Dr. Theodore Karasik
Last week’s Libya talks in Cairo may have cemented the beleaguered country’s future. UN-installed Government of National Accord (GNA) Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, from Tripoli, failed to meet with Libyan Field Marshal Kahlifa Haftar.
The meeting was a non-starter for Serraj who bore witness to Egypt’s chief-of-staff, Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy, trying to get the Libyan Field Marshal to talk with the GNA prime minister.
Egypt’s unwavering support for Haftar, who is solidifying control over Benghazi and the oil-rich Sirte Basin in Libya’s historical Cyrenaica, with his powerful Libyan National Army (LNA), is preparing to push for a logical conclusion to Libya’s Civil War.
There is no doubt that Haftar’s forces are going to attempt regime change in Tripoli – again – in order to ‘liberate’ the city from not only the weak GNA but also the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and a hodge-podge of militias and groups. Haftar’s ability to gain support from Misrata and Zintan families as well as support from the Warfalla and Tebu tribes. Following the failed Cairo talks, the Field Marshal told an Egyptian TV channel that his army comprises 60,000 skilled servicemen, including many trained in urban combat.
Russia is needed
Haftar wants a major role in any future unified Libyan government. Serraj is in no position to give such responsibility to the Field Marshal who is universally hated by Tripoli-based politicos and militias. The potential for the GNA to become irrelevant this year is real.
Egypt had called the talks between the GNA and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) where Haftar supports the latter. But despite strong efforts by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi, he could not convince Haftar to hold the meeting. After a day of waiting, Serraj left Cairo empty-handed. What happened next seems to have sealed Serraj’s fate. A GCC official said: “After Serraj and Haftar left Cairo, President Sisi hosted the Tunisian and Algerian military commanders to discuss supporting Haftar and the need to coordinate as Tripoli falls.”
Egypt’s support for Haftar is not possible without Russia. The Kremlin is steadily becoming Haftar’s largest and significant backer. Haftar’s multiple visits to Russia as well as the Field Marshal’s visit aboard the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov for talks on defense cooperation speaks volumes about the bi-lateral relationship between the LNA and Moscow.
Russia, in backing Haftar, is now in a powerful position in Libya, with its state oil company, Rosneft, this week signing a cooperation deal with the state oil company, National Oil Corporation, in London. To be sure, Russia’s presence on the ground in Eastern Libya is a signal of Moscow’s intent. According to a Jordanian official, Russian military officials are now touring Haftar’s bases and has less than 100 advisors on the ground supporting Haftar’s LNA.
The Trump administration’s potential for teaming up with Moscow on Libya could create complications for Washington’s relationship with Italy and Turkey. Officials in Rome are busy engaging Russia on the Libya file and trying to convince the Kremlin to push the Tripoli – and Tobruk – based governments towards a negotiated settlement. Italy’s leadership does not believe that the US and/or Russia lending full support to Haftar is a viable strategy for resolving the country’s raging civil war.
Economic and humanitarian challenge
Given Italy’s close proximity to Libya, Rome views the crisis not only as a terrorism threat, but also as a major economic and humanitarian challenge. In truth, although Haftar is popular among many Libyans in certain parts of the country, he is rather divisive on a national scale and it is unclear his forces could fully usurp control of the entire country even with steady support from global and regional actors.
There is a possibility of the Turkish government, which has invested in Islamist causes in Libya since the former regime’s fall six years ago, putting more weaponry into the hands of Haftar’s Islamist enemies. In any event, as Italy and Turkey are two key US allies Libya will represent a major challenge for the Trump administration in terms of Washington’s ties with both Rome and Ankara. The US is seeking to reassure NATO members of its commitment to America’s traditional allies which were somewhat unsettled by Trump’s “America first” and his talk of states protected by the US military shield ‘paying their fair share’ for defense.
Nevertheless, falling US support for the GNA is part of the new Trump administration’s strategy which fits nicely into the potential designation of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose adherents are found in the GNA and in the GNC, as a terrorist organization.
The Trump administration is supporting Egyptian, Russian, Jordanian and UAE military involvement in Libya which is obviously a far cry from the Obama administration’s pro-Tripoli approach. Egypt’s lead in supporting Haftar is a salient part of a winning strategy in Libya. Although pundits are arguing that America needs to not sub-contract Washington’s Libya policy to Egypt there is every reason to believe that Cairo is interested in supporting the Trump Administration in the Middle East.
A word about ISIS in Libya. ISIS lost its grip on Sirte, which until recently was ISIS’s stronghold in Libya, currently controls no territory. Yet ISIS’s fighters have set up sleeper cells in other parts of the country such as the territory southeast of Tripoli, illustrating how it remains a threat to the security of many Libyans. The countries bordering southern Libya such as Algeria, Chad and Niger are fully aware that ISIS could relocate to the Fezzan and carry out operations across those nations’ porous borders into southern Libya where the bulk of Libya’s untapped natural gas lies.
Unfortunately, all of the above suggests that Tripoli’s current instability is a harbinger of a violent struggle for Tripolitania’s capital.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Washington DC-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.