By Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Julian Borger
A senior White House foreign policy official has pushed a plan to partition Libya, and once drew a picture of how the country could be divided into three areas on a napkin in a meeting with a senior European diplomat, the Guardian has learned.
Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Donald Trump under pressure over his past ties with Hungarian far-right groups, suggested the idea of partition in the weeks leading up to the US president’s inauguration, according to an official with knowledge of the matter. The European diplomat responded that this would be “the worst solution” for Libya.
Gorka is vying for the job of presidential special envoy to Libya in a White House that has so far spent little time thinking about the country and has yet to decide whether to create such a post.
Libya has been mired in a conflict between two competing governments since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 after a Nato-led intervention. As rival jostle for influence and position in Washington on the hitherto neglected issue, sharp differences have emerged over how much say Russia should have in Libya’s fate.
There are fears among some European allies that the White House will reverse the Obama administration’s strong support for the UN-backed Libyan government of national accord, which is based in Tripoli and led by Fayez al-Sarraj.
While the GNA has been seen by some as the best option for achieving stability in the country, it has struggled against a rival government based in Tobruk, eastern Libya, backed by Khalifa Haftar, an anti-Islamist military strongman. Haftar, who would not back partition, has support in some parts of the Egyptian and Russian governments.
In January, he was welcomed onboard the Admiral Kuznetsov, the Russian flagship, as the aircraft carrier sailed along the north African coast. Haftar, a 73-year-old field marshal and former Gaddafi general who later became his bitter opponent, presents himself as a bulwark against Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood, which makes him appealing to elements of the Trump foreign policy team.
Gorka advocates hardline policies aimed at defeating “radical Islam” and sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group bent on infiltrating the US. As a former Breitbart editor, he is close to Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who believes the struggle against radical Islam should be the central theme of US foreign policy. But Bannon’s star is on the wane in the White House and he lost his seat on the national security council last week.
Gorka has alarmed foreign diplomats with his views on Libya’s future. The map he drew on a napkin during the transition period cut Libya into three sections, apparently based on the old Ottoman provinces of Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the north-west and Fezzan in the south-west.
Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank, said: “This is like a litmus test of how much you know about Libya. If you the only thing you know is that it was cut into three, then it shows you are clueless about the situation in Libya.”
Gorka’s rivals for the envoy job include Pete Hoekstra, a former congressman and lobbyist, and Phillip Escaravage, a former US intelligence official who worked on Libya for more than a decade.
Escaravage is generally considered to be the clear favourite to take on the unpaid role. He is believed to have put forward a peace proposal heavily dependent on tens of billions of dollars in western financial support.
At least one European ally has privately expressed frustration at the US state department’s lack of a position on Libya, voicing concerns over Russia’s growing influence.
While separatists who support partition claim that a viable state could be built in eastern Libya, most experts agree that the move would stoke another civil war because the boundaries would be hotly disputed.
Representatives of the Tobruk government, including Haftar, have sought to influence the Trump administration, calling for the US to radically change its position and withdraw support for the Sarraj government.
In a phone interview with the Guardian, Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli security consultant based in Canada, whose company has a $6m (£4.9m) contract to lobby on behalf of Haftar and Aguila Saleh Issa, the head of the Libyan house of representatives in Tobruk, said the White House had been “briefed” on Libya and was “willing to play on our terms”.
“There is not going to be a partition,” Ben-Menashe said. “None of them [Trump administration officials] really knew anything about what was going on. They were briefed pretty extensively by us and … they understand that Sarraj will never work.”
Ben-Menashe said it was understood by the Trump administration that a central Libyan government acceptable to the west and east of the country could be created “in three days” if Russia were more involved. The Trump administration, he added, was “interested in getting the help of Russians and interested in getting them to resolve it”.
Support for the eastern government was growing in parts of Europe, including the UK, Ben-Menashe said. “We have talked to the Brits, the Norwegians, the Swiss. We did a lot of work on this,” he added.
Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome, she is the Washington D.C. Correspondent for The Financial Times.
Julian Borger is the Guardian’s world affairs editor. He was previously a correspondent in the US, the Middle East, eastern Europe and the Balkans.