President Donald Trump recognized the “significant role in fighting terrorism” of Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in a phone call with Haftar on Monday, potentially marking a shift from favoring the United Nations-brokered government to endorsing the warlord who controls most of the country.
The White House revealed the call on Friday.
Trump’s phone call came as the LNA, which human rights groups have accused of war crimes against civilians, is trying to take the capital of Tripoli from forces loyal to the U.N.-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Sayez al-Serraj.
Propped by neighboring Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, and France, the LNA has seized at least two-thirds of Libya, including most border crossings and the major oil-producing regions.
In July, French President Emmanuel Macron and Trump told reporters they “share the same intentions regarding Libya,” Foreign Affairs reported.
On Friday, the White House provided a summary of the phone conversation between Trump and the renegade Libyan general.
The White House wrote:
President Donald J. Trump spoke on April 15, 2019, with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya. The President recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.
The White House did not explain why it waited several days to announce the phone call.
The statement appears to contradict U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the U.S. Department of State’s recent assessments of the warlord’s Tripoli offensive, which started on April 4.
In the wake of the offensive to take Tripoli from forces loyal to Serraj, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM chief, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted the warlord’s ongoing operation.
Ignoring appeals from the United Nations for a stronger U.S. diplomatic engagement, mainly to restrain Haftar’s foreign supporters, President Trump had shown little interest in engaging in Libya, saying in April 2017 that there is “no role” for the United States military beyond combating jihadis who threaten America.
Until recently, the Trump administration had distanced itself from the U.N. push for the national reconciliation between the internationally-recognized administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar, exercising a more limited role that primarily focuses on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), al-Qaeda, and other jihadis.
In recent months, however, the Trump administration seems to be warming to General Haftar and his LNA although the U.S. has officially backed the GNA throughout the conflict, the New York Times (NYT) alleged citing anonymous foreign diplomats early this month.
“Certainly we would see a role for Gen. Haftar in any future of Libya,” a senior White House official told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in December 2018.
Asked whether that included ruling the whole country, the official said, “That is up to the people of Libya.”
Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute international relations think tank in the Hague, indicated to Reuters that “the Trump phone call was tantamount to supporting Haftar’s operation and thus is ‘creating an environment where a military intervention by foreign states, like Egypt, is likelier.’”
“One reason behind Trump’s phone call is that Haftar’s army has revealed itself less powerful than the Libyan strongman had claimed,” Harchaoui said.
Trump’s alleged endorsement of Haftar’s vital role in achieving peace in Libya aligns well with his administration’s ties to the general’s foreign backers, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt.
Citing Libyan and French officials, several media reports claim Paris supports Haftar with weaponry, training, intelligence and special forces assistance. Paris denies it.
On Thursday, the Serraj administration accused France, Egypt, and the UAE of directly supporting the breakaways strongman general, Turkey’s state television channel TRT reported.
France dismissed the allegation even after it recently moved to prevent the European Union (EU) from condemning Haftar’s push into Tripoli.
A Macron official claimed, “France supports the legitimate government” of Serraj “and the mediation of the UN for an inclusive political solution in Libya,” TRT noted.
According to the U.N., divisions within the international body over support for the warlord encouraged Haftar to launch his assault on Tripoli, which has already killed 205 people, including civilians, wounded 913, and forced tens of thousands to flee, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.
Haftar’s LNA is meeting firm resistance in Tripoli.
Ghassan Salame, the U.N.’s Libya envoy, recently asserted that there was “deadlock” in fighting south of the capital.
The Trump administration has met with both Haftar and Serraj in recent years but has provided more support to the GNA.
Haftar has already seized control of at least two-thirds of Libya with the help of his foreign backers who believe he can restore stability and effectively combat jihadi groups in the country, namely the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and al-Qaeda.
Deteriorating security conditions, fueled by foreign intervention, clashes between two rival governments as well as the presence of jihadi groups, have plagued Libya since the 2011 overthrow, backed by the U.S. and NATO, of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya has become the main transit country for hundreds of thousands of African migrants heading to Europe from African and the Middle East
It appears the Trump administration also recognizes strongman Haftar’s importance to lasting peace in Libya.