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Opposing Libyan sides vie for US support from a capricious White House

On 5 July, the UN Security Council issued a statement on Libya condemning the deadly airstrike two days earlier on a migrant detention centre in Tripoli, that killed over 50 people.

The statement also called for the warring sides in Libya to commit to a ceasefire, while urging other countries not to further intervene in the conflict or continue to exacerbate the situation.

The Security Council originally convened a closed session the day after the attack, but could not agree on a final draft. It has been reported that the United States blocked any statement being issued at first.

The Trump administration finally agreed with the other permanent members, and diplomats say the statement issued on Friday was largely unchanged from the language discussed on Wednesday.

Essentially, this indecisiveness and change in position by the US, reflects the administration’s lack of a clear and cohesive US policy in Libya.

Since President Trump took over in 2017, there has been very little in the way of clear strategy or policy on how to deal with the Libyan conflict. This is partly due to Trump’s “America First” narrative, which has led him to focus on US domestic interests, rather than dealing with US foreign policy.

Trump claims his lack of interest in Libya is out of reluctance to get involved in a conflict which he likes to claim was the result of failed Obama-era policies. He is also quick to point the finger at Hillary Clinton – Secretary of State when the US intervened in Libya – for helping to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 and the ensuing conflict.

US policy in Libya led by Obama and Clinton in the post-Gaddafi era was mainly to help oversee a successful political transition, through supporting state-building, developing national institutions and holding democratic elections.

The political transition was completely derailed, however by the eruption of a civil war in the summer of 2014, which led to the country and its main institutions to become split, with two parallel governments operating in the West and the East.

The Obama administration was fully supportive of the UN-sponsored political dialogue that led to the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) and the UN-recognised government of national accord (GNA) being formed in December 2015.

US policy after this became mainly focused on working with the GNA in fighting extremism and combating the rise of Islamic State (IS) in Libya. This culminated in extensive US airstrikes, led by its AFRICOM force, to help the GNA eradicate IS from the city of Sirte.

The Trump administration parted from its predecessor’s policy by disengaging from Libya politically, and has restricted its Libya strategy to helping the GNA combat terrorism.

Following Haftar’s latest offensive against Tripoli on 4 April, there has been a divergence within the administration on US policy towards Libya, with Trump seemingly lending some support to Haftar through a phone call in which he praised the rogue general’s efforts to fight terrorism, and secure vital oil-instillations.

While Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has criticised Haftar’s attack on Tripoli and has branded him a “militia leader”, calling on his forces to withdraw to prior positions.

Members of Congress in a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee have sent letters to the Attorney General and FBI, asking the Justice Department to investigate Haftar for potential war crimes, as he is still a dual US citizen.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has also sent a letter to Secretary Pompeo, asking for a clear policy on Libya, to support the GNA and UN-backed political dialogue process.

A political vacuum left by US disengagement from Libya, since President Trump assumed office, has allowed regional and international players to become more heavily and detrimentally involved in the Libyan conflict.

France and Italy have sparred openly over how to handle the crisis, with each side seeking to monopolise efforts to reach a solution in order to preserve their own interests.

Against this backdrop, increased US support could put and end to conflicting foreign involvement, curtail the competing interests of these regional players and help to impose a final political settlement between the warring sides.

In fact, the lack of clear US policy has opened the door to lobbying groups on both sides of the conflict, seeking to gain influence and a foothold within the White House.

Millions have reportedly been paid in contracts signed with lobbying firms such as Linden Strategies, who are working on behalf of the Haftar camp, and Mercury who have been hired by the GNA, both aiming to get the upper hand in the competition for US support.

There are also rumoured requests by the Haftar camp to arrange a visit for him to meet with President Trump or even just his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, in Washington.

US support is deemed to be a game-changer in Libya, but which party will be the most likely benefactor remains unclear.

The GNA however, is the UN-recognised and legitimate government in Libya, and it is likely that pressure from Congress and the State Department will persuade the White House to continue working with the GNA and support the UN-sponsored dialogue process.

Although Trump himself may be inclined to favour Haftar – looking past his track record and perceiving him as the military strongman who can fight terrorism and secure vital oil instillations in Libya – US lawsuits against Haftar, as well as opposition from Congress will most likely prevent full US support.

Legal and judicial moves, including allegations of war crimes, would likely restrict any serious engagement with Haftar, and could also prevent the potential visit to Washington that the Haftar camp and his lobbying firm have been working towards.

As things stand, the US is unlikely to take a leading role in resolving the Libyan crisis, as President Trump concentrates his foreign policy on Iran, and deals with his domestic affairs.

Despite the millions of dollars spent on lobbying efforts by both sides of the Libyan conflict, the military dynamics on the ground are likely to ultimately determine the final US position on Libya.

Should the GNA continue to make further military gains – it reclaimed the strategically important city of Gharyan from Haftar’s forces on 26 June, for example – then Haftar’s position and image as a strongman will weaken significantly in the eyes of the US administration.

This could in turn lead to full backing for the GNA as the only legitimate and recognised government in Libya, while supporting efforts to reach a final political settlement in the country by resuming the UN-backed political dialogue process.

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