By: Yasmin Faruki, Columnist
Photo Credit: Middle East Eye
President Trump has no issue cooperating with Russia in the Middle East. Just earlier this year, he suggested cooperating militarily with Russia in Syria, despite the fact that the United States and Russia have fundamentally different objectives in the region.[i] Though it seems Trump has backed off the idea of military cooperation in Syria, he could revisit this policy again in Libya. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Gennady Gatilov, has already made overtures on cooperating in Libya, offering that, “if there will be any common ground for cooperation with the United States in bringing stability in Libya, of course we would be open to all contacts.”[ii] An American official at NATO this year suggested that Trump’s team has discussed this option, characterizing Libya as a “less sensitive theatre” to cooperate with the Russians on counterterrorism.[iii] Could Libya be Trump’s test for US-Russian cooperation in the Middle East?
In many ways, the challenges in cooperating with Russia in Libya are similar to those in Syria.
Russia is the uncontested power broker in both states and supports leaders whose ultimate political rule is an untenable position for opposition groups supported by the United States. Russia seems to be more focused on targeting the opposition groups that undermine its proxy leaders rather than destroying the Islamic State (ISIS), a group that has exploited both states’ internal dissolution and access to lucrative oil fields to establish effective operational bases. Unlike in Syria, where the international community recognizes one regime, international recognition for a government in Libya remains divided between the Government of National Accord (GNA), a Western-aligned unity government, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), the former army of Muammar Gaddafi supported by Russia, Egypt, and the UAE.
Currently, the Libyan conflict is at a political stalemate. Last month, the LNA’s leader, General Haftar, rejected a power-sharing agreement by the Libyan Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj. Haftar allegedly argued that his military command in the proposed government did not match realities on the ground. Haftar controls 50%-90% of Libyan territory and maintains a constant flow of support from his allies.[iv] In comparison, the GNA suffers from internal discord and does not have as strong a sponsorship from its Western allies.[v] Absent a more robust commitment for the GNA, the LNA, and Russia by proxy, will retain decisive influence over the course of the conflict. A worsening of the situation in Libya could be a test for Trump in two ways.
First, will he switch US support in favor of Haftar? Trump has already signaled his sympathy for the Gaddafi regime at a presidential debate last year, stating, “We would be so much better off if Gaddafi would be in charge right now.”[vi] Like Gaddafi, Haftar is exactly the type of man who would win Trump’s respect and affection. He is perceived to be a strong leader, an experienced military general, and a virulent anti-Islamist. For Trump, abandoning the GNA, a losing side backed by what he perceives as a feckless UN and NATO, to work alongside Putin, Sisi, and Haftar to fight radical Islam in Libya fits neatly into his worldview.
But supporting Haftar would be a mistake. Last month, General Thomas Waldhauser, head of Pentagon’s Africa Command, stated, “We must carefully choose where and with whom we work with to counter ISIS-Libya in order not to shift the balance between factions and risk sparking greater conflict in Libya.”[vii] If Trump switched alliances, he would embolden the most extreme elements within Libya’s opposition groups, antagonize the GNA and Misrata, and provide fodder for anti-US terrorist groups like ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia (the al-Qa’ida affiliate responsible for the Benghazi attacks in 2012) to plot attacks and reclaim a banner of resistance against the United States. Supporting Haftar would also send a negative message to those who seek greater democratic protections in authoritarian Arab regimes like Egypt. In sum, the costs of aligning with Haftar would far outweigh the benefits.
Second, regardless of who Trump chooses to back, how will he respond to Russia’s resurgence in the region? Libya is an underappreciated example of Russia’s renewed influence. Russia opposed the NATO intervention and is committed to the re-installment of Haftar. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister stated, “General Haftar is the real power and he shouldn’t be ignored in the political process” only a few weeks ago.[viii] In the past year, General Haftar visited Moscow twice to meet with Russian foreign defense ministers, including a ceremonial visit aboard Russia’s Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in January.[ix] Last week, Russia deployed a special operations force to an Egyptian base bordering Libya to rebuff an attack by the Benghazi Defense Brigades against an LNA oil port.[x] Given Russia’s commercial and political interests in the country, it is likely to have an enduring presence and will be seen as the key power broker when it comes to setting the conditions for a negotiation.
