LONDON: If you think Syria is complicated, take a look at Libya. The 16th largest country in the world, with the 10th largest proven oil reserves of any country, Libya is still reeling from the revolution which was ignited in Benghazi in February 2011. Following eight months of fighting, the long-term dictator Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed in Sirte, half way between the significant cities of Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east. The National Transitional Council, which had been recognised by the UN in September as the legal representative of Libya, replacing the Gaddafi government, declared “the liberation” of Libya on 23 October 2011. There was a huge sense of euphoria in the West, following the assistance given to the rebels by France, Britain and the United States among others, suggesting that Libya would be a model of success in the Middle East. Six years on, chaos reigns, with three governments, two parliaments, three armies and a huge number of militias. Half of the Libyan population, some three million people, have emigrated either to Tunisia or Egypt, seeking safety and a decent way of life. Not having learned the lessons of Iraq, the western powers repeated the mistake of ridding a country of a dictator and walking away, leaving a vacuum. President Barack Obama conceded on Fox News last year that the intervention “didn’t work”. He went on to admit that the biggest mistake of his presidency was the lack of planning for the aftermath of the removal of Gaddafi, which left the country spiralling into chaos and coming under the threat from violent extremists.
A solution is emerging, surprisingly in the form of a fellow officer of the young Gaddafi, Khalifa Haftar. Haftar took part in the coup, along with Gaddafi, against King Idris in 1969. Coming from a Bedouin background, Haftar believed that the army would be Libya’s salvation. Disillusioned with Gaddafi, following the failed war against Chad, when he was taken prisoner, Haftar accepted a US offer of freedom for defecting from Gaddafi and joining an exile brigade in Chad, the Libyan National Army. When a later pro-Libyan coup took place in Chad, Haftar moved to the US, setting up a home in Virginia, a stone’s throw from the CIA headquarters in Langley. Here it is said that in the 1980s a team of CIA trainers put him and his small band of fighters through a programme of sabotage and tactics that they hoped would one day allow him to go home and topple Gaddafi. Haftar’s star waxed and waned according to the West’s relationship with Gaddafi and after Tony Blair’s famous desert meeting with Gaddafi in 2004, it seemed that exile armies were a thing of the past and the CIA cut funding for Haftar’s brigade.
Without US help, Haftar went back to Benghazi, when the Libyan uprising began in 2011. Tainted by his former association with Gaddafi, which he found difficult to shake off, Haftar was relegated to number two below former intelligence chief Abdel Fatah Younis in the Government of National Accord (GNA) backed by the UN, a position he found insulting. In February 2014, the 71-year-old Haftar announced that another coup was taking place and that his troops had been deployed across the city “to correct the path of the 2011 revolution” he said. But nothing happened and at best he appeared to be abandoned, at worst he seemed deluded. He returned to Virginia. A year later, things looked particularly bad in Libya, with the jihadists controlling many cities and with most of oil production stopped. Haftar returned to Libya to head the Libyan National Army, now backed by Russia and Egypt. With considerable success fighting the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), Al Qaeda and brigades aligned to the UN-backed GNA, Haftar, now a Field Marshall, is currently considered one of the most serious contenders for leadership of the country, although also one of its most controversial characters.
Russia is showing considerable interest in Haftar, who may represent the Kremlin’s most obvious route to stability in Libya. As the Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, passed by on its return to Russia on 11 January this year, Haftar was flown on-board from where it was reported by the Russian news agency RIA he had discussions with Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu via a video link. Last week the Russian oil company Rosneft signed an agreement with the National Oil Company of Libya which “lays the foundation for us jointly to identify areas of cooperation”, said NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla. The goal is to increase production from the current 675,000 barrels of oil per day to 2.1 million, with the help of foreign investment. As Haftar’s forces control most of the areas of oil production, this move will enhance his position even further, as Russia is eager to recover its substantial oil investments and infrastructure lost in the post-revolution period.
The EU is wary of Haftar becoming leader and is trying to persuade Russia to support a civilian government, with Haftar being the head of the armed forces. Although the EU is desperate to solve the problem of the thousands of refugees leaving the northern coast of Libya in search of a better life in Europe, it is equally concerned at the growing hegemony of Russia in the Middle East. These EU efforts will not be successful, as Russia has everything to gain from supporting Haftar and President Putin would welcome a warm-water port on the North African coast in the Mediterranean in addition to that of Tartus in Syria.
Enter President Donald Trump, who is reported to be wildly popular in Libya. There is a huge opportunity for Trump to seize the initiative and engage with the various groups who are tired of negotiations with the failing GNA, which, they, consider are going nowhere. Although the Obama administration assisted with air strikes against ISIS in Misrata, his second term was one of neglect in Libya. Now is Trump’s opportunity and if he acts quickly, and he must act quickly in order to prevent Russia from controlling events, he could bring together the various stakeholders in Libya to hammer out a solution acceptable to the various factions. Swift action is also important to prevent the rump of ISIS in Libya from contaminating the neighbouring states of Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.
This is the first opportunity for Trump to work with Putin to solve an international problem. In the person of Haftar, who holds US citizenship yet is favoured by Russia, both supremos have a potential leader who can gain the respect of most players in this conflict. The question is, will this opportunity be seized or even recognised?
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.