US President Donald J. Trump’s apparent support for Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army, has muddied the waters in a dangerous part of the world. But does it signal a shift in the US position?
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said: “The United States, so far, along with Italy and Britain, has had a very straightforward position: there is no military solution possible in Libya, only a UN-backed negotiations process.”
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reiterated this position as Haftar ordered his troops to take Tripoli. In a statement on April 7, Pompeo said the United States was deeply concerned about the fighting near Tripoli. “We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital. Forces should return to status quo ante positions,” Pompeo said.
Trump undercut that position a few days later when he spoke on the phone with Haftar. In that phone call, Trump praised Haftar’s role in fighting terrorism and protecting Libya’s oil resources.
Trump “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,” the White House said in its official readout of the April 15 call, which was shared with reporters four days later.
Mezran contends Trump did not appreciate the delicate situation in Libya when he got on the phone with Haftar. “I think it was more an impulsive action that, I am sure, he himself will address in the next few days,” he said.
Haftar served in the Libyan army under Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s longtime ruler who was ousted and killed in an uprising in 2011. In the late 1980s, Haftar was captured by Chadian troops during Libya’s war with Chad. While in Chad, he turned against Gadhafi and led a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–backed effort to oust Gadhafi. When the plot failed, Haftar went to Virginia, where he lived for two decades becoming a naturalized US citizen. He returned to Libya during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The United States has in recent years sought to keep its distance from Haftar.
Based in the eastern city of Benghazi, Haftar’s forces control much of the eastern and southern parts of Libya. Over the past few weeks, they have steadily gained ground as they have marched toward Tripoli, but that initial advance has been thwarted by militias from Tripoli, Misrata, and Zintan. Haftar’s offensive has led these militias to join forces in support of the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
“Haftar definitely overestimated his strength and underestimated his adversary,” said Mezran. Over the weekend, airstrikes were reported in Tripoli. “The drones and airplanes bombing Tripoli in the last few days are clearly foreign-driven and foreign-supplied,” said Mezran. Haftar’s international supporters include France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, and, more recently, Saudi Arabia.