By Ben Fishman
April was supposed to be a notable month in Libya’s post-Gadhafi transition.
After organizing local dialogues across the country, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) scheduled a national dialogue conference in the historic city of Ghadames, away from the coastal centers where intense political jockeying has paralyzed Libya’s political system.
The conference was always a key part of U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame’s plan to gain the population’s buy-in for new elections and a constitutional referendum.
Theoretically, these political milestones would correct the divisiveness of Libya’s first two elections, in 2012 and 2014, that precipitated a civil war in 2014 to 2015 and split the government between east and west.
But instead of meeting to discuss the future identity and political shape of Libya, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the head of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), blew up the prospects for dialogue by launching an offensive against Tripoli on April 4.
He did so on the very day U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres visited Tripoli to help finalize plans for the national dialogue — an egregious sign of disrespect to the highest representative of the international community.
Worse still, Guterres flew to Haftar’s headquarters outside Benghazi the following day to plead for de-escalation. Upon his departure, Guterres tweeted, “I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation.”
Washington is not directly responsible for this latest round of post-revolutionary chaos. Only Libyans can take ownership for their own actions, despite constant foreign meddling. However, by largely abandoning Libya, the Trump administration has contributed to the current situation — a likely resumption of a civil war instead of U.N.-led peace process.
Now, the administration’s chief interests in Libya — keeping the Islamic State down and oil production up — are both under threat. The question is whether, and to what extent, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will follow through on his April 7 statement that he “opposes” Haftar’s offensive.
Western actors, including the United States, appear to have been caught off-guard by Haftar’s brazen move. Instead of treating his past threats to attack Tripoli seriously, they invited him to Paris (twice) and Sicily, treating him as if were a head of state.
The United Nations and its Western backers have tried unsuccessfully since 2016 to bring Haftar into a political process, but he successfully drew out the string long enough to initiate this assault.
So why did Haftar act now, and did he ever intend to support elections?
There are several possibilities. Haftar and the LNA recently took control of Libya’s largest oil field from a pro-GNA (Government of National Accord) militia and negotiated the loyalty of a city outside Tripoli. The initiatives may have bolstered his confidence that he could operate further from his base in the east.
Then there is the question of Haftar’s foreign backers — primarily Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but also Russia, France and apparently Saudi Arabia, where King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hosted Haftar just a week before his offensive and reportedly promised to assist his efforts.
The Saudis have mostly stayed out of Libyan affairs since 2011, but it appears the UAE finally prevailed on them to meet Haftar, giving him added legitimacy in their collective regional war against the broader Muslim Brotherhood.
Although Russia has hosted a range of Libyan actors, their clear preference is Haftar’s anti-Islamist, authoritarianism; they reportedly have had Wagner Group contractors in Benghazi for several years.
The Europeans are weak and divided on Libya. All nominally support the U.N. peace process, but with varying levels of conviction. The United Kingdom is outspoken but with waning influence.
French President Emanuel Macron was the first leader to invite Haftar to a western capital, convinced early in his presidency that he could solve Libya’s political stalemate.
Now the French have delayed the European Union (EU) from directly condemning Haftar’s actions. Italy has maintained a strongly pro-Tripoli stance, given its energy interests in western Libya, but its ultimate priority is keeping the Central Mediterranean route closed to illegal migrants.
Under Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy easily could acquiesce to a Haftar takeover provided he adopts an anti-migrant posture.
For its part, the Trump administration mostly has distanced itself from Libyan affairs, taking a cue from the president when he said, “I do not see a role in Libya.
I think the United States has, right now, enough roles,” excepting the issue of ISIS. In addition to counterterrorism, where the United States continues to strike IS and al Qaeda-linked targets, the Trump administration has acted effectively to prevent oil disruptions — again caused by Haftar last July. But they have made limited efforts to support the U.N. peace efforts.
Now is the time to re-energize U.S. diplomacy on Libya. Secretary Pompeo should call Haftar’s principal supporters and warn that if Haftar does not pull back his forces, he is subjecting himself to U.S. sanctions — under an authority the Trump team twice has applied against individuals who “threaten the peace, security or stability of Libya.”
Those sanctions would be strengthened if the EU threatened similar actions, and would isolate Haftar from being feted in Paris or Rome. His affront to the international community and the U.N.-backed peace process must have consequences.
Although Haftar’s forces mostly have been halted for now, the prospect of large-scale civilian casualties grows the longer he persists.
And even if he is successful in Tripoli, a long-term insurgency likely would continue for months, leaving Libya open to a return of ISIS. Stable oil production would be unlikely.
And most concerning, the first country to recognize Haftar and support his future actions would be Russia, which would be a disaster for Europe and undermine the Trump administration’s own Africa Strategy.
The United States can prevent this scenario, but it must adopt a sense of diplomatic urgency on an issue the administration mostly has overlooked.
Ben Fishman is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and member of the Beth and David Geduld Program on Arab Politics. He served from 2009 to 2013 on the National Security Council, including as executive assistant to Ambassador Dennis Ross, director for Libya, and later, director for North Africa and Jordan.