World News

Trump’s Seesawing on Libya Creates Opening for Russia

Last March, the Pentagon’s top general for Africa made a rare trip to Capitol Hill, bearing a sobering double-barreled warning.

Posted Updated

ERIC SCHMITT, New York Times

Last March, the Pentagon’s top general for Africa made a rare trip to Capitol Hill, bearing a sobering double-barreled warning.

“The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” the general, Thomas D. Waldhauser, told lawmakers. But perhaps just as concerning, he indicated, were intelligence reports that Russia was helping a former Libyan general turned military strongman in a fight for control over the country’s government and vast oil resources.

In fact, just two months earlier, in a brazen assertion of the Kremlin’s growing Middle East ambitions, Russia’s only aircraft carrier had entered Libyan waters and, with great fanfare, welcomed aboard the militia leader, Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

During his campaign for president, Donald Trump made the U.S.-backed NATO operation that toppled Libya’s dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, a cornerstone of his critique of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. The 2011 intervention left Libya with dueling governments — one recognized by the United States and the international community, the other aligned with Haftar. In the chaos, Libya also became a safe haven for the Islamic State.

But despite a terrorist attack in Britain last spring whose Libyan roots offered a gruesome reminder that the Islamic State in Libya remains a deadly threat, the Trump administration has yet to arrive at a coherent policy for the country. On one hand, the president has said he sees no role for the United States in Libya; on the other, he has said the United States must fight the Islamic State there. The resulting policy vacuum, according to Libyan officials, U.S. military commanders and intelligence analysts, has helped Russia spread its growing influence in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.

For months, the questions around Trump and Russia have largely focused on a different issue: whether anyone in the president’s inner circle was complicit in Moscow’s effort to disrupt the 2016 election. But even as the president’s approach to Libya offers a case study of what critics say is the dysfunction that permeates his overall foreign policy, it also illustrates the curious dynamic that characterizes his relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

In openly courting Haftar, the Kremlin was testing one of the incoming U.S. president’s guiding foreign policy assumptions — that he could work with Putin to tackle thorny issues in the Muslim world — and instead sent a signal to the world that Russia would continue to pursue its own interests there. Yet, as has often been the case when it comes to Putin, there has been little to no resistance on Trump’s watch. The president himself has said nothing, and the State Department seems at odds with the Pentagon’s wary assessment of the Russian threat.

In December, Trump met privately with the Libyan prime minister, Fayez Serraj, in Washington. In an interview, two senior White House aides argued that the United States was fully engaged in finding a diplomatic solution to the country’s civil strife. But the Libyan leader left with no policy pronouncements from the president. Indeed, the administration has deferred the difficult job of brokering a diplomatic settlement almost entirely to the United Nations.

In Libya, as elsewhere, Trump has been guided largely by his own instincts and by a small circle of advisers who have his ear but little in-country experience. That is because a year into the president’s tenure, many critical foreign policy positions remain vacant or recently filled. The top Africa specialist overseeing Libya at the National Security Council was not installed until early September, and there is currently no American ambassador. Efforts to arrive at a comprehensive U.S. strategy have also been hampered by infighting between top political advisers, who have argued that foreign entanglements in places like Libya are not in keeping with Trump’s “America First” campaign promise, and top Pentagon and national security officials, who have urged the president to do more to combat the Islamic State there.

The crossfire has left Libyan officials, Western allies and even some in the U.S. embassy responsible for the country perplexed, as Libya policy has careened from a hands-off approach to a more recent spate of scattershot airstrikes against fighters who have regrouped in Libya since the president’s election.

“What U.S. policy in Libya?” Martin Kobler, the former United Nations special envoy there, asked in an interview with The New York Times shortly before he stepped down last summer.

Meanwhile, an emboldened Putin has seized the opportunity to expand Russian influence over the oil-rich North African nation just 300 miles from Europe. This is part of a broader, more ambitious Middle East strategy that builds on the Kremlin’s successful military campaign to prop up President Bashar Assad of Syria, at America’s expense.

