How mixed signals from Washington sowed confusion over Libya diplomatic efforts

UN diplomats say that the US is telling different people different things and, for now at least, a resolution is off the cards

A fighter loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) runs for cover during clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar south of the capital Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara, on April 25, 2019.   / AFP / FADEL SENNA
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In the weeks after the Libyan National Army launched an offensive to take the capital of Tripoli, the UN Security Council focused on agreeing a resolution to end the clashes.

In the early days of the offensive that began on April 4, France, Italy, the UAE, the UK, and the US released a statement calling for an end to the offensive.

But disunity quickly emerged between members of the Security Council that has subsequently hampered efforts to get a resolution on the situation.

While there were already cracks appearing between members of the Security Council who hold diverging positions on the conflict, a phone call by US President Donald Trump to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar appears to have been the final straw that derailed the diplomatic efforts.

A White House statement on April 19 said Mr Trump had discussed “ongoing counter-terrorism efforts”, acknowledging the field marshal's “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources”.

The US president's remarks were taken as an endorsement of the LNA commander. The US and Russia objected to the first draft resolution that made any reference to Field Marshal Haftar and his forces – they wanted neither side named in the document. The delay fed the impression that both were backing the general.

But then last Wednesday, the White House began playing down the significance of the phone call and disputed the idea that it was backing Field Marshal Haftar over the internationally recognised Government of National Accord, led by Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj.

“The characterisations of conversations between the WH and Field Marshal Haftar are inaccurate,” wrote Garrett Marquis, a spokesman and special assistant to Mr Trump, referring to news reports that followed last week's phone call.

This has left UN diplomats scrambling to make sense of American policy in a bid to salvage a diplomatic effort.

"The US position is not understood. There have been different things said by different people," a leading UN diplomat involved in the ceasefire negotiations told The National, suggesting that the US president's phone call may have been misread as support for the LNA.

For now at least, the prospect of a resolution calling for a ceasefire is off the table.

“We have not abandoned our approach but we are not going to do something that would show the council divided and achieve little on the ground,” said a diplomat on the council who remains in favour of calling for an immediate end to the fighting.

The diplomatic stalemate means the fighting will be allowed to continue near Tripoli in what has become an increasingly confused international battle for influence in Libya after the years of chaos that followed the toppling of long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

The day after the offensive began, a unanimous statement from the council urged an immediate end to the fighting. On April 7, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went further.

He said that a military offensive was not the solution, urging “the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital”.

“A political solution is the only way to unify the country and provide a plan for security, stability and prosperity for all Libyans.”

Two days later, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi visited Mr Trump and the US leader spoke with senior officials from Gulf states before the call with Field Marshal Haftar.

“Between then and now there is a shift in US thinking,” a diplomat said, referring to Mr Pompeo's remarks. “But I haven't heard anyone in the US system say 'there is not a need for a political process'.”

For Russia, objections to the drafted ceasefire mentioning Field Marshal Haftar or the LNA appear to have been more subtly made for diplomatic reasons.

"They do not want anyone who could be a legitimate partner for them in the future being called out by the UN," a member of the council told The National.

The sudden offensive on Triplo's most immediate effect was to force the cancellation of a UN-sponsored national conference that was to bring the country's rival factions together.

For months, Ghassan Salame, the UN secretary general's special envoy for Libya, has been working to bring the sides together. Both Field Marshal Haftar and Prime Minister Al Sarraj met in the UAE earlier this year and agreed on the need to move towards elections and Mr Salame’s peace push seemed on track. But the new offensive and the failing of the UN Security to present a united position has pushed Mr Salame’s efforts off the table.