Published: August 14, 2019
A top leader from Libya’s internationally recognized government says the Trump administration should be doing more to exert American power and diplomatic influence toward ending his country’s brutal and destabilizing civil war.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Omar Maiteeq told The Washington Times that only the U.S. has the power to pressure the oil-rich African nation’s warring factions and their divided foreign backers — including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — to the bargaining table.
Mr. Maiteeq lamented during a wide-ranging interview Tuesday that the Trump administration has instead appeared to be tilting toward rebel leader Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan army colonel with alleged CIA ties. Mr. Haftar controls much of the eastern half of the country and launched an offensive this year against the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, claiming the government has ties to jihadi groups.
U.S. and Western analysts warn that if Libya collapses into a failed state, it could again provide a haven for the Islamic State and other terrorist groups and exacerbate the crush of migrants who traverse the country on their route to Europe.
“I think President Trump may have gotten the wrong message from allies or advisers about Haftar,” said Mr. Maiteeq. “It is our government in Tripoli, not Haftar, that is the main ally of the U.S. as a force to fight terrorism in Libya and North Africa.
“What we need right now is leadership from the U.S. to show that political solution is the only solution in Libya,” he added.
Mr. Maiteeq made the comments amid fresh violence in Libya. The Associated Press reported that fighting around Tripoli resumed Monday night after a brief truce during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. A two-day cease-fire proposed by the United Nations was the first since Mr. Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army militias launched an offensive in April to overthrow the Government of National Accord, which controls Tripoli.
The Trump administration has resisted efforts to be drawn directly into the fights by offering rhetorical support for both the government in Tripoli and Mr. Haftar’s rebel army.
But the administration has shown signs that it may be considering a forceful line to end the fighting. In mid-July, U.S. officials signed a little-reported joint statement with France, Britain, Egypt, Italy and the United Arab Emirates backing an immediate cease-fire.
The statement, which said “there can be no military solution in Libya” and warned of terrorist groups exploiting the political void, was issued just months after President Trump unexpectedly reached out to Mr. Haftar in a phone call from the Oval Office to praise the military leader as a key force against terrorism.
A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity more recently said the administration does back a cease-fire but believes Mr. Haftar must be part of Libya’s future.
An enigmatic figure, the 75-year-old former colonel was once close to Moammar Gadhafi and played a key role in the coup that brought the Libyan dictator to power in 1969. After a falling-out with Mr. Gadhafi, he moved to the U.S. and was the subject of unconfirmed media reports that he cultivated ties with the CIA.
Mr. Maiteeq suggested that Washington has been duped into backing Mr. Haftar and that Mr. Trump’s public support only emboldened the rebel leader.
“Since the phone call [with Mr. Trump], Haftar promised that he would take Tripoli in two days,” he said. “But we can see now, five months later, that Haftar cannot move 1 kilometer in advance.”
Mr. Maiteeq also claimed it was forces loyal to the Government of National Accord, not Mr. Haftar, that drove the Islamic State from its Libyan stronghold of Sirte in 2016.
He said attempts by GNA Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj to draw Mr. Haftar into peace negotiations have gone nowhere. “We’ve tried to sit down with Haftar many times,” he said. “The problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand that the country cannot have peace without reconciliation between all Libyans.
“The main people around Haftar are the same people who were once with Gadhafi,” Mr. Maiteeq said. “They don’t want to see change or democracy in Libya.”
Adding to the murkiness surrounding U.S. policy toward Libya is the fact that the warring factions have signed on with powerful American lobbyists, some of whom work for Mr. Haftar.
Justice Department foreign agent registration records show Mr. Haftar and his Libyan National Army are paying some $2 million to the Texas-based firm Linden Government Solutions. The records say Mr. Haftar “is dedicated to stabilizing Libya, eradicating [the Islamic State] and al Qaeda, and ensuring free and fair elections.”
But Mr. Maiteeq said in the interview that Mr. Haftar is actually trying to establish a military dictatorship. “He does not have a plan for battling terrorism; he just wants to rule the country,” Mr. Maiteeq said. “He’s just a military man who believes in escalations without a future strategy.”
The 46-year-old former businessman, who was named deputy prime minister in 2016, said Mr. Haftar’s forces have sown confusion and chaos by attacking hospitals, schools, the airport and refugee centers in Tripoli in an attempt to undermine the Government of National Accord.
The Libyan crisis could have major implications for global oil markets. The country has some of the world’s biggest proven reserves, but production has plummeted since Gadhafi was ousted and killed in 2011. Outside powers have been seeking friends and influence inside Libya ever since.
Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia back Mr. Haftar, while other powers, led by Turkey and Qatar, are backing the Government of National Accord. One dividing line is the relative tolerance of the GNA for Islamist political movements such as the regional Muslim Brotherhood movement. The U.S. official who spoke anonymously with The Times said Turkey and Qatar are “much more pro-Muslim Brotherhood and hence more closely aligned” with the Government of National Accord.
A source outside the U.S. government but closely affiliated with Libyan political factions said the Muslim Brotherhood factor has played into the way key U.S. officials, including Mr. Trump and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, view the situation.
“There’s a disconnect between the way President Trump and Ambassador Bolton are looking at this and the way others, including Obama-era people at the State Department, are seeing this,” said the source. The Trump-Bolton view, the source said, is that the Tripoli government was effectively put into place by the previous administration.
The idea, the source said, is that Mr. al-Sarraj and his government are akin to Egypt under Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate who took the presidency in the wake of the Arab Spring. Mr. Haftar, in this reading, is akin to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Mr. Morsi in a military coup in 2013, classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and subsequently forged a strong security relationship with Washington.
“That’s how Trump sees it in Libya,” the source said.
Mr. Maiteeq flatly disagreed with the characterization.
“We are not a government of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said with a laugh. “Everybody knows that. The group of people keeping the government together does not belong to that at all. It’s very obvious. You can blame us for something else, but not that.”
Furthermore, he said, the U.S. has close alliances with countries on all sides in the Libyan crisis, including Qatar, Turkey, the UAE and Egypt. That, he added, is why the Trump administration has unusual clout in pushing for a political solution.
“The people that are helping Haftar and the people that are working closely with us are all U.S. allies,” he said. “The U.S. should have the ability to put pressure on all of these countries and in order to contain Haftar and make peace talks happen.”
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