In Libya, Russia has publicly offered itself up as a mediator between the country’s warring factions. But Moscow has also been covertly aiding major players like Haftar, putting a thumb on the scale of a multifront civil war at a time when the United States is supporting the fragile U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord.

According to dozens of interviews with current and former European, Libyan and American officials, Russia’s involvement in Libya goes significantly beyond ushering Haftar into a stateroom on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to confer with Russia’s defense minister in Moscow over a secure telephone line.

It includes previously unreported instances of attempted weapons-for-oil deals, attempted bribery and efforts to influence top government defense appointments, as well as printing money and stamping coinage for the Haftar-allied government. American and British intelligence officials told The Times that Russia, aided by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, had also provided a range of weapons to Haftar.

In the last year, Russia has quietly but steadily entrenched its influence, sending military advisers and intelligence officers to the country’s east, and providing Haftar’s troops with spare parts, repairs and medical care, according to American and other Western intelligence officials.

Mohammed Mensli, a senior adviser to the Government of National Accord, said it was “vital” that the United States become more engaged and condemn destabilizing interference by other nations.

“We really are not interested at all in the Russians getting involved in our affairs,” he said, “but they are very persistent.”

A Dwindling Sense of Urgency

So risky is the security situation in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, that the U.S. embassy has been temporarily relocated across the border in Tunisia. In late May, at a dinner party at the American ambassador’s residence there, Waldhauser was grilled by the attendees on the Trump administration’s lack of a coherent Libya policy. He had no real answers, one American guest said.

Trump, in fact, had supported intervening in Libya before he took to the campaign trail and began calling the military operation a “disaster” that left the nation in “ruins.”

There appeared to be some sense of urgency early on. U.S. officials working out of the Libya Embassy in Tunis said they had been assured that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would make Libya a top priority, several officials said in interviews. And then there were the warnings from some of Trump’s top military advisers, including Waldhauser’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Trump’s lack of sustained attention caused consternation in some quarters not just because of the terrorism threat but also because Libya remained a primary transit route for refugees and human traffickers.

“You had this country that was the topic of a lot of campaign rhetoric, and at the same time those of us who had been working on Libya issues in government felt an urgency to build pockets of stability,” said Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior counterterrorism official at the National Security Council under Obama and Trump. “But over the past year, I haven’t seen much momentum to do that.”

Last spring, two months after Waldhauser testified on Capitol Hill, a suicide bomber detonated a shrapnel-laden explosive device during a concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and injuring 250 others. The bomber was of Libyan descent and had recently traveled to Libya to meet with an Islamic State commander.

By early summer, there were ominous signs that the Islamic State was recovering from a B-2 bomber attack that, according to the Pentagon, killed more than 80 militants at a Libyan training camp just days before Trump took office. Amanda J. Dory, who had just stepped down as the Pentagon’s top Africa policy official, warned that “we’re seeing some signs” that the Islamic State was further “regrouping in Libya.”

Some aides urged the president to increase the modest number of military advisers in Libya — roughly two dozen Special Operations soldiers at any given time. But the effort was stymied by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief strategist. Bannon clashed frequently with Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who, Bannon said, kept pushing for more U.S. involvement in a variety of places, including Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. “Every day there was a new ask with no overarching strategy,” Bannon recalled in an interview after leaving the White House but before his recent public break with Trump over his comments in a book about the administration’s first year. “Libya was what pushed me over the edge.”

Bannon was more open to an idea pitched by Erik D. Prince, a founder of the private security firm Blackwater Worldwide whom he had gotten to know when he oversaw the conservative website Breitbart News. Prince had proposed relying on contractors to tackle Libya’s security problems. It seemed, at least to Libyan officials, that the idea was gaining steam: One said Prince had approached them about it at a conference in London where he was seen with Sebastian Gorka, a Bannon ally and White House adviser at the time.

