Checkpoint Asia

Haftar’s Gamble Pays Off, Trump Hitches US Cart to His

Haftar's Tripoli offensive and a well-placed Emirati phone call have caused Trump to defect from the pro-government camp in Libya

The only thing more dangerous than being America’s enemy is being its ally

A great article earlier this month explained that Haftar’s goal in launching an offensive on Tripoli (and announcing its start over Twitter) was not to storm the city, but :

1) to see if his momentum might cause the pro-government militias opposing him to split up, or switch over to his side

2) to disrupt a scheduled UN conference in Libya and to cause external actors such as the UN and other external powers to start treating him as the preeminent force in Libya rather than trying to sideline him as much as possible

It was a risky move since it might as well have resulted in an intervention against him. Indeed on offensive start western powers minus France demanded he stop his offensive, and The New York Times piece ran a piece arguing for the US to stop him.

Luckily for Haftar he has backers  — the United Arab Emirates, and since recently also the Saudis — who are influential in Washington and therefore his gamble paid off.

Already two weeks ago there was a report the US was “eyeing bigger role” for Haftar but as it came from an US official that was both unnamed and former so that wasn’t much. The next eyebrow-raiser came two days ago on the 18th as an attempt to condemn the Tripoli offensive at the UN Security Council fell through because of Russia — and interestingly, the US.

It seemed the US was weighing its options and reconsidering support for the UN-installed government in Tripoli. We now know it was more than that.

The White House has now revealed Trump spoke to Haftar two days before the stuff at the UN, on the 16th, and has released a readout praising Haftar’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources” and claiming the two shared an interest in Libyan democracy:

Trump and Haftar spoke on Monday “to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” according to the White House.

A statement said that Trump “recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” adding that “the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” 

The White House did not say why it delayed giving news of the phone call.

Left unsaid by the White House was that Trump’s call to Haftar came moments after he had spoken to UAE.

As Daniel Larison over at The American Conservative points out key to all of this is that Tripoli’s main backer is Qatar while for Haftar it is the UAE.

UAE and the Saudis have a vendetta against Qatar and are blockading it for its support for the populist Muslim Brotherhood. It is a standoff in which Trump has already thrown in with the richer Saudis and the Emiratis against the Qataris.

By switching from Tripoli to Haftar Trump is really switching from Qatar to UAE in Libya just as he already done in the Gulf:

We may have our explanation for the U.S. position now. Trump appears to be throwing our government’s support behind the man responsible for escalating the fighting in Libya, and it seems that he is doing so at the behest of the UAE and perhaps the Saudis and Egypt as well.

The administration probably wouldn’t publicize the call with Haftar unless they wanted to show support for him. If the U.S. were still opposed to Haftar’s offensive and if it still supported the government in Tripoli, Trump wouldn’t be having a friendly chat with him and our government wouldn’t be blocking a ceasefire resolution at the U.N.

Ironically, Haftar’s Tripoli offensive has not caused any of the pro-government militias to switch sides to him, but it has caused the US to do so. It is a sad day indeed when rag-tag tribal, Islamist, and bandit militias are made of sterner stuff than the world’s “indispensable power”.