President Trump on Friday abruptly reversed American policy toward Libya, issuing a statement publicly endorsing an aspiring strongman in his battle to depose the United Nations-backed government.
The would-be strongman, Khalifa Hifter, launched a surprise attack on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, more than two weeks ago. Relief agencies said Thursday that more than 200 people had been killed in the battle, and in recent days Mr. Hifter’s forces have started shelling civilian neighborhoods.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement a few days after Mr. Hifter’s militia began its attack that “the administration at the highest levels” had made clear that “we oppose the military offensive” and “urge the immediate halt to these military operations.” Most Western governments and the United Nations have also condemned the attack and demanded a retreat.
Mr. Trump, however, told Mr. Hifter almost the opposite, the White House said Friday.
A militia leader who has given himself the title of Field Marshal, Mr. Hifter, 75, has long sought to portray his fight for power over Libya — including his advance on Tripoli — as a battle against “terrorism.” In the statement on Friday the White House said Mr. Trump had called Mr. Hifter on Monday to endorse that campaign.
Mr. Trump called “to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” the White House said in the statement. “The President recognized Field Marshal Hifter’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
Analysts said Mr. Trump’s endorsement would embolden Mr. Hifter and hamper United Nations efforts to call for a cease-fire. It could also increase the likelihood that his regional sponsors like Egypt or the United Arab Emirates might intervene on his behalf, as each has in the past in Libya.
The policy reversal came as a surprise in part because Mr. Hifter’s forces also appear to be losing ground. His promises of a quick victory have proved false, and his forces appear outmaneuvered by those aligned against them. Most analysts say that he has little hope of exerting his authority over all of Libya any time soon, so his continued campaign may only prolong the country’s instability. [Continue reading…]