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Will Trump Reverse Obama’s Libya Blunder?

On March 3, combined forces of the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) and factions of the Misurata militias launched an assault on two of the major Libyan oil ports at Sidra and Ras Lanuf, temporarily taking them back from the Libyan National Army, headed by General Khalifa Haftar. The takeover is tenuous, and as of March 12, Haftar’s forces have launched air strikes aimed at preparing a ground offensive to retake the crucial oil ports.


General Haftar’s forces had taken control over all of the key oil ports in eastern and central Libya in September 2016, and had turned over control to the Libyan National Oil Company. As the result, Libyan oil production and exports increased and stabilized. The LNOC projected that output would reach 1.3 million barrels per day by 2018. 


However, the renewed fighting has already resulted in the loss of 60,000 barrels per day. After taking control over the two key ports, the Benghazi Defense Brigades nominally turned control of the ports over to the Petroleum Facility Guards (PFG), the militia that surrendered control of the ports last September to the Libyan National Army with hardly any resistance.  It is questionable whether the PFG can fare any better in the face of renewed plans by General Haftar’s forces to retake the facilities.


The battle for control of the vital Libyan oil flows spotlights the larger fight inside the country, and portends the potential for a fullscale civil war to erupt between what some Libya specialists call the war between “Dawn” and “Dignity.” Dawn refers to Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist militias that rejected the outcome of the 2015 elections and grabbed control of the capital city of Tripoli, forcing the internationally-recognized House of Representatives under Abdullah al-Thanni to take refuge at Tobruk along the coast near the Egyptian borders. The Dignity Operation is the name of General Haftar’s military offensive against the Islamists, which has largely succeeded in stabilizing the Benghazi region. In the course of defeating the Islamist militias in the east, General Haftar’s forces were thinned out, creating the opportunity for the assault on Sidra and Ras Lanuf.


The BDB is comprised of a loose confederation of militias, including Ansar al-Sharia, the Al Qaeda offshoot that has also aligned with the Islamic State (ISIL). Since the defeat of ISIL in Sirte, the group has spread out to several parts of the country, including Sabratha near the Tunisian border, Benghazi, Derna and the outskirts of Sirte, preparing to launch terrorist attacks, now that they have lost their urban coastal base. 


The fact that the United Nations-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA) has endorsed the BDB and Misurata assault on the oil ports, and has ordered General Idris Abukhamada of the PFG to take charge of the facilities has deepened the splits, increasing the likelihood that General Haftar’s forces will now concentrate on physically taking the capital Tripoli.


The depth of the split was further evidenced by the recent decision by the House of Representatives to withdraw support from the United Nations-brokered GNA. The Tobruk parliament has called for new general elections sometime before February 2018. HOR head al-Thanni recently flew to Cairo to voice his protest over the fact that the GNA Presidency Council has defacto embraced Ansar al-Sharia, charging that the government has sanctioned Al Qaeda attacks on the Libyan oil ports.


Egypt has been a persistent backer of General Haftar and the HOR. In addition to the strong backing from President El Sisi, Haftar’s Libyan National Army is now also getting more serious support from Russia. General Haftar made two visits to Moscow in the past year, and had a third meeting with top Russian officials aboard the Russian aircraft carrier during a tour of the Mediterranean last summer.


Russia is playing a more active role in the Libya conflict, in coordination with Egypt. Last October, Russia and Egypt held the first joint military maneuvers in decades. Following the BDB assault on the Libyan oil ports, Egyptian military hosted some Russian Special Forces at Sidi Barrani base 60 miles from the Libyan border. The Russian special forces contingent is small—22 troops—but it is indicative of the fact that Russia is being increasingly seen as a potential broker of a Libyan peace deal to avert civil war. In 2016, a group of “former” Russian special forces were sent to Libya to conduct land mine clearance operations in coordination with General Haftar’s LNA. The RSB Group, headed by Oleg Krinitsyn, reportedly completed their contact in February 2017 and withdrew all their personnel from the Benghazi region. Russian military forces have also been reportedly hosted in a visit to Marsa Matrouh, a Mediterranean coastal city in Egypt, also near the Libyan border.


During the Obama Administration, following the overthrow of the Qaddafi government, the United States played an ambiguous role in Libya. Secretary of State John Kerry helped broker the UN deal to install the GNA Presidency Council, and President Obama authorized US air strikes to back the Misurata militias in their siege of Sirte, to defeat ISIL. But Washington persistently made deals with the Islamists and never gave their support to General Haftar’s efforts, even after the LNA took over the petroleum ports and restored some stability to the vital energy sector of the Libyan economy.


The question now is whether President Donald Trump will shift Washington’s policy on Libya. This is part of the larger question of whether President Trump can reach an accommodation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A joint American-Russian effort to bring some stability to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region has been mooted for some time, provoking strong backlash against the new Administration. Some of President Trump’s harshest critics have openly accused him of being a “Russian agent” and are demanding a thorough investigation to determine whether Russia “stole” the US presidential elections for Mr. Trump.


What this has also meant is that Russia is being viewed in Europe and in the Middle East as a potential new power broker for Libya, on the model of the Russian intervention in Syria, which fundamentally altered the course of events there.


In recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, warned that Russia could “do a Syria in Libya.”


What is certain is that Russia is clearly playing a larger role in shaping the future of Libya. On March 2-3, 2017, the Prime Minister of the GNA, Fayez Saraj, flew to Moscow for meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  The two men called for a “comprehensive dialogue” among all parties to the Libya crisis to reach some kind of accord to avert civil war. The European Union, fearful of another wave of refugees, is also looking to Moscow for some kind of solution to the Libya quagmire.


Some Pentagon officials fear that Russia is in the process of forging a Damascus-Cairo-Tripoli axis. What General Waldhauser did not say in his public testimony is that it has been the lack of a comprehensive post-Qaddafi strategy from Washington that has created the current fiasco, and the opportunity for Russian strategic clout in the eastern Mediterranean region.

President Trump has vowed to re-set US-Russian relations through a pragmatic and tough negotiating stance with Moscow. Now is the time to get that process going, and for Libya to be one of the agenda items. Both President Trump and President Putin have identified Egypt under President El Sisis as a key regional player and partner. That may be a good starting point for tackling the Libya crisis.

16 March, 2017

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