Will Trump and Putin Cooperate on the Libyan Theater?

Trump’s team are exploring the option of supporting Libya’s strongman General Haftar, reported the Independent.

According to the London-based newspaper, the new US administration “may think Libya a less sensitive theater to cooperate with the Russians on counter-terrorism than in Syria.” It also added that they may find Haftar as being effective as Daesh [ISIS]  is running around in the North African country.

The focus of NATO conference in Brussels, which is the first since Donald Trump reached the White House, was on the message he sent to an organization of Western allies he had called “obsolete” while speaking of his admiration for Vladimir Putin.

“The message, a veiled threat, conveyed by US defense secretary James Mattis, was that the continuing failure of the alliance to pay its share on security would lead to the US reevaluating its commitment to the defense of Europe. That and the continuing fallout over Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s departure after clandestine contacts with the Russians, were the sources of fascination and foreboding here, “said the Independent.

On the other hand, NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced at the end of the summit that the alliance is likely to provide security support to the UN backed government of Fayez al-Serraj.

As a result, this is likely to have great resonance in relations between NATO, the US and Russia, Trump and Putin.

Stoltenberg said, “We have said for some time that we are ready to help Libya but that any assistance has to be based on a request from the Libyan government.” He added, “This is the request we received yesterday – training local forces is one of the best weapons in the fight against terrorism and building stability.”

Six years ago, turmoil has spared in Libya since David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy instigated NATO’s military intervention that overthrew the long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Accordingly, Libya is now the main conduit for hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and also the lawless place where ISIS has established its main base for carrying out attacks in the Maghreb.

It is worth to mention that special forces of Western countries are already in action in Libya – the US has carried out airstrikes on ISIS in Sirte and other Islamist terrorists.

“But any formal deployment of forces by NATO faces problems. There is the danger of mission creep: being sucked into a violent and semi-anarchic quagmire, as well as the fact that the Government of National Accord, headed by Fayez al-Serraj, which NATO is supposed to prop up, has very little territory and very little power,” according to the Independent.

However, the man who claims to wield real power – an aspiring new Gaddafi according to his enemies – is former general Khalifa Haftar with his militia the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Haftar is supported by Egypt and the UAE whose warplanes have carried out airstrikes in his support. In addition, he has now the support of a Russia expanding its influence across the Middle-East and North Africa.

Last year, Haftar went to Moscow twice to seek help and then turned up on board the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov as it was returning from waters off the coast of Syria where it had been part of the blitzkrieg enabling Bashar al-Assad to recapture Aleppo.

General Haftar met on board with the Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu, to discuss, according to the Kremlin, “fighting international terrorist groups in the Middle East.”

In fact, Obama administration had previously refused to deal with General Haftar but the Libyan commander and his backers, the parliament in Benghazi, one of the country’s three governments, said that they “are also now optimistic that they will get the support of the Trump administration.”

This optimism resides from the close relation between Egypt’s military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Haftar’s ally, and the new US President as he shares close ideas with Trump’s policies against extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. Al-Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump after his victory in the US elections.

As a result, al-Sisi of Egypt would likely promote Haftar as one of the bulwarks against extremism in Libya. In this context, the Independent newspaper reported that al-Sisi “has been pressing Washington to switch its support to General Haftar.”

It also added that according to reports, “members of the Trump team have started discussing the Haftar option. “

An American official in Brussels commented, “The Trump people may well think Libya would be a less sensitive theater to cooperate with the Russians on counter-terrorism than Syria: the common conception is that Libya is a mess – we have Daesh [ISIS] running around there and if this guy Haftar is being effective, then maybe he is the man.”

In the same context, some American officials had a feeling, even before Trump’s presidency, that the problems being faced by Europe from Libya were, to an extent, self-induced.

Britain and France were very much “e cheerleaders in getting rid of Colonel Gaddafi, with Washington somewhat dubious about the outcome.”

The military mission was initially French and British led, but the Americans had to step in as shortfalls in equipment and bombs and missiles became apparent.

US defense secretary Leon Panetta warned in his speech to NATO at the end of the conflict that “legitimate questions about whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations we have seen in Libya without the US taking on even more of the burden.”

“The “trends” that Panetta was talking about was most of NATO not paying their way for the defense of the alliance,” according to the Independent.

American officials pointed out that Mattis was having to make the same point again, much more forcefully, this week, six years later.

At the moment, the issue of money is not an obstacle for General Khalifa Haftar at the moment. “Russia has printed 4 billion Libyan Dinars (around $2.8 billion) on contract to the Libyan Central Bank which it has transferred it to his backers in Benghazi. “

In addition, Haftar now claims that Moscow will enable him to spend the money legitimately by helping to lift the UN arms embargo in place since 2011. “This allows only the UN-backed GNC administration in Tripoli to bring in weapons with the approval of the UN Security Council Committee.”

However, General Haftar does not lack weapons as they flow on regular basis from Arab states backing him and his militias to be the most effective non-Islamist force in Libya.

NATO and the EU had been trying to convince Haftar to come to an agreement with al-Serraj’s General National Council, namely that he retains military command while accepting the UN backed government.

Earlier this month, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson said “General Haftar can be persuaded that he can be a big part of the future of Libya but without necessarily having to be a new jefe.”

However, the efforts to this end have been fruitless with General Haftar increasingly empowered by “the backing of his international friends,”said the Independent.

Italian foreign minister Angeleno Afano was due to ask for help on the issue from Sergey Lavrov at a meeting of foreign ministers in Bonn,“But news from there was dominated by the first meeting between Russia’s foreign minister and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s new secretary of state, “as reported by UK newspaper.

In the end, the British newspaper pointed that what happens in Libya, as in so much else in the tide of current geopolitics, “is likely to be decided by how relations evolve between Trump and Putin; the forming of the new order, with other international players increasingly on the sideline.”