By Roger Boyes
The US and Russia are foolish to think that a military strongman can solve the turmoil in Tripoli.
Only in the pandemonium of Libya are sandstorms good news. Clouds of blinding dust have offered some respite from air or armed drone attacks on Tripoli by the forces of the warlord Khalifa Haftar and his allies. Many are deciding though to leave the capital, fearing a bloodbath.
Haftar, who styles himself field marshal, is an old-fashioned commander; he wants to enter a defeated city in triumph and declare the whole of Libya to be his for the taking.
If the power grab succeeds, it will sound the death knell of the internationally recognised government. The civil war that has raged on and off for eight years will intensify. An already unstable north Africa will be sucked into the crisis. And a thousand ships will be launched to ferry desperate migrants to Europe.
President Trump has made this outcome more likely by taking a call from Haftar, praising him for his counterterrorist activities and expressing a wish to work with him.
Team Haftar now appears to include France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the American administration.
France and the US are impressed by Haftar’s control of significant oil fields. The UAE is supplying drones, the Saudis are funding the advance on Tripoli, Egypt counts on Haftar to shield its border with Libya and Russia prints banknotes and has sent mercenaries.
Without American support, the Tripoli government backed by the United Nations looks wobbly indeed. Italy needs the Tripoli government to head off a wave of refugees but for the most part Europe, Britain included, feels embarrassed and exposed.
Turkey and Qatar appear to be sending military and financial aid to Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister based in the capital. If the US deserts Tripoli, however, al-Sarraj will be pretty much cornered.
Only a week or so before Trump’s glowing testimonial for Haftar, the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo explicitly urged the Libyan strongman to call off the offensive against the capital.
Peace talks scheduled for the middle of this month had to be abandoned. It could be simply that the president has goofed and the Tripoli government is still in with a fighting chance. It still has the formidable Misrata militia on its side and a properly equipped if under-motivated army.
More likely though is that Trump is looking for fresh ways of co-operating with President Putin. Now that the Mueller report has, in the White House’s reading, exonerated Trump from actively colluding with the Kremlin, the president is more free to build policy bridges with the Russian leader.
Libya could thus be a testing ground. One of the few channels of communication between the two powers helped to avoid head-on confrontation in Syria.
The next project: jointly sponsoring Haftar, a grizzled 75-year-old trying to realise a long-delayed dream of power, to bring order to Libya, a country that is hungry for it.
This is a bad choice.
First, putting chips on a military solution in Libya is folly. Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army is actually a coalition between a jumble of militias — former Gaddafi soldiers, Salafists with connections to Saudi Arabia, dozens of armed groups that have sprung up in the east of Libya since 2011, criminal gangs such as the notorious Brigade Ten, Chadian rebels and mercenaries. They make up about 25,000 men.
There is the complexity of the tribal allegiances: at least three Arab tribes as well as Tuaregs. There are troops from Sudan. Haftar’s march towards Tripoli from the east and the south has involved buying the loyalty of very biddable local leaders.
The promise that binds them is that Haftar in Tripoli — either as chief of the army and head of a national council, or as an outright leader — will get control of the central bank and its huge reserves.
Then it will pay off to have been on Haftar’s side. Yet this whole Heath Robinson-like contraption could fall apart before the capture of Tripoli or afterwards in a scramble for the spoils.
Second, Haftar’s backers are riding roughshod over process and procedure. Trump blindsided Pompeo. The US declined to support a British-drafted resolution for a ceasefire. So did Russia: neither liked the implication that Haftar could be presented as an aggressor.
Finally, there are the obvious pitfalls in working with Putin. The Kremlin is in self-congratulatory mood about Syria: it has kept its client dictator in power, saved its military base and shown the whole Arab world the battle-worthiness of its weapons. Libya under Haftar could bring similar benefits.
Trump’s calculation may be that Libya under stable autocratic rule would return to being a major oil supplier and thus make up for the shortfalls caused by sanctions against Iran and Venezuela. High global oil prices could be politically costly before next year’s US presidential campaign.
That’s strategy made on the hoof. The 2011 foreign intervention — Britain, France and President Obama “leading from behind” — turned into a fiasco because there was no follow-up plan after Colonel Gaddafi was toppled.
Putting money on Haftar looks equally reckless. The idea that a military man can keep the country together with a bit of soldierly discipline is patently absurd. Britain should stick to its course of seeking consensus and an end to violence.
This is not the moment to gallop after Trump: Libya needs a trusted and democratically accountable central administration, not another Middle Eastern muscleman.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and author. He is the diplomatic editor for the British newspaper The Times. He also has a column in the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel entitled ‘My Berlin’.