By David A. Andelman
In Libya, a frightening and intricate political corner of North Africa, the Trump administration risks putting itself in an untenable situation of backing two horses in the same race — the recognized government of Libya and the rebels knocking at the door of the capital.
The United States must quickly decide where its long-term interests lie and then embrace that avenue unreservedly. Otherwise, the civil war that has now begun will only intensify.
And Libya, fractured into two halves after the Arab Spring — the west ruled by Tripoli and the east ruled from Benghazi by insurgents — could easily fall prey to forces antithetical to American interests.
For some background, insurgent military forces of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar are rolling toward the capital of Tripoli, where Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj leads a government, which the UN and much of the western world recognized more than three years ago in an effort to bring peace to the country.
Nominally, the Trump administration joined with Britain, France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations, as recently as April 4, backing the Tripoli government.
And, on April 7, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo elaborated, “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. All involved parties have a responsibility to urgently deescalate the situation.”
However, Pompeo’s remarks do not reflect the tightrope that the US must walk, now that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have declared support for Haftar.
In fact, Haftar’s forces are being aided by millions of dollars in aid pledged by Saudi Arabia — promised in the weeks before he launched his campaign.
And since the insurgency has begun, Haftar has received additional air power from Egypt and the same UAE that signed the five-power statement urging an end to the fighting.
There are a host of reasons for ambivalence on the part of foreign powers and their varying degrees of support for the insurgent forces.
For example, the Tripoli government includes in its coalition the Libyan political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, a prime opponent of the Sisi government. Tripoli has also failed to halt waves of African and Middle East refugees that have used Libya as a jumping-off point to Italy and asylum in Western Europe.
Beyond the failures of the Tripoli government, Haftar has been especially effective at beating back terrorist efforts to achieve a strong foothold in Libya. In May 2015, ISIS seized the coastal town of Sirte , an oil center originally under Tripoli’s control.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda moved into a vacuum in eastern Libya. Both groups have since been ousted, and in part thanks to Haftar’s forces.
So while Haftar would seem to have been doing the bidding of the United States, France and Italy, all at least are still nominally supporting the Tripoli government. Yet Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are backing Haftar’s forces against the Tripoli regime with arms and funding.
None of this should be a big surprise to students of Libyan history. For much of its existence, Libya has been a collection of often conflicted and nomadic Berber tribes, which became a real nation only after World War II. Gadhafi seized power in 1969 and ruled it with an iron fist for more than four decades. That is, until the whole structure he assembled came apart suddenly in 2011 — leaving him dead and his kingdom fractured.
The ensuing, chaotic vacuum, as well as Libya’s vast oil fields, attracted remnants of ISIS, al-Qaeda and a host of opportunistic criminal gangs who preyed on Middle East and African refugees desperate to get to Europe from its shores barely 300 miles away.
The government of Tripoli was ill-equipped and ill-inclined to manage any of these challenges. When the break-away government in the east, led by Haftar, seemed preparedto take on and manage these threats, a number of forces threw their lot in with him.
France, though signing the UN statement urging calm, even blocked a European resolution condemning Haftar and his insurgency.
At the same time, with the UN and the United States apparently prepared to side with the Tripoli government, Russia saw an opportunity for another foothold in the western Mediterranean to couple with its major military base in Syria.
While officially still neutral, the Kremlin has welcomed Haftar for visits three times since 2016 and on April 7, Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution urging Haftar’s forces to halt their advance on Tripoli.
So, with all this ambivalence, even among NATO members, it is time for the Trump administration to take a firm and direct position on this conflict. Clearly, the Tripoli government is by no means a perfect solution, but it is the one with which the United Nations and much of the western world has cast its lot.
No good can come of America’s efforts to straddle both horses. Working with the government of Tripoli would seem to be a more effective strategy if our goal is to keep Libya stable.
The refusal by Haftar, who has never showed any truly democratic inclinations to accept UN mediation, should be profoundly unsettling — not to mention his willingness to align himself with autocratic rulers of the Middle East.
A stable government in Tripoli and multi-national negotiations to achieve a long-term UN-monitored truce are the only certain routes to returning Libya to the community of stable, or at least viable, nations. Trump must use the deep reservoir of good will he has built up with Sisi and the Saudi royals to persuade them to stand aside and allow diplomacy to take its course.
David A. Andelman is a veteran foreign correspondent, author and commentator who contributes frequently to CNN Opinion on global affairs.