By Julian Pecquet
Libya’s chaotic politics will play out in Washington this week as some of the war-wracked nation’s top rivals scramble for the Donald Trump administration’s attention.
Current and former government leaders assemble May 10 for a Capitol Hill conference on Libya-US relations and investment opportunities. Meanwhile, UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and his main rival, anti-Islamist strongman Khalifa Hifter, are both hoping to meet with Washington officials as early as this month following their May 2 deal to hold elections next year.
The Libyans’ goals, former US envoy Jonathan Winer told Al-Monitor, are “pretty straightforward.”
“Everybody in Libya who’s got a position wants to maintain their position and increase the power and authority of that position without having to give anything up,” he said. “That’s a zero-sum game and it doesn’t work, but it doesn’t stop people from trying.”
The speaker list for the May 10 event, organized by the nonprofit National Council on US-Libya Relations, includes two members of the Presidency Council — Libya’s executive branch — and two former prime ministers, Mahmoud Gebril and Ali Zeidan. Most of them are seen as either close to Hifter or at least critical of Sarraj’s Government of National Accord, and many are in touch with the Trump administration.
“We hold regular dialogue with a wide range of Libyan interlocutors, including with some of the participants in the Forum,” a State Department official said.
The visits come amid reports that some officials inside the Trump administration are looking to revamp the Libya policy formulated under President Barack Obama. Washington threw its support behind a UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement in December 2015 that called for the formation of a national unity government, but a rival parliament elected in 2014 and based in Tobruk has so far refused to go along in part because it wants to be guaranteed a top military post for Hifter.
Winer laid out three basic options for US policy: staying the course; supporting Hifter’s bid for more power, which he said risks civil war; or keeping the current structure in place but replacing some of the current members of the Presidency Council.
“The problem with that approach is that other people are going to be upset — the ones that don’t get selected,” Winer said.
Hifter’s allies, which include Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, argue that he offers the best chance to defeat the Islamic State and bring order to the country. Critics counter that backing him would destroy any hope of a negotiated end to the civil war that broke out in 2014 and plunge Libya into even greater chaos.
That debate is finding new urgency amid reports that Hifter plans to soon visit Washington for meetings with Trump administration officials. Ari Ben-Menashe, a Canada-based lobbyist for Hifter and members of the Tobruk parliament, told Al-Monitor that Hifter hopes to travel as early as this month but nothing has yet been agreed to.
“There are people [inside the US government] that are being talked to, yes,” Ben-Menashe said. “And some of it is starting to make sense.”
Hifter’s allies have been laying the groundwork for such a visit for some time. Last month, a delegation of tribal chiefs close to Hifter visited Washington in cooperation with the Libya Institute for Advanced Studies, led by former Libyan envoy to the UAE Aref Ali Nayed, and Walid Phares, a foreign affairs adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign.
“If what I hear is correct there is a push within the administration to support him,” a former senior administration told Al-Monitor. “Probably based in part on a UAE recommendation or to keep the Russians from having too much influence.”
At the same time, the Libyan Embassy in Washington is said to be trying to organize a visit by Sarraj to bolster US support for his government. Both the US and the Libyan sides, however, may be waiting to see whether the May 2 Sarraj-Hifter deal has brought the Libyan factions closer together before fixing a date.
“It has to be [that] this visit happens in the context of a broader consensus that includes other players,” Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, testified at an April 25 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Libya. “He may ask for a million things. We’ve seen these visits before. But then they go back, they can’t execute the programs, they can’t write the check for them. We’ve seen this movie before. We need to demand when he comes [to know] who’s on board with this project, what’s the consensus, what’s the road map?”
Trump’s own personal preference — if he has one — remains a mystery.
At a press conference with visiting Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni last month, Trump said, “I do not see a [US] role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles.” Moments earlier, Gentiloni had insisted that the United States had a “critical” role to play in helping stabilize the country.
Just the day before, however, US Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered a largely overlooked speech to the UN Security Council in which she made the case for staying the course. The Libyan Political Agreement, she said, “remains the framework that Libyans agreed on for their country’s transition” and is “vital to restoring stability.”
“We call on those who have not yet dedicated themselves to engaging in the process and ask them to do so immediately,” Haley said. “There may need to be certain amendments to the agreement but the important point is that every Libyan faction needs to come together in a national dialogue and agree on how to carry out its terms.”
She also ripped into Hifter’s forces, without mentioning Hifter by name, after they attacked an air base controlled by rivals from the western city of Misrata, who are allied with the government in Tripoli.
“These destabilizing attacks are unacceptable. They must stop now,” Haley said. “When Libya’s factions keep fighting, instead of talking, the biggest winners are the terrorist groups.”
Asked to explain the administration’s Libya policy, a State Department official directed Al-Monitor to Haley’s remarks.
Julian Pecquet is Al-Monitor’s congressional correspondent. He previously led The Hill’s Global Affairs blog.