General Haftar’s Libyan National Army advances into Tripoli in May 2019. Photo Credit: Reuters, May 4 2019.
In October 2019, President Trump announced that US troops would be leaving northern Syria, which caused backlash from politicians and the American public concerned about abandoning US allies. This vacillation in US policy is similar to the current situation in Libya, where President Trump has sent mixed messages to Libya’s U.N.-backed government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), and the competing government of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Haftar. The Trump Administration’s decision to ostensibly support both parties vying for power in Libya has propelled other states in the region to continue pouring supplies and arms to their preferred side, intensifying the ongoing violence. If the U.S. continues to demonstrate a lack of commitment toward the GNA, then the current civil war will exacerbate the growth of Libyan Islamic fundamentalists and Libyan democracy will be stifled for decades to come.
In December 2018, President Trump expressed his support for Libya’s GNA and stated that “The United States is committed to supporting the Libyan people as they seek to build a realistic and peaceful constitutional process in accordance with the United Nations’s political plan.” [i] Yet, by the following spring, Trump and Haftar spoke on the phone, which resulted in the White House supporting the LNA’s expansive military efforts to defeat Libyan Islamist groups and the GNA. After the call, a White House official stated “that 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 of Libya’s transition on a stable, democratic political system.’”[ii] Making matters more complicated, the Administration then backtracked verbal support for the LNA’s General Haftar in June of 2019. This vacillation on Libyan policy has only further exacerbated the Libyan civil war.
To date, the American noncommittal approach toward both governments in Libya has served as a green light for General Haftar to seize control of Libya, which has led to strengthened Islamic groups across the country. In April 2019, General Haftar and the Libyan National Army used coercive military action with the intention of defeating the rival Government of National Accord and Islamic fundamentalist groups.[iii] However, Haftar’s power grab and counterterrorism operations were unsuccessful. Haftar’s operations resulted in collaboration and unification of differing Islamic groups across Libya. Ideologically different Sunni groups with differing hopes for Libya’s future —such as the Ansar al-Sharia, the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, and 17 February Brigade—have united under the umbrella name of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council with the intention of defeating General Haftar.[iv] Furthermore, Haftar’s brutal tactics against Libyan Islamists and civilians, who are not committed to a certain side, have aided in the recruitment efforts of Islamic fundamentalist groups.[v] For instance, Haftar’s “forces have looted and burned homes, and carried out summary executions,” resulting in the displacement of over 100,000 Libyans, while Haftar describes these people as all “families of terrorists.”[vi] Haftar’s hope of defeating all Islamist rebel groups who do not support his cause is impractical and his actions further fuel jihadists’ support.
Decelerating the growth of extreme Islamist groups in Libya will require the United States to play an active role, placing pressure on General Haftar to halt future operations to topple the Government of National Accord. Not all, but a significant number of Islamist groups in Libya desire democracy and have placed their hope in the Government of National Accord.[vii] If the United States firmly supports the GNA, then the perceived credibility of the GNA is likely to increase, attracting numerous moderate Islamist groups to work with it. At the very least, such a decision by the United States would deter Haftar from continuing to advance militarily, which will decrease the number of radical Islamists that are being created by his actions.
Additionally, as the United States continues to be noncommittal on its policy towards Libya, other states in the region—such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan— have committed to backing Haftar, who intends to lead through the use of brutal force and suppression rather than through the promotion of democratic values.[viii] Although Haftar has stated in the past that he intends to pursue democracy in Libya and defeat radical Islamist groups, these are only talking points intended to pull Western states toward his side. Currently, Haftar is following the model of Egyptian President el-Sisi. After seizing the Egyptian presidency in a coup in 2014, el-Sisi proclaimed that he intended to bring democracy and stop terrorism in Egypt. In the following years, the Egyptian government flattened any dissent, jailed thousands of nonconformists, and passed laws prohibiting all unauthorized protests.[ix] In 2016, el-Sisi announced that “the Egyptian people declare to the entire world that they have laid the foundation of a democratic system and rebuilt constitutional institutions.”[x] Without firm US support for the Government of National Accord, Haftar will continue employing violent tactics to suppress the Libyan people, and eventually, Haftar will govern Libya in a similar fashion to el-Sisi in Egypt.
The absence of firm US support for the GNA will likely result in Haftar leading Libya as a brutal dictator—as former Libyan leader Qaddafi did—for decades to come. Furthermore, the United States must place pressure on other regional U.S. allies—such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan—to halt their monetary and material support for Haftar. By halting the flow of weapons and ammunition to Haftar, the number of military operations conducted by the Libyan National Army will also be diminished.
[i] Khaled Mahmoud, “Trump Voices Support for Libya’s GNA,” December 22, 2018, Asharq Al-Awsat, https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1515321/trump-voices-support-libya%E2%80%99s-gna
[ii] Dan De Luce, “Libyan government appeals for U.S. backing after ‘confusing’ message from Trump,” June 6, 2019, NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/libyan-government-appeals-un-backing-after-confusing-message-trump-n1014471
[iii] Emily Estelle, “Al Qaeda and the Islamic State Will Be the Winners of the Libyan Civil War,” April 10, 2019, American Enterprise Institute, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/al-qaeda-and-the-islamic-state-will-be-the-winners-of-the-libyan-civil-war.
David D. Kirkpatrick, “Thugs and Extremists Join Battle for Tripoli, Complicating Libyan Fray,” April 12, 2019, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/12/world/africa/tripoli-libya-hifter.html.
[v] Borzou Daragahi, “Khalifa Haftar: Libya warlord’s march on Tripoli unites rivals against him,” April 8, 2019, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/khalifa-haftar-libya-war-tripoli-army-a8860481.html
[vii] Cameron Glenn, “Libya’s Islamists: Who They Are – And What They Want,” August 8, 2017, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/libyas-islamists-who-they-are-and-what-they-want
[viii] Guma el-Gamaty, “Haftar’s war aims to return Libya to military dictatorship. He must be stopped,” April 17, 2019, Middle East Eye, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/haftars-war-aims-return-libya-military-dictatorship-he-must-be-stopped
[ix] The New Arab, “President Sisi says democracy is returning to Egypt,” February 13, 2016, The New Arab, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/2/13/president-sisi-says-democracy-is-returning-to-egypt.