There is heightened tension in Libya between two parallel governments who are also creating diplomatic tension among global super powers over who to support in the North African country’s clashes of power.
Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces ruling eastern Libya from Benghazi has divided support for the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj who was appointed in 2015 after a political agreement.
Haftar’s forces which does not recognized the unity government, has launched an attack on Tripoli after taking over the oil-rich south of Libya earlier this year before advancing through largely unpopulated desert regions toward the capital.
The LNA bombed an airport in Tripoli and the World Health Organization (WHO) has counted 254 deaths with more than 1,200 people injured since Haftar’s offensive began in early April.
While the United Nations, European Union, Italy and the UK have called on Haftar to halt the fighting and withdraw from Tripoli, U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly backed the former general in Muammar Gaddafi’s army against US’s public position.
Diplomatic sources told Bloomberg that Trump indicated in a phone call with Haftar last week that the U.S. supported an assault on the country’s capital to depose the UN-backed government. This was preceded by an earlier phone call by White House National Security Adviser John Bolton who gave Haftar the impression of a U.S. green light for an offensive on Tripoli.
Two people familiar with the matter claim the positions of Trump and Bolton were taken after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi met with the U.S. president on April 9 and urged him to back Haftar.
He also spoke with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Haftar supporter, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a day before the White House statement on the call with Haftar saying they discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts” and “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.”
Earlier, the White House Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had said: “We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.”
This stance was supported by the U.S. charge d’affairs in Libya, Peter Bodde, who has warned Haftar against advancing on Tripoli. In February, he reportedly told Haftar during a meeting in Abu Dhabi that the capital was a red line.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Bloomberg News in an interview that he’s not aware of the details of Trump’s phone calls but choosing sides or encouraging the military force to govern was a bad idea.
“You’ve got to get all the parties at the table. What would be a big mistake is to back one group over the other. Haftar cannot conquer and hold Tripoli,” said Graham.
“It would be Syria all over again if he tried to conquer Tripoli by military force,” he added.
Haftar is also enjoying the support of Russia, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as he claims his offensive is intended to combat Islamist terrorism in Libya.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Friday dismissed the military solution in Libya as championed by Haftar. “What we’ve said before and what I do support is Field Marshal Haftar’s support in terms of his role in counterterrorism, but where we need Field Marshal Haftar’s support is in building democratic stability there in the region,” he said.
However, France did not join the call by the EU for Haftar to agree to a ceasefire and return to the peace talks. Like the US, France did not back the failed UN Security Council emergency meeting to address the situation in Libya which was vetoed by Russia and the U.S.
In 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron invited Haftar and Sarraj to Paris for talks in an attempt to broker a power-sharing deal. The two agreed to elections to help resolve the conflict but it has never happened.
The situation in Libya immediately followed the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 after an international military intervention led by France, the United States and Britain.