Trump steps back from involving himself in Libya’s bloody civil war

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US President Donald Trump holds a roundtable discussion with African American leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, June 10, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

As several countries come to the aid of warring factions in Libya, President Donald Trump has found himself caught in the middle of a group of strongmen he’s forged close ties with during his presidency, prompting him to stay out of the fray and let them fend for themselves.

Recent pleas by the leaders of Turkey, Egypt and others for Trump to get involved in the conflict have fallen on deaf ears, several foreign and US officials tell CNN. The Trump White House had taken an active interest in the conflict in 2019, reaching out to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the warlord leading an offensive against the country’s United Nations-backed government. But in recent months, the President’s stance has changed, with Trump telling those leaders that he’d rather not get involved in another messy Middle Eastern conflict.

In particular, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt have worked to convince Trump to get involved diplomatically and put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down from its own objectives in the country. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, have also weighed in, these officials said.

Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s ally in Libya, rebel commander, Gen. Haftar, suffered a string of defeats in recent months as his militias tried to oust the government in Tripoli so he could install himself as Libya’s ruler.

Turkey, Italy and Qatar, meanwhile, are collectively trying to prop up Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord. In recent days, the likelihood of a full-blown conflict breaking out increased after Egypt’s parliament green lighted the deployment of troops to Libya in support of Haftar’s rebel forces.

Trump has told all of them that he would rather avoid being involved ahead of the presidential election with so many other domestic issues weighing him down and urged them to sort the issue out amongst themselves, these officials said.

Erdogan is ‘constantly calling’ Trump

A US and Turkish official said that Erdogan is “constantly calling the President” to get him to get Russia to back down. The two governments don’t always provide readouts for those calls, the officials noted.

Trump has extolled his ties to other world leaders known for authoritarian methods, including Putin, el-Sisi and Erdogan. He hasn’t publicly admonished any of those countries for their human rights record, nor has he urged against some of their controversial military endeavors, instead, accepting the explanation that they are fighting extremists.

Even as the potential for war in Libya grows, Trump has not sought to talk any of his allies off their perch of a full-blown conflict.

“The President usually tells them, ‘do what you need to do. I’m not going to tell you what to do’,” one US official said.

Russia and Turkey’s backing of opposing sides in the Libyan civil war is part of a competition for future investment opportunities, including oil contracts worth billions, in the oil-rich country. France, Greece and other European nations have taken an interest in the conflict escalating on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, warning that Russia’s involvement speaks to its interest in having a strong presence at Europe’s southern doorstep.

In recent weeks, fighters loyal to Libya’s government, supported by Turkey, pushed closer to the oil-rich city of Sirte on the Mediterranean Sea coast, ready for battle. Thousands of Russian military contractors with armored vehicles and Syrian militiamen have also surrounded the city in recent days in an effort to bolster forces loyal to Haftar.

The State Department has participated in some talks regarding Libya’s future, as the conflict rages on. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took part this year in a Libya summit hosted in Berlin, where countries including France, Russia and Turkey laid out a cease-fire plan, which ultimately failed, and called for an end to violence despite their own surreptitious support to the warring factions.

Mixed messages

But some accuse Washington of confusing things with mixed messages. Under former national security adviser John Bolton, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt successfully lobbied Trump to shift US policy in Libya and reach out to Haftar, a senior US administration official and two Saudi officials said. Saudi Arabia’s bin Salman and Egypt’s el-Sisi urged Trump to back Haftar. Trump agreed, reaching out to Haftar in April 2019 to discuss “a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system,” the White House said. Bolton also had a separate conversation with Haftar during his tenure.

Those calls had marked a significant shift in Washington’s position, which, until then, had unequivocally supported the UN-recognized government in Tripoli and worked with it in the war on Islamic State.

Officials tell CNN that Bolton and others in his circle had convinced the White House that a bet on Haftar, who vows to root out Islamists who have taken hold of Libya in the post-Qaddafi era, was more promising than any State Department view, which one official described as “very much in the Turkey camp, but with the view that Russia is a bad actor.”

On Tuesday, Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said in a statement that the US strongly opposes “foreign military involvement, including the use of mercenaries and private military contractors, by all sides,” while falling short of mentioning Russia or any other actors by name.

The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control then announced on Thursday sanctions against individuals which it said had contributed to instability in Libya through smuggling. But ultimately, O’Brien emphasized that the US is “an active, but neutral actor” in the Libya conflict, noting in his statement that “it is clear there is no ‘winning’ side.”