By Gregory Aftandilian
Having pro-Russian strongman in charge of Libya is undoubtedly tempting for President Vladimir Putin.
Despite international efforts to support a unity government in Libya, US President Donald Trump may be tempted to opt for a strongman to bring stability to that fractured country and please some of his foreign friends, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Eastern Libya already has this strongman: Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army (LNA), is allied with the secular Tobruk faction and has defeated Islamist radicals in Benghazi and other eastern Libyan cities.
Haftar deeply distrusts Islamists of all stripes and has stated that Libya first needs stability and order before democracy. Although he has not explicitly stated that he wants to rule the entire country, last September he said Libya would be better served by a leader with “high-level military experience” and cited other former military leaders, including Sisi, who have achieved “remarkable success” in their own countries.
Haftar’s praise for Sisi was not unintended. Although Egypt officially supports UN efforts to forge a Libyan unity government, it has reportedly provided Haftar’s troops with arms and training despite an international arms embargo on Libya. Haftar and Sisi share mutual antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which is aligned with Libya’s Tripoli faction, and Sisi undoubtedly appreciates Haftar’s efforts to prevent Islamist extremists from crossing Egypt’s western border.
Haftar is also seeking Russian help. Last year he conferred with Russian officials in Moscow and he recently was a guest on a Russian aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean where he had a video conference with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Haftar is looking for Moscow to support him as it has Syrian President Bashar Assad. At a minimum, Haftar wants Russia to provide him with weapons. Moscow, however, has demurred, apparently because it is on the record as supporting the arms embargo on Libya.
There are signs of cracks in the West’s resolve to support the concept of a Libyan unity government and shun Haftar. France and Britain have reportedly provided military trainers and advisers to Haftar’s troops and have employed their special forces in areas his army controls.
It seems that these Western powers are hedging their bets because efforts to move forward with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) have been stymied. This government, led by a Presidential Council under Fayez al-Sarraj, only controls Tripoli and surrounding areas and is unstable. On January 12th, for example, self-declared prime minister Khalifa Ghwell tried to overthrow it in a military coup. From the east, the Tobruk faction has yet to endorse the GNA and will probably not do so.
Haftar also has made gains on the ground. In September, his forces easily captured two oil ports, capable of producing 700,000 barrels of oil a day, that were under the control of a militia aligned with the GNA. Haftar’s efforts to move further west may encounter stiffer resistance, however, as there are formidable militias that are backing Tripoli. Nonetheless, the wind is at Haftar’s back.
The Obama administration viewed Haftar as a problem despite his being considered a CIA asset, according to media reports, because he was seen as a divisive figure bent on upending the GNA. The Trump administration is likely to take a different view. During the presidential campaign, Trump sharply criticised Hillary Clinton for “creating a mess” in Libya as secretary of State and suggested that the country was better off under strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
If the Trump team assesses that Haftar, as a strongman, can bring Libya under control, it may conclude that supporting him is the best path to follow rather than sticking with the problematic and unstable GNA.
Trump also owes Sisi a favour. In late Decemer, Trump, after conferring with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, called Sisi to ask him to set aside an Egyptian-drafted UN Security Council resolution that strongly condemned Israeli settlements. Sisi complied and, although roughly the same resolution was put forward by other countries and passed by the council, Trump may believe he owes Sisi, whom he has called “a fantastic guy”.
Support for Haftar would also conform to Trump’s view that stability, not political engineering, is what US policy should strive for in the Middle East. Whether Haftar can bring about this stability remains to be seen.
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.