The abrupt shift in President Trump’s policy to back Khalifa Haftar in Libya throws the UN-backed political process into danger.
The power vacuum after the overthrow of Gaddafi enabled militias groups to gain a foothold in Libya. One of these groups, known as Ansar al Sharia, carried out the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya.
America’s main priority in Libya has been security, and in 2017 Trump said that he did not foresee a role for the United States in Libya beyond counter-terrorism.
However, US President Donald Trump has shifted US foreign policy towards Libya from supporting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord to supporting Marshall Khalifa Haftar. The United States so far, along with Italy, Turkey and Britain, has had a very straightforward position: there is no military solution possible in Libya, only a UN-backed process.
The Libya Political Agreement, or the Skhirat agreement (LPA), was signed in December 2015. A wide range of Libyan representatives, including members of the Libya House of Representatives and General National Congress, as well as prominent public figures from Libyan political parties and civil society, attended the signing. The resulting political agreement led to the establishment of a single Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al Sarraj.
The United Nations has thrown its support behind the agreement and reiterated its call for parties to work in a spirit of compromise, and engage in an inclusive political process. The UN underscored the importance of the organisations in facilitating a Libyan-led political solution to the country’s critical challenges. The plan could culminate in the Libyans voting on a constitution via a referendum and eventually electing a president as well as parliament.
Throwing a wrench into the process, President Trump made a surprise phone call to warlord Haftar to support his military offensive on Libya’s capital city of Tripoli. Why the shift? Trump is obviously not a big fan of international institutions nor international law, as evidenced through his support for autocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
It is no surprise that Trump lends his support to Haftar, who seems to be aiming to be the next Gaddafi, and whose forces are marching to capture the Libyan capital that hosts the internationally-recognised government of Libya, which the United States still officially backs.
After having a conversation with the Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah al Sisi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, who are all supporters of Haftar, Trump backed Haftar’s military campaign against Tripoli.
Trump’s decision legitimises Haftar within Libya and abroad while weakening the civilian government in Libya. Continued support for Haftar is whetting his appetite to control more territory. What Libya urgently needs nowadays is the establishment of the rule of law and the elimination of the culture of impunity. Can Haftar provide that? Negotiations and a political process are not part of Haftar’s plan – he only cares about expanding his power across the country.
Haftar has attracted sympathy in some western countries (primarily France and the US). In contrast to all the western discourse in favour of democracy and human rights, what matters most to the pro-Haftar camp in the West is that the Libyan oil keeps flowing while the US attempts to stop Iranian oil exports.
Governance is not on Haftar’s agenda. He is conducting himself as a military dictator, arguing that Libya is not ready for democracy. His military offensive, launched just days ahead of a United Nations-sponsored conference, which aimed to negotiate a power-sharing agreement, was designed to prevent such an outcome.
Supporting Haftar will not establish a stable democracy and will only deepen the conflict.