The catalyst that sent the overall situation into an uncontrolled spiral was the phone call made on April 15 by US President Donald Trump to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar declaring his support for Haftar. The Trump call was clearly unknown to the US State Department and probably other US agencies and departments, and even some of Trump’s closest advisors.
The mixed signals from Washington create a farcical, even outright comical, set of contradictions that leave all Libyans wondering what the hell is going on while sending the international diplomatic community in Tripoli into utter confusion.
A few days after Haftar’s offensive on April 4, France, Italy, the UAE, the UK, and the US released a joint statement calling for an end to the offensive. While other players like Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia worked their back channels to Field Marshall Haftar. Total disunity quickly emerged between all these international players that has subsequently destroyed UN efforts to get a resolution on the situation.
A White House statement on April 19 said Trump had discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts”, acknowledging the Field Marshal’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.
The US President’s remarks to Haftar were of course taken as an endorsement. How else could it have been interpreted by anyone, not least Haftar?
Diplomats from US and Russia on April 18 rejected a British proposed draft UN resolution that made any reference to Field Marshal Haftar and his forces; they wanted neither side named in the document. That also gave the impression that both superpowers were backing Haftar.
To compound the muddle, on May 1, the White House began, in essence, contradicting Trump, playing down the significance of his phone call and disputing the idea that it was backing Field Marshal Haftar over the UN-recognised Government of National Accord, the GNA led by UN selected ‘Prime Minister’ Fayez Al Sarraj.
“The characterisations of conversations between the White House and Field Marshal Haftar are inaccurate,” wrote Garrett Marquis, a spokesman and special assistant to Trump.
All this while UN diplomats frantically scramble to make sense of American policy towards Libya in a bid to salvage diplomatic efforts.
“The US position is not understood. There have been different things said by different people,” a leading UN diplomat admitted, though he wished to remain anonymous, adding that the US President’s phone call “may have been misread as support for Haftar”.
For now, clearly, the prospect of a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, is, to say the least, off the table.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo only added to the uncertainty when he spoke of “the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.” He added that “a political solution is the only way to unify the country and provide a plan for security, stability and prosperity for all Libyans.”
It is difficult not to laugh at the total lack of a coherent American foreign policy.
The almost Shakespearian tragedy that is Libya today, or aspects of it, compare to the insanity of war evoked by the iconic Joseph Heller book Catch 22.
The almost Shakespearian tragedy that is Libya today, or aspects of it, compare to the insanity of war evoked by the iconic Joseph Heller book Catch 22
As a countermeasure, in an effort to neutralise Trump’s apparent (yet patently obvious) personal support for Haftar, Sarraj’s GNA in Tripoli signed a contract worth $2m with a leading ‘K Street’ lobbying firm in Washington according to a recent FARA filing.
The Libyan government hired Mercury Public Affairs on April 26 to “provide strategic consulting and management services” which in ‘real speak’ means lobbying Congress and the Trump administration, “identify interest groups allied with client and coordinate support”.
The contract with Mercury stipulates that the GNA will make an initial payment of $500,000, along with paying $150,000 per month and an additional $50,000 per quarter for expenses related to ‘services’.
The contract shows Mercury’s contract was signed by the GNA’s Yousef al-Mabrouk, Chief of Staff for the Office of Prime Minister Sarraj.
Mercury’s recent most high-profile client was a Russian, Oleg Deripaska, assisted by a former British minister Greg Barker, in an effort to overturn US sanctions on the oligarch’s business.
The fact is the UN-recognised Sarraj GNA government in Tripoli has what constitutes its armed forces, a coalition of an unknown number of militias of different shades of political and religious persuasions, and it is they in reality that control Tripoli.
The UAE’s most senior Foreign Office Minister in a tweet said: “Priority in Libya to counter extremism/terrorism & support stability in long drawn out crisis. Meanwhile extremist militias continue to control capital and derail search for political solution.”
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on May 1 that since the Haftar offensive on Tripoli began, 102 civilian casualties have been verified, including 23 fatalities, and over 45,000 people have fled their homes.
If I were a Libyan, I couldn’t escape the truth of this quote from Catch 22:
“When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.”
Richard Galustian is a political and security advisor based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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