Trump should strengthen US support for the GNA. He could showcase his negotiation skills and ability to make tough deals by placing pressure on Russia to refocus the LNA’s priorities in the interim. First, the LNA should stop fighting GNA-aligned forces. The LNA has also promised to take the GNA’s western capital in Tripoli and embroiled itself in fighting the Misratans, a US backed-GNA friendly force in central Libya. The Trump administration should point out to Russia that these actions raise incentives for Western countries to back the GNA, harden the coalition’s determination to fight the LNA, and risk the LNA’s overstretch. Second, al-Qa’ida and ISIS affiliated forces threaten to undermine the LNA’s control. Along the eastern coastline, the LNA is fighting multiple fronts against al-Qa’ida affiliated groups, including the Benghazi Defense Brigades and Ansar al-Sharia. By also fighting the GNA, the LNA is giving these groups time to recover and regroup. Gen. Walhauser alluded to this in his commentary, commenting that, “the multiple militias and fractured relationship between factions in east and west Libya exacerbate the security situation… allowing the movement of foreign fighters, enabling the flow of migrants out of Libya to Europe and elsewhere.” Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who oversees US special operations forces in Africa, added that ISIS “is looking to work gaps and seams, and doing it all over again to gain a foothold, influencing the populace.” Finally, the Trump administration ought to remind General Haftar not to forget the mistakes of his former leader, Muammar Gaddafi. If the LNA refuses to accommodate other groups and help rebuild civil society, then its consolidation over Libya would be short-lived and potentially provoke another revolutionary war.[xi]
While a political negotiation between the GNA and LNA is unlikely to resurface anytime soon, external parties should continue to help stabilize the region and set conditions for an eventual negotiation. By striking a deal with Russia to redirect the LNA’s focus on the GNA, Trump would allow the GNA to rebuild and also create the political space for future talks with Russia. Even though Haftar walked away from the last agreement, the fact he even came to the table to meet the GNA’s leader cannot be underscored enough. Though tenuous, stabilization in Libya could be possible if the right communication channels are opened. Trump ought to seize this opportunity, or else face the repercussions of another country’s spiral downward in the Middle East, with Russia leading in the front.
[i] Dan Lamonthe and Michael Birnbaum, “Trump and Putin are discussing military cooperation in Syria. Mattis says Russia must ‘prove itself first.’ Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/02/16/trump-and-putin-are-discussing-military-cooperation-in-syria-mattis-says-russia-must-prove-itself-first/?utm_term=.86a5c8641902.
[ii] Henry Meyer, “Russia Urges Trump to Help Fix Syria, Libya Crises Amid Setbacks,” Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-03-03/russia-urges-trump-to-help-fix-syria-libya-crises-amid-setbacks.
[iii] Kim Sengupta, “Libya, not Syria, will be the foundation on which Trump and Putin build their new world order,” The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/trump-putin-libya-nato-fayez-seraj-khalifa-haftar-new-world-order-a7586256.html.
[iv] Yury Barmin, “How serious is Russia’s commitment to Libya settlement?” Al-Monitor, February 23, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/02/russia-commitment-settlement-libya-fayyad.html#ixzz4bdWvRXpihttp://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/02/russia-commitment-settlement-libya-fayyad.html.
[v] Ben Fishman, “Shifting International Support for Libya’s Unity Government,” The Washington Institute, 19 January 2017, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/shifting-international-support-for-libyas-unity-government.
[vi] “Donald Trump Pants on Fire claim he never discussed Libya intervention,” Politifact, February 25, 2016, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/feb/25/donald-trump/donald-trumps-pants-fire-claim-he-never-discussed-/.
[vii] Eric Schmitt, “Warnings of a ‘Powder Keg’ in Libya as ISIS Regroups,” New York Times, March 21, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/world/africa/libya-isis.html.
[viii] “Russia Urges Trump to Help Fix Syria, Libya Crises Amid Setbacks,” March 3, 2017, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-03-03/russia-urges-trump-to-help-fix-syria-libya-crises-amid-setbacks.
[x] “Exclusive: Russia appears to deploy forces in Egypt, eyes on Libya role – sources,” Reuters, March 14, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-libya-exclusive-idUSKBN16K2RY.
[xi] Frederic Wehrey, Wolfram Lacher “Libya After ISIS,” Carnegie Endowment http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/02/22/libya-after-isis-pub-68096.