Trump Backed Libyan Strongman’s Attack on Tripoli, U.S. Officials Say

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump indicated in a phone call with Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar last week that the U.S. supported an assault on the country’s capital to depose its United Nations-backed government, according to American officials familiar with the matter.

An earlier call from White House National Security Adviser John Bolton also left Haftar with the impression of a U.S. green light for an offensive on Tripoli by his forces, known as the Libyan National Army, according to three diplomats.

Trump Backed Libyan Strongman’s Attack on Tripoli, U.S. Officials Say

Those accounts go beyond a White House statement issued Friday on an April 15 call between Trump and Haftar. The revelation that the U.S. president had tacitly recognized Haftar -- addressed as “field marshal” in the statement -- as a Libyan leader abruptly undermined the country’s internationally-recognized government led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj.

Trump’s conversation with Haftar took place after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi met with the U.S. president on April 9 and urged him to back Haftar, according to two people familiar with the matter. Trump also spoke with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a Haftar supporter, the day before the White House issued the statement acknowledging the call with Haftar.

The White House statement said that Trump discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts” and “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.”

On Wednesday, after publication of this story, a White House spokesman who declined to be identified said the characterization of the phone calls between Haftar and Trump and Bolton was inaccurate. He didn’t elaborate.

Undercutting Diplomats

The White House encouragement for Haftar represented a dramatic turn from the public position taken days earlier by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. In an April 7 statement, Pompeo said: “We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.”

Trump and Bolton also undercut the U.S. charge d’affairs in Libya, Peter Bodde, who has repeatedly warned Haftar against advancing on Tripoli. He told Haftar during a February meeting in Abu Dhabi that the capital was a red line, according to diplomats familiar with the matter.

While U.S. officials initially backed a U.K.-led effort at the UN Security Council that would call on Haftar’s forces to halt the fighting, they abruptly switched tracks and have since stalled efforts to advance a resolution.

Trump Backed Libyan Strongman’s Attack on Tripoli, U.S. Officials Say

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally who visited Libya’s neighbor Tunisia last week, said he wasn’t aware of details of the calls between Haftar and Trump or Bolton. But he warned against the U.S. choosing sides or encouraging attempts to govern by military force.

“You’ve got to get all the parties at the table,” Graham said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “What would be a big mistake is to back one group over the other.”

“Haftar cannot conquer and hold Tripoli,” Graham said. “It would be Syria all over again if he tried to conquer Tripoli by military force.”

Haftar, who has enjoyed the support of Russia, France and Saudi Arabia in addition to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, controls much of Libya’s east and south. He launched a campaign to take the capital earlier this month. Sarraj, who is backed by former colonial power Italy and other European countries, has said talks with Haftar cannot begin until his forces are withdrawn to pre-offensive lines.

Haftar has claimed his offensive is intended to combat Islamist terrorism in Libya. The EU called on Haftar to stop his advance on Tripoli in an April 11 statement that didn’t name him, after France and some other members objected.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters on Friday that “the military solution is not what Libya needs.

“What we’ve said before and what I do support is Field Marshal Haftar’s support in terms of his role in counterterrorism, but where we need Field Marshal Haftar’s support is in building democratic stability there in the region,” he added.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.