How was sending U.S. troops to Libya in America’s interest? Bannon wanted to know.

At a wide-ranging Saturday morning meeting on July 8, Bannon took his complaints to Mattis, a retired Marine general. The country was a mess, Bannon said he told the secretary, and greater U.S. involvement could only backfire.

Mattis listened politely, Bannon said, but pointed out that Libya, along with parts of Syria and the Philippines, was a critical battlefield in the global fight against the Islamic State. Bannon responded that if Trump was going to be asked to get more deeply involved in Libya, he at least wanted the president to have a “strategic overview of U.S. commitments around the globe, everything from military to trade agreements, so that all these requests could be put in a larger context.”

A three-hour follow-up meeting with the president took place on July 20 at the Pentagon. As Bannon had hoped, once the National Security Council convened to discuss hot spots around the world where the Pentagon might need to bolster its presence, Libya fell farther down the priority list.

At least for the moment, Bannon had won the day.

But if Trump’s Libya policy seemed unintelligible to some, the president of another world power had a far clearer vision.

Oil and Arms

Putin has had Libya in his sights for years. Ever since he became convinced that the United States, and specifically Clinton, then secretary of state, had double-crossed Russia by toppling Gadhafi in what had been billed as a limited, humanitarian intervention, the Russian president has been working to regain influence there.

Basit Igtet, a Libyan oil entrepreneur married to the Seagram heiress Sara Bronfman, recalled in an interview that, after announcing in 2014 that he would run for prime minister, he was invited to meet privately at a conference in Greece with Vladimir Yakunin, then the head of the state-owned Russian Railways.

During the Gadhafi era, Libya signed a deal to have the Russians build a high-speed rail between Benghazi and Tripoli, one segment of an envisioned North African corridor. But the project had stalled after the 2011 intervention and, Igtet said, Yakunin pressed him to move it forward if elected.

Igtet said Yakunin seemed “desperate,” even offering what appeared to be a bribe to restart the project. “They offered to give me a percentage of the contract as a commission,” he said. “I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I just wanted to leave.”

The same year, the Russians also approached Ibrahim Jathran, a militia leader who controlled Libya’s key oil ports before Haftar. U.S. Navy SEALs had recently boarded a North Korean-flagged ship and disrupted a plot by Jathran to bypass Libya’s government and sell oil directly on the international market.

Two of Jathran’s top deputies, who asked that only their first names, Osama and Ahmed, be used, for fear of reprisals, described how the Russians then stepped in with a “really amazing” proposal to help Jathran sell the oil — and arm his militia.

The Russians, Osama and Ahmed said, would market the crude oil, moving it through Egypt to Russia. Jathran would be paid in weapons for the first six months, and in cash thereafter.

“The weapons included everything we have, plus armored cars, anti-aircraft missiles, heat-seeking shoulder-held weapons, light weapons and comm gear including Hetra wireless,” Osama said.

But when the Russians demanded exclusivity, Ahmed and Osama said, their boss balked. Fearing that the Russians could not be trusted, Jathran, who is now in hiding and could not be reached for comment, walked away from the deal.

The next year, in 2015, the Russians came back, Ahmed and Osama said. The same weaponry was on the table, but this time they wanted Jathran to throw his support behind the Russians’ choice for defense minister: Libya’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time.

Officials in the U.N.-backed Libyan government convinced Jathran that it would be far more productive to align himself with the West. A meeting was set up between Jathran and Jonathan Powell, then the British envoy to Libya, after which “Ibrahim instructed me to close the file on Russia,” Osama said.

Then, in September 2016, Haftar’s Libyan National Army seized the oil terminals from Jathran’s forces. Ahmed, who served as a commander during the fighting, recalled being stunned by the sophistication of the weapons Haftar seemed to have acquired overnight.

