Libya, and perhaps encourage them also to pursue their own foreign policy agendas in the country.
By supporting General Haftar, President Trump hopes to achieve U.S. counterterrorism goals and maintain steady oil prices. Ironically, his decision will do the opposite, threatening to amplify another regional proxy war that will pin European and Gulf allies against one another. Embracing Haftar may reap short-term benefits for the U.S.; however, backing the renegade commander will only set the scene for international players to re-engage in the conflict, prolonging Libya’s war of attrition, and sending hopes for peace into an incessant backslide.
This article was first published on April 25, 2019 on The Foreign Policy Research Institute
* Yousuf Eltagouri is a contributor focusing on Libyan conflict analysis, governance, and political development. He currently works on the humanitarian response to Libya’s crisis. Eltagouri is a graduate of The George Washington University and resides in Washington, D.C.