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Trump’s Praise for Haftar Sends Mixed Messages

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Most of the countries rocked by the 2011 revolts ended up taking vastly different paths, albeit to some similar places. Libya never really achieved a unified, elected government exercising control over all its territory; since 2016, it’s been split between two rival governments, only one of them internationally recognized, but forced to rely on militias for protection. If the country is to be reunified under a military strongman, which appears to be Haftar’s aim, he would have to wage a viciously bloody campaign to do it.

In Libya, the pre-2011 rulers consisted of a clique of Qaddafi, loyalist military officers, and loyalist tribes, Steven A. Cook, whose recent book False Dawn deals with the failures of democratic transitions following the Arab Spring protests, told me: “I think you could see a return of, without Qaddafi, loyalist military officers and loyalist tribes trying to put the whole thing back together.” Haftar was once loyal to Qaddafi himself.

The counterterrorism challenge in Libya, meanwhile, is real. The Islamic State at one point had its own territorial stronghold in the Libyan city of Sirte, before militias backed by U.S. air strikes dislodged them. The New York Times has reported that the battle for Tripoli has become a magnet for extremist groups who themselves oppose Haftar, rendering his vows to fight terrorists a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, government resources have been diverted from the counter-ISIS fight to the battle with Haftar.

If the mixed signals from Washington have created more confusion on the ground, much deadlier problems are potentially on the horizon. “A lot of Libyans are split with regard to what they think should be done,” Emadeddin Badi, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told me. He pointed out that Haftar has his own substantial base of support: “This might become a war of attrition … It might become urban warfare.” Tripoli, he noted, is a city of 2.5 million people.

“The main thing about an international endorsement,” he said, “especially from Trump or from the U.S. in general, is it might, under the label of counterterrorism, allow the disproportionate use of violence.”

The leader of Libya’s internationally backed Government of National Accord, Sarraj, told Bloomberg he’d been assured the U.S. administration still opposed the assault and condemned Haftar’s other international backers, whom he did not name, though the news organization pointed out that the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt have armed Haftar’s group in the past. There’s no indication that they feel pressure from the United States to change sides. Powerful Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed Haftar because they see him as tough on Islamists.

Just days after Sisi met Trump at the White House, the Egyptian ruler welcomed Haftar to his presidential palace in Cairo, as if meeting with another head of state.

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