Fast-moving desert vehicles. Self-guided heat-seeking missiles. A newfound ability to launch airstrikes by day and night. Osama and Ahmed, who said he was injured by Russian-made munitions, came to believe that the Russians had begun facilitating arms shipments to Haftar after their boss turned them down.

“You could notice the difference, and it definitely tilted the balance,” Ahmed said.

That assessment, based on anecdotal evidence and informants, was backed up by American and British intelligence reports. A former senior U.S. national security official and a former senior British official said evidence gathered in late 2015 and 2016 indicated that the United Arab Emirates were cooperating with Russia to provide Russian weaponry to Haftar’s forces with Egypt’s help. The British official recalled landing at the airport in Tobruk, controlled by the Haftar-allied Eastern government, in late 2014 or early 2015. A giant Antonov cargo plane was on the runway, and people were unloading crates of what looked like military equipment, he said, adding that the pilot said the matériel was from Belarus.

The official described the weapons shipments as a way for the Russians to expand their influence, and tweak the United States, without being too deeply involved.

For its part, Russia has maintained that it is in compliance with a U.N. embargo on transferring weapons into Libya. Only the U.N.-backed government, which Haftar refuses to recognize, can import weapons, and only with the approval of the United Nations.

To be sure, Russia’s involvement in Libya pales in comparison to that in Syria, where punishing Russian airpower has been deployed to crush rebel factions fighting to oust Assad, and Russian and American aircraft are jousting in the eastern skies at cross purposes.

In Libya, the heavy lifting of providing military support to Haftar has fallen largely to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are engaged in a proxy war for regional influence with Qatar, which supports Islamic factions in the country that the general has vowed to eradicate.

Still, it wasn’t until after Trump’s election that the Russians were brazen enough to give Haftar a full-dress parade aboard their aircraft carrier.

Over the last year, Russian assistance has generally been subtler. Russian military advisers and intelligence officers have regularly gone in and out of Haftar’s area of control, U.S. intelligence officials said. Other Russian support personnel have provided spare parts, equipment repairs and medical care.

Private Russian contractors have guarded factories in Benghazi and provided demining equipment to Haftar’s troops, the officials said. Russian special forces are using an air base in western Egypt, just over Libya’s border, in an early sign of recent basing agreements between Russia and Egypt.

In August, Haftar said he had raised the issue of Russia’s providing military assistance with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. And last month, Aguila Saleh Issa, the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and an ally of Haftar, told the Russian news agency Sputnik that Russia had in fact provided military training to Haftar’s army.

“Putin is pushing the envelope, and will keep pushing and pushing until he is stopped,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, who was the State Department’s second-ranking diplomat for Middle East policy from 2013 to 2016. Appearing to hedge his bets on Libya’s political future, Putin has also reached out to the Government of National Accord, welcoming its prime minister, Serraj, in addition to Haftar, to Moscow. According to Western officials, Russia is seeking a political settlement — a central government favorable to its economic interests, especially on arms contracts, energy deals and a railway project.

“If they can give the EU a black eye along the way, so much the better,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the forthcoming book “The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya.”

Still, despite evidence in Syria and elsewhere that Russia and the United States have sharply divergent interests in the region, some senior administration officials have appeared open to the idea that Russia could be part of the solution in Libya.

Ari Ben-Menashe, a Canada-based Israeli security consultant who has a contract to lobby on behalf of Haftar and his ally Issa, helped arrange the aircraft carrier visit. He said he had spoken to several top administration officials and his impression was that they believed Moscow could play a useful role.

“Where they are, at least my sense is, is that any settlement is a good settlement and they are kind of happy if someone gets that done,” he said. “They feel the Russians could help.” Perhaps that explains the reaction of several officials the administration made available for this article. When asked about Russian interference in Libya, a senior State Department official refused to condemn or even comment on it, saying, “That’s a topic I don’t really want to get into today.”

That official referred questions to White House national security aides, who also refused to comment. Then, just days ago, another State Department official suggested Russia was being more helpful in “promoting a stable, unified and prosperous Libya.”

