TSG IntelBrief: The Trump Administration and the Prospects for Libya
January 13, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• As U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office next week, the conflicting interests of international powers in Libya may prod his administration to drastically rethink U.S. strategy toward the country.
• In the context of Libya’s fledgling unity government, both Russia and the Trump administration may see an opportunity to collaborate on one of Trump’s signature foreign policy goals—the fight against terrorism.
• The potential for U.S.-Russian collaboration in support of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar would require a significant shift in U.S. strategy.
• Such a shift would likely contradict the policies of U.S. allies in the EU and the UN, both of which have been largely consistent in their support for the Government of National Accord.
On January 11, Libyan General Khalifa Haftar took a high-profile tour of Russia’s sole aircraft carrier as it returned home from supporting Russian military operations in Syria. The event is the latest indication of the Kremlin’s increasingly public intention to support the military strongman currently dominating eastern Libya—even in contravention to U.S., EU, and UN policy. As U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office next week, the conflicting interests of international powers in Libya—as well as the evident failures of the current U.S. policy—may prod his administration to drastically rethink U.S. strategy toward the country.
After a year of international support for Libya’s unity Government of National Accord (GNA), the fledgling government has largely failed to extend its writ outside of a small compound in Tripoli. Despite some notable GNA successes—including the expulsion of the so-called Islamic State from Sirte—Libya remains a violent and deeply fractured state. The Western strategy of coupling political support for the GNA with military assistance to its affiliated militias has so far failed to generate substantive political support for the unity government among Libyans on the ground. In light of the consistent refusal of the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR)—the political powerbase of Haftar’s military forces—as well as other powerful groups in Libya to recognize the GNA’s authority, the feasibility of the GNA itself appears increasingly tenuous. The failure of the GNA to achieve meaningful change has prompted the resignation of some of its senior leaders along with a slew of challenges by rival militias.
In the context of a weak GNA, both Russia and the Trump administration may see an opportunity to collaborate on one of Trump’s signature foreign policy goals—the fight against terrorism. Should broader U.S.-Russia reconciliation—a declared pillar of Trump’s foreign policy—manifest itself in Libya, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) currently presents the most likely force with which the two countries could ally. As a secular military strongman whose ostensible raison d’être is to defeat terrorism and ensure stability at all costs, Haftar fits the favored profile of both Russia and the Trump administration. Adding to Haftar’s appeal is his already dominant position among Libyan military groups, which he recently bolstered by seizing the majority of Libya’s oil infrastructure, as well as several victories over Islamist forces in the country’s east. Thus, Haftar is already well-positioned to partner with the U.S. and Russia to combat terror groups in Libya.
However, any potential U.S.-Russia collaboration in support of Haftar would require a significant shift in U.S. strategy and would likely contradict the policies of U.S. allies in Europe and the UN, both of which have been largely consistent in their support for the GNA. Currently, two UN Security Council resolutions effectively restrict Haftar’s ability to import arms and to export oil independently, both of which would likely need to be repealed for the LNA to take on the forces aligned against it. One possibility for sidelining these restrictions would be for the U.S. and its allies to persuade the GNA to give Haftar a military role in the organization itself. However, both Haftar and the GNA have repeatedly balked at the suggestion of power sharing. Otherwise, the U.S. would need to support a measure in the UN Security Council for these restrictions to be lifted, likely against the strong objections of some of its European allies. An even greater challenge to extending the LNA’s control throughout all of Libya is the array of Islamist and GNA-affiliated groups aligned against it. The LNA dominates the country’s east, and despite its clear military advantage, Haftar’s effort to expand would face fierce resistance from a variety of powerful militia and terror groups. Thus, as the Trump administration seeks to stabilize Libya and prevent the proliferation of terrorism, any collaboration with Russia would likely be frustrated by the country’s fractious and violent political dynamics, and the competing interests of outside powers.
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