By Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
A vicious trend of US apathy is thwarting Libya’s peace process.
At least 16 civilians, the majority of them women and children, were murdered in an attack earlier this month in southern Libya, which was tied to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, amid an upsurge of violence in December.
This is another damning indicator of widespread western apathy – particularly on the part of the US – over the conflict, which has allowed the violence to flourish.
The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator in Libya, Mr Yacoub el-Hillo condemned these latest attacks “in the strongest possible terms”, stating they “constitute yet another blatant violation of international humanitarian and human rights laws.”
While some US officials have shown apparent concern for Russia’s increasing support for Haftar, calling for a peaceful solution, their expressions of ‘concern’ can hardly be taken seriously, given Russia’s clearcut support Haftar – something Washington has all but ignored.
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an assault on the capital Tripoli in April 2019, seeking to control the country, and disrupt Libya’s fragile peace process.
Presenting himself as a rival government, he opposes a democratic transition and seeks to topple the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Haftar’s assaults have put the spotlight on his backers, who appear to be providing significant external support to the wardlord’s forces.
Yet despite GNA calls for Washington to push Haftar to end his assaults, a vicious trend of US apathy continues, now presided over by under Donald Trump.
Washington joined the NATO-coalition supporting Libya’s revolution from March 2011, leading to the eventual overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in October that year.
While on the face of it, going in with good intentions; to overthrow a repressive dictator and consolidate a revolution, the poorly planned intervention instead plunged the country into chaos.
While supporting rebel factions to overthrow Gaddafi, the United States also backed the return of Khalifa Haftar – a former ally of Gaddafi who was exiled in 1987 after disagreeing with the leader.
Yet after September 2012 attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi in which three US employees and 10 Libyan security officers were killed, Washington scaled down its involvement in Libya.
Despite that, it has still carried out airstrike operations against Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State in Libya, which grew in Libya after 2011.
In this context of instability, the country has more recently been divided between rival governments: The UN-backed GNA in the western capital Tripoli, and Haftar’s LNA, linked with the House of Representatives in Tobruk.
But on the issue of Haftar, Trump’s stance has been unclear. Haftar, who holds US citizenship, has at times received consent from the US for his military actions.
Soon after Haftar’s latest campaign in Libya, Donald Trump audaciously sympathised with the warlord, after a phone call discussing “counterterrorism efforts” and a “shared vision”.
Trump clearly ignored the harmful consequences of Haftar’s assault, and seemed to offer a free pass on the humanitarian abuses that have emerged in the wake of the LNA’s advance on Tripoli.
Now, seemingly prompted by the attacks and dire instability erupting in a geographically significant country, some US officials are calling for Haftar to halt the violence.
A US delegation, including deputy White House advisor Victoria Coates met with Haftar on 24 November, with deescalating the conflict reportedly on the agenda.
“The officials underscored the United States’ full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya, and expressed serious concern over Russia’s exploitation of the conflict at the expense of the Libyan people,” the delegation’s statement said.
US officials and the GNA see Russia’s presence as openly provocative. Moscow initially supported Haftar’s forces following his campaign. Soon after the Tripoli campaign was evidently faltering, Russia took a more balanced stance, also keeping communication open with the GNA.
Yet Russian mercenaries have been reported operating among eastern forces, showing that Moscow has kept up its support for Haftar’s war. Echoing previous accusations, the Libyan GNA recently accused Russian mercenaries of operating alongside Haftar.
In October, it surfaced that Russia had printed around 4.5 billion Libyan dinars (approximately $3.22 billion) between February and June, and delivered them to a newly created bank in Eastern Libya.
Coinciding with Haftar’s assault on Tripoli in April, this demonstrates how Moscow helps prop up Haftar’s forces. Yet Washington’s “concern” for Libya emerges amid evidence that Russia is seeking to further entrench itself in Libya.
Given that Washington’s close allies, namely France, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have provided crucial backing to Haftar, these concerns seem unlikely to be genuine.
In fact, the UAE has been the key driver behind Haftar’s offensive and the strength of its forces, not Russia. Egyptian and Saudi lobbying efforts have also swayed Trump to support their favoured Libyan ruler, Haftar.
Such support from these countries, coupled with Trump’s willingness to tolerate it, has all but dashed hopes of a peaceful resolution to Libya’s turmoil.
The US’ sudden concerns for Libyan stability are conceivably a competitive knee-jerk reaction to Russia’s increasing presence in the country.
Policy makers likely fear that increased Russian presence in the country will lead to Washington being outmanoeuvred in yet another key regional state.
There may be increased US support for the GNA, but Washington’s inaction towards its allies shows it is more concerned about countering Russian influence, rather than bringing long-term peace to the country.
Reining in the UAE’s counterrevolutionary ambitions, which are more harmful to Libya, should be a top priority for US policy makers. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France should be approached in a similar fashion.
Russian support alone for Haftar would be insufficient in allowing him to achieve his coup aspirations. Should Haftar’s other key backers be forced to halt their support, this would dash Haftar’s confidence and force him back to the negotiating table.
After all, it was such support coupled with international impunity that gave him the encouragement needed to launch an assault on Tripoli.
There may indeed be genuine voices within the White House seeking to halt Haftar’s assault and bring stability to war-torn Libya. Yet while many are more focused on Russia, and Trump himself plays effectively no role at all in addressing the conflict’s root causes, any positive voices inside Washington will be isolated.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. He is a researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.