By Vivian Salama
As several countries come to the aid of warring factions in Libya, President Donald Trump has found himself caught in the middle of a group of strongmen he’s forged close ties with during his presidency, prompting him to stay out of the fray and let them fend for themselves.
Recent pleas by the leaders of Turkey, Egypt and others for Trump to get involved in the conflict have fallen on deaf ears, several foreign and US officials tell CNN.
The Trump White House had taken an active interest in the conflict in 2019, reaching out to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the warlord leading an offensive against the country’s United Nations-backed government. But in recent months, the President’s stance has changed, with Trump telling those leaders that he’d rather not get involved in another messy Middle Eastern conflict.
In particular, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt have worked to convince Trump to get involved diplomatically and put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down from its own objectives in the country.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, have also weighed in, these officials said.
Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s ally in Libya, rebel commander, Gen. Haftar, suffered a string of defeats in recent months as his militias tried to oust the government in Tripoli so he could install himself as Libya’s ruler.
Turkey, Italy and Qatar, meanwhile, are collectively trying to prop up Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord. In recent days, the likelihood of a full-blown conflict breaking out increased after Egypt’s parliament green lighted the deployment of troops to Libya in support of Haftar’s rebel forces.
Trump has told all of them that he would rather avoid being involved ahead of the presidential election with so many other domestic issues weighing him down and urged them to sort the issue out amongst themselves, these officials said.
Erdogan is ‘constantly calling’ Trump
A US and Turkish official said that Erdogan is “constantly calling the President” to get him to get Russia to back down. The two governments don’t always provide readouts for those calls, the officials noted.
Trump has extolled his ties to other world leaders known for authoritarian methods, including Putin, el-Sisi and Erdogan. He hasn’t publicly admonished any of those countries for their human rights record, nor has he urged against some of their controversial military endeavors, instead, accepting the explanation that they are fighting extremists.
Even as the potential for war in Libya grows, Trump has not sought to talk any of his allies off their perch of a full-blown conflict. “The President usually tells them, ‘do what you need to do. I’m not going to tell you what to do’,” one US official said.
Russia and Turkey’s backing of opposing sides in the Libyan civil war is part of a competition for future investment opportunities, including oil contracts worth billions, in the oil-rich country. France, Greece and other European nations have taken an interest in the conflict escalating on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, warning that Russia’s involvement speaks to its interest in having a strong presence at Europe’s southern doorstep.
In recent weeks, fighters loyal to Libya’s government, supported by Turkey, pushed closer to the oil-rich city of Sirte on the Mediterranean Sea coast, ready for battle. Thousands of Russian military contractors with armored vehicles and Syrian militiamen have also surrounded the city in recent days in an effort to bolster forces loyal to Haftar.
The State Department has participated in some talks regarding Libya’s future, as the conflict rages on. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took part this year in a Libya summit hosted in Berlin, where countries including France, Russia and Turkey laid out a cease-fire plan, which ultimately failed, and called for an end to violence despite their own surreptitious support to the warring factions.
But some accuse Washington of confusing things with mixed messages. Under former national security adviser John Bolton, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt successfully lobbied Trump to shift US policy in Libya and reach out to Haftar, a senior US administration official and two Saudi officials said.
Saudi Arabia’s bin Salman and Egypt’s el-Sisi urged Trump to back Haftar. Trump agreed, reaching out to Haftar in April 2019 to discuss “a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system,” the White House said. Bolton also had a separate conversation with Haftar during his tenure.
Those calls had marked a significant shift in Washington’s position, which, until then, had unequivocally supported the UN-recognized government in Tripoli and worked with it in the war on Islamic State.
Officials tell CNN that Bolton and others in his circle had convinced the White House that a bet on Haftar, who vows to root out Islamists who have taken hold of Libya in the post-Qaddafi era, was more promising than any State Department view, which one official described as “very much in the Turkey camp, but with the view that Russia is a bad actor.”
On Tuesday, Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said in a statement that the US strongly opposes “foreign military involvement, including the use of mercenaries and private military contractors, by all sides,” while falling short of mentioning Russia or any other actors by name.
The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control then announced on Thursday sanctions against individuals which it said had contributed to instability in Libya through smuggling. But ultimately, O’Brien emphasized that the US is “an active, but neutral actor” in the Libya conflict, noting in his statement that “it is clear there is no ‘winning’ side.”
State Department remains concerned by Turkey’s proxy fighters in northern Syria
By Elizabeth Hagedorn
Turkey-allied fighters have faced widespread accusations of arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings and other abuses in northern Syria.
The State Department remains concerned by credible reports of human rights abuses committed by Turkish-backed fighters in parts of northeast Syria seized during military operations against US-allied Kurdish fighters, according to a new inspector general’s report.
The State Department has received reports of “arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, seizure of and resettlement of new populations in private properties, the repeated and deliberate shutting off of water access to half a million civilians, and transfer of arbitrarily-detained Syrians across an international border into Turkey,” according to the Lead Inspector General report on Operation Inherent Resolve, the operational name for the US fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The report released Tuesday covers the period of April 1 to June 30.
“We have reiterated our expectation that Turkey, and the Syrian opposition, investigate alleged violations and abuses and promote accountability where appropriate,” the State Department said.
The State Department told investigators it had no evidence that the Syrian Interim Government, a political body that operates in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria, “has consistently arrested, prosecuted, or otherwise held accountable any [Turkish-supported opposition group] members implicated in human rights abuses or violations of the law of armed conflict.”
Turkey’s military campaign against Kurdish fighters launched in October, which followed President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to pull troops out of northeast Syria, garnered widespread criticism over the myriad rights abuses reportedly committed by the Syrian proxy fighters Ankara deployed to carry out its ground offensive.
The Turkey-supported Syrian National Army, which consists of both moderate Syrian rebels who once fought the regime and more extreme factions, was implicated in a series of disturbing videos documenting torture and extrajudicial killings. The roadside execution of prominent female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, which was blamed on the hard-line Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction, prompted widespread condemnation. The Syrian National Army condemned the killing of Khalaf and eight other civilians and said it would investigate.
The new report noted that the United States has not sanctioned any of the Turkey-allied groups for abuses. If certain criteria are met, the Trump administration has the authority to do so under the executive order used in October to briefly sanction Turkey over its incursion.
The situation in Afrin, a multi-ethnic city embroiled in violence since Turkey and allied rebels seized control in March 2018, is of particular concern to the State Department.
Rights organizations accuse rebels in Afrin of abducting hundreds of women and girls, at least 150 of whom have been identified. Yazda, a group advocating for the long-persecuted religious Yazidi minority, says nearly 80% of the Yazidi religious sites in Syria have been looted by, desecrated, or destroyed by the fighters, including 18 sites in Afrin.
With no presence on the ground, the State Department said it could not confirm the reports but said “many appear to be credible.”
Elizabeth Hagedorn is a correspondent for Al-Monitor covering Middle East policymaking in Washington and breaking news. She previously reported on the region as a freelance journalist in Turkey and Iraq for publications including Middle East Eye, The National and The Guardian.