But at least in some quarters, suspicions linger about Moscow’s intentions. “We remain concerned, and it should be no surprise Russia is trying to develop relationships in their best interests,” Waldhauser said in response to questions from The Times.

‘No Role,’ or a ‘Leading Role’

A year into Trump’s presidency, Libya is still an extraordinarily dangerous place. New threats are emerging. Old threats are regrouping or resurfacing in different ways. In September, after Bannon’s departure from the White House, the Pentagon persuaded Trump to approve a limited action against the Islamic State in Libya. U.S. drones conducted strikes on a training camp there on Sept. 22, killing 17 militants. The militants were shuttling fighters in and out of the country and stockpiling weapons, the U.S. Africa Command said.

Four days later, more U.S. airstrikes rained down 100 miles southeast of Sirte, killing several more fighters, the Pentagon said.

And on Oct. 29, American commandos in Libya captured a second suspect in the 2012 attacks against the U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA annex in Benghazi — terrorist attacks that have been used by Trump as a political spear against the Obama administration.

The man, Mustafa al-Imam, was brought aboard an American warship and taken to the United States, where on Nov. 9 he pleaded not guilty to criminal charges tied to the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Despite Trump’s assertion in April that the United States would have “no role” in helping to rebuild Libya, State Department and White House officials now insist the administration is taking what one called a “leading role” by pursuing “a two-tier strategy”: carrying out counterterrorism strikes aimed at the Islamic State, while supporting political reconciliation aimed at stabilizing the country and bringing Libya’s various contentious factions together to support Serraj’s government.

To many Libyans, though, the Trump administration’s strategy looks a lot like the Obama administration’s post-Benghazi “lead from behind” approach: carrying out reactive strikes while leaving the difficult tasks of reconciliation to the latest U.N. envoy. Current and former Libyan and American officials say that while there are no ready solutions for resolving Libya’s woes, a more engaged and effective U.S. policy would include more frequent, highly visible diplomatic engagements with Libyan leaders; a new American special envoy with a mandate to work closely with the rival Libyan factions; a seasoned diplomat to replace Peter W. Bodde, who retired at year’s end as Washington’s ambassador to Libya; closer support for European and U.N.-led efforts to reconcile the warring parties; and a greater number of Special Operations advisers on the ground.

“We have clearly delegated all of our foreign policy in the Gulf and Libya to a coalition of Emirates, Saudi and Egyptians,” said Jason Pack, executive director of the U.S. Libya Business Association. “That’s essentially letting the Russians win in Libya because they support exactly the same groups.”

The consequences, Pack added, are far-reaching. “Libya is important because of where it sits. He who can project power into Libya has the ability to deluge Europe with migrants and bring right-wing populists to power there, interfere in the market price of oil, and more.” — SIDEBAR:

Trump’s Shifting Position On Libya
President Donald Trump initially supported the Libya intervention, urging the Obama administration in a video blog to stop Moammar Gadhafi from unleashing what many feared would be a massacre in Benghazi:

“Now, we should go in. We should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it and save these lives.”

During the second presidential debate, Trump used the situation in Libya to criticize his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state had championed the intervention:

“Look at what she did in Libya with Gadhafi. Gadhafi’s out. It’s a mess. And, by the way, ISIS has a good chunk of their oil. I’m sure you probably have heard that. It was a disaster. Because the fact is, almost everything she’s done in foreign policy has been a mistake and it’s been a disaster.”

Asked on CBS’ “Face the Nation” about his earlier support for the intervention, Trump said that while he had not opposed toppling Gadhafi, he was never for a “strong intervention”:

“You do a surgical shot and you take him out. But I wasn’t for what happened.”

Since taking office, Trump has said next to nothing about his approach to Libya, except for this somewhat contradictory statement:

“I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles. We’re in a role everywhere. So I do not see that. I do see a role in getting rid of ISIS.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.