US confused policy on Libya encourages Turkey

Washington has kept a perplexing silence about Ankara’s transfer of thousands of militants from Idlib.
Thursday 11/06/2020
Militants loyal to Libya’s Turkish-backed government in Tripoli. (REUTERS)
Militants loyal to Libya’s Turkish-backed government in Tripoli. (REUTERS)

TUNIS –Ankara is taking advantage of the US’s confused policy in Libya and President Donald Trump’s preoccupation with the volatile situation in the US since the killing of an African-American citizen by a white policeman to torpedo international efforts to stop the fighting in Libya, which are seen by many as the last chance to prevent the conflict from slipping into a new phase that could lead to greater Russian intervention and ultimately the “Syrianisation” of the conflict.

On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced his country’s rejection of the Egyptian initiative to solve the Libyan crisis, describing it as an attempt to save Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar after the losses he suffered on the battlefield.

“The effort for a Cairo cease fire was stillborn,” Cavusoglu told a Turkish newspaper. “If a cease-fire is to be signed, it should be across a platform that brings all sides together.”

Turkey’s position defies the US National Security Council’s support of the Cairo initiative. On Sunday, the Council said it was hoping that the Egyptian peace initiative on Libya would lead to a ceasefire, the withdrawal of foreign forces and the return of UN-led political negotiations.

For his part, President Donald Trump welcomed, during a telephone conversation on Wednesday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian efforts towards a political settlement in Libya, and towards ending the violence there by supporting a ceasefire, and acting to implement the will of the Libyan people and their desire for security and stability. Trump’s move signals the beginning of the White House’s efforts to retake control of the Libyan file from the Department of State.

Some, however, have described the US support for the ceasefire in Libya as just a “formal” gesture, saying that the US is more likely to back Ankara’s intransigence and its persistence in continuing the fighting until it achieves control of all military bases and oil fields and terminals. And it is this scenario that could prompt Russia to intervene directly in Libya, considering the weak capabilities of the LNA to face up to Turkey.

Former US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman and former Deputy Commander of the US European Command General Charles Wald said the subversive role played by the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Libya constituted a threat to the vital interests of the United States and a direct challenge to Washington’s efforts to encourage energy projects for peaceful purposes in the Middle East.

Edelman and Wald considered that the Trump administration’s reluctance to lead any initiatives to stop confrontations in Libya gave way to the aggressive Turkish intervention in Libya, which is exacerbating the conflict there. Both former officials were quoted in statements to the digital magazine Breaking Defense as insisting that Erdogan’s actions in Libya give the opportunity for the terrorist organisation ISIS to reorganise its ranks and expose Europe to a new wave of refugees and migrants.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Turkish intervention in Libya is Erdogan’s transfer of thousands of Syrian extremists from Idlib to Tripoli, which represents a tremendous security threat not only to Libya but also to the entire region. The American administration, however, has been observing a perplexing silence regarding this particular aspect.

Turkey has been accused by the LNA of supporting militias and extremist Islamist groups since the fall of the late Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. That covert and indirect support in the beginning became full blown and in broad daylight a few months following the launching of the LNA’s military campaign against Tripoli.

With the signing of the security and military cooperation memo of understanding and the maritime border demarcation agreement by Erdogan and the GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Turkish intervention intensified.

US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland found the Turkish intervention in Libya justified since it came in response to Russia’s intervention, he said. The ambassador’s excuses were seen by many as part of a political and media campaign led by the US Department of State meant to exaggerate Russia’s role in Libya and find justification for America’s support of Islamists and their militias, even though the latter were behind the 2012 assassination in Benghazi of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. That happened before Haftar’s LNA liberated the city and kicked the extremist groups out.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not miss the opportunity to highlight the Russian intervention but chose not to mention Turkish intransigence. “It’s time … for all Libyans and all sides to act so that neither Russia or any other country can interfere in Libya’s sovereignty for its own game,” Pompeo said.

Be that as it may, the US position on the crisis in Libya was and still is confused. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump made a big deal of the situation in Libya and promised to get rid of the militias there, accusing his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who was then secretary of state in the Obama administration, of supporting the chaos in Libya.

Just a few days after the launching of the battle for Tripoli, Trump made a phone call to Haftar, which many considered as a sign of the White House’s backing of the campaign. But then the Islamists regained their composure and dispatched the GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to Washington, where he met with a number of US officials, especially in the State Department.

Many also believe that the resignation last September of former US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was known for his hostility to the Islamists, must have opened the way for supporters of the Sarraj government in Tripoli to move freely and impose their views on the US administration.