By Kim Sengupta
The focus of Nato’s conference in Brussels, the first since Donald Trump got to the White House, was on the message he sent to an organisation of Western allies he had called “obsolete” while speaking of his admiration for Vladimir Putin.
The message, a veiled threat, conveyed by US defence secretary James Mattis, was that the continuing failure of the alliance to pay its share on security would lead to the US reevaluating its commitment to the defence of Europe. That and the continuing fallout over Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s departure after clandestine contacts with the Russians, were the sources of fascination and foreboding here.
Almost unnoticed a development took place at the end of the summit, on Libya, which is likely to have great resonance in relations between Nato, the US and Russia, Trump and Putin. Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that the alliance is likely to provide security support to the Libyan government of Fayez al-Sarraj.
“We have said for some time that we are ready to help Libya but that any assistance has to be based on a request from the Libyan government,” said Stoltenberg. “This is the request we received yesterday – training local forces is one of the best weapons in the fight against terrorism and building stability.”
Libya has, of course, become a source of huge trouble for Europe since David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy instigated Nato’s military intervention and the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi six years ago. It is the main conduit for hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and also the lawless place where Isis has established its main base for carrying out attacks in the Maghreb.
Special forces of Western countries are already in action in Libya – the US has carried out airstrikes on Isis and other Islamist terrorists. But any formal deployment of forces by Nato faces problems. There is the danger of mission creep: being sucked into a violent and semi-anarchic quagmire, as well as the fact that the Government of National Accord, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, which Nato is supposed to prop up, has very little territory and very little power.
The man who claims to wield real power – an aspiring new Gaddafi according to his enemies – is former general Khalifa Haftar with his force the Libyan National Army (LNA). He has the backing of Egypt and the UAE whose warplanes have carried out airstrikes in his support. Now, crucially, he has the support of a Russia expanding its influence across the Middle-East and North Africa.
General Haftar went to Moscow twice last year to seek help and then turned up on board the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov as it was returning from waters off the coast of Syria where it had been part of the blitzkrieg enabling Bashar al-Assad to recapture Aleppo. He met the Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, on board, to discuss, according to the Kremlin, “fighting international terrorist groups in the Middle East.”
The US under Barack Obama had refused to deal with General Haftar but the Libyan commander and his backers, the parliament in Benghazi, one of the country’s three governments, say they are also now optimistic that they will get the support of the Trump administration.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump after his victory and the Egyptian president has been pressing Washington to switch its support to General Haftar. And, according to reports, members of the Trump team have started discussing the Haftar option. An American official in Brussels commented: “The Trump people may well think Libya would be a less sensitive theatre to cooperate with the Russians on counter-terrorism than Syria: the common conception is that Libya is a mess – we have Daesh [Isis] running around there and if this guy Haftar is being effective, then maybe he is the man.”
Even before the coming of Trump there has been a feeling among some American officials that the problems being faced by Europe from Libya were, to an extent, self-induced. Paris and London were very much the cheerleaders in getting rid of Colonel Gaddafi, with Washington somewhat dubious about the outcome. The military mission was initially French and British led, but the Americans had to step in as shortfalls in equipment and bombs and missiles became apparent. In his speech to Nato at the end of the conflict, US defence secretary Leon Panetta warned that “legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, Nato will again be able to sustain the kind of operations we have seen in Libya without the US taking on even more of the burden.”
The “trends” that Panetta was talking about was most of Nato not paying their way for the defence of the alliance. American officials pointed out that Mattis was having to make the same point again, much more forcefully, this week, six years later.
The issue of money is not something bothering General Haftar at the moment. Russia has printed 4bn Libyan Dinars (around $2.8bn) on contract to the Libyan Central Bank which it has transferred it to his backers in Benghazi. Haftar now claims that Moscow will enable him to spend the money legitimately by helping to lift the UN arms embargo in place since 2011. This allows only the UN-backed GNC administration in Tripoli to bring in weapons with the approval of the UN Security Council Committee.
General Haftar does not lack weapons: a steady, illicit flow comes from the Arab states backing him and his LNA is undoubtedly the most effective non-Islamist force in the country at present. Nato and the EU had been trying to get the general to come to an agreement with al-Sarraj’s General National Council, namely that he retains military command while accepting the civilian administration. Boris Johnson wished earlier this month that “Gen Haftar can be persuaded that he can be a big part of the future of Libya but without necessarily having to be a new jefe.”
But efforts to this end have been fruitless with General Haftar increasingly empowered by the backing of his international friends. Italian foreign minister Angeleno Afano was due to ask for help on the issue from Sergey Lavrov at a meeting of foreign ministers in Bonn yesterday. But news from there was dominated by the first meeting between Russia’s foreign minister and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s new secretary of state.
It looks increasingly likely that what happens in Libya, as in so much else in the tide of current geopolitics, is likely to be decided by how relations evolve between Trump and Putin; the forming of the new order, with other international players increasingly on the sideline.
Kim Sengupta – Defence and Diplomatic Correspondent of The Independent