For over a year, the United States has been disengaged from Libya’s turmoil, with President Donald Trump declaring America had “no interest” in its interminable civil war. That all changed last Friday December 1st, when the President abruptly announced a rethink in a meeting with the head of Libya’s UN-backed Government National Accord (GNA), Fayez Sarraj to declare his “commitment to helping the Libyan people realize a more stable, unified, and prosperous future.”
For some, the engagement of the world’s only hyper-power in Libya’s chaos is just the shot in the arm that the UN’s Libya envoy, Ghassan Salame, needs as he struggles to end the fighting. But the potential for "mission creep" remains high. However noble Trumps intentions toward Libya might be, the UN-chosen Government of National Accord is a dog that don’t hunt.
Its creation was spearheaded by the Obama administration two years ago this month, throwing support behind the Muslim Brotherhood friendly UN-named Prime Minister Fayez Serraj and eight other Libyans -- nominated by a UN commission - to run the country and end the civil war.
Libyan Prime Minister Al-Serraj meeting with the President Trump at the White House on December 1st. Image source: Libyan GNA Media Office
But the GNA has done no such thing. Two of the nine presidency members have quit, and the GNA itself, having no national legitimacy or popular support, is a government in name only, occupying a Tripoli naval base because the city itself is held by all-powerful squabbling militias.
This is Serraj’s Army: paid mercenaries who are a loose coalition of militias. Those militias, which seized power from the legitimate parliament back in 2014, are fighting amongst themselves, which is one reason why in the past twelve months they have endured a string of defeats against the eastern army of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army is bigger, better armed and trained than the militias and has been rolling them up in a series of offensives that have captured the eastern oil crescent, home to most of Libya’s oil, along with Benghazi, the eastern capital. Those successes have crushed Islamist militias, some aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) which the Obama administration favored as a key bulwark to Libyan stability - even though most Libyans long since rejected them. Not forgetting many Arab countries designate the MB as a terrorist organisation, including American allies UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
The UN and some European Union powers still cling to the myth that the GNA, unelected and unloved, can become a true unity government, forgetting that Haftar, and a rival government in the eastern city of Al Baida, now control most of the country along with its oil. Neither is willing to cut a deal with the GNA, Serraj, or the Islamist and Misratan militias that control Tripoli and western Libya. Instead, they are demanding that the militias who have dominated the capital since the 2011 revolution disband and hand themselves over to regular police and army formations.
Trump’s statement backs joint actions against terrorist formations, with the United States continuing to launch episodic air strikes against Islamic State formations in Libya’s central desert. But it is naive to call for “bilateral engagement in several areas” with the GNA which is a government in name only.
Is military engagement in yet another country by US Forces what the American people want?
Other powers have come to realise that Haftar and the east now calls the shots in Libya. In January, Russia treated the Field Marshall to a full dress parade aboard one of its aircraft carriers. In July, France, which provided special forces intelligence operatives to help Haftar battle Islamists in Benghazi, invited him for peace talks with Serraj in Paris, on the understanding that those talks must work towards regular security forces and away from armed brigands.
Serraj has not missed his chance, inspired by his America visit to call for the UN to lift the international arms embargo on Libya but he stated they are for "his forces" not Haftar’s LNA, which means giving weapons to militias. Given that Serraj controls nothing outside a square mile of Tripoli naval base, all such weapons will quickly find their way to militias, and a portion will be sold on to terrorists, even ISIS or Al Qaeda.
Equal pie-in-the-sky has come from Salame who just recently declared Libya will be ready for elections early next year. To which the only sensible response, giving that civil war is raging, is “dream on.”
In response, Haftar’s LNA spokesman Ahmed Al-Mismari reiterated last week that in the end, if Tripoli militias don’t disarm, regular forces must take action. “They (regular army and police) will end the Libyan crisis by decisive military action by the end of this year”. That is a very emphatic statement.
With Benghazi free, courtesy of Haftar not Serraj, the city is rebuilding itself after three years of battle. Flights and shipping can only be to and from Benghazi by order of Haftar. Down the coast, the oil ports are operating again, and eastern Libya is sorting itself out, even as Tripoli and western Libya plunges ever deeper into chaos.
However, US renewed interest in Libya will only make matters worse if that interest means more weapons exported to the country - especially to the various militias representing unelected factions.
Now that Trump seems to want to engage America in Libya, he and Washington bureaucrats could do itself a favor by recognizing that the time for militias, military intervention, and chaos is over, and Libyans yearn for stability.