- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2020

A top Libyan official is defending his government’s decision to accept help from Syrian militants suspected of having ties to extremist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, saying Tripoli had no choice after being ignored by the United States.

The militants, supplied by Turkey in the country’s grinding civil war, add the latest twist to a conflict that has destabilized the region and drawn in a growing number of international players, each allied to one of the two factions fighting for control of the country.

“When you are drowning in water and somebody sends you a life jacket, what are you going to do — look at who sent the life jacket or take it?” said Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Omar Maiteeq.

He said the Syrian forces are helping prevent the embattled government in Tripoli from being overthrown by Russia-backed Libyan rebel leader Khalifa Haftar.

A monthslong offensive by Mr. Haftar’s forces was boosted by an influx of Russian mercenaries this fall, leaving the U.N.-supported government in the Libyan capital scrambling and pleading with the Trump administration for help, Mr. Maiteeq said in an interview during a visit to Washington.

The Trump administration has been slow to respond. It prefers to stay out of the messy conflict in Libya despite the North African nation’s vast oil reserves and strategic location as a Mediterranean gateway connecting Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

“If the United States had said at that time to Haftar … to stop his attack on Tripoli, to come to the table and try to find solutions, this would have made a big difference,” Mr. Maiteeq told The Washington Times in an interview Thursday.

The Libyan government in Tripoli turned to Turkey for help after Russia, Sudan and other countries sent fighters and weaponry to Mr. Haftar’s forces, he said.

“We didn’t see anybody in the world doing anything about it. It was just like they were waiting for Haftar to take over Tripoli,” Mr. Maiteeq said. “I mean, this is the question that should be repeated 100 times: Why did nobody act when Haftar was bombing hospitals and schools?”

U.S. lawmakers and some administration officials have expressed alarm at Russia’s growing support for the eastern-based Libyan rebels, although U.S. policy was muddled when President Trump praised Mr. Haftar during an Oval Office phone call in April as a force against jihadis in Libya.

Turkey responded by airlifting Syrian militants — some of whom have al Qaeda and Islamic State ties — to fight on behalf of the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, The Associated Press reported.

A Syrian war monitor and two Libyan militia leaders told the news service that Turkey has brought more than 4,000 foreign fighters into Tripoli and that “dozens” are affiliated with extremist groups.

Full-blown proxy war

Both sides in Libya’s war receive equipment and backing from foreign countries as nations jockey for influence in the hope of one day controlling the nation’s oil reserves.

The United States has carried out airstrikes against ISIS positions in Libya over the past few years, but the Trump administration has avoided more open involvement.

At least two American companies, however, are actively invested in tapping Libya’s oil reserves, estimated to be the ninth largest in the world.

The United Nations recognizes the government in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj with Mr. Maiteeq as a deputy, to be Libya’s legitimate government because it was born out of U.N.-mediated talks in 2015. Qatar and Italy are supporting the government, although Turkey has emerged as its biggest backer.

The arrival of Syrian fighters has proved divisive. One Libyan militia commander told AP about concern that the fighters will tarnish the image of the Tripoli-based government. Another said the fighters’ backgrounds aren’t important as long as they have come to help defend the besieged capital.

Mr. Maiteeq suggested he agrees with the latter view but expressed wariness about the fighters. “We have to save Tripoli,” he said.

He added that the government is secular, with no leanings toward Islamic fundamentalism, and has an “exit plan” for dealing with any unsavory militants in the long run.

He would not provide specifics but suggested the plan would rely on help from Washington to pressure Mr. Haftar and his militias into meaningful peace negotiations.

“Once we have a partner and sit with that partner at the table, we can show our exit plan,” he said. “But nobody in the world starts something and doesn’t have an exit plan. Otherwise, it’s not strategic.”

Mr. Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates, France, Egypt and now increasingly Russia. Moscow denies involvement, but there is evidence that mercenaries from a Kremlin-linked firm called the Wagner Group have been fighting alongside Mr. Haftar’s rebels for months.

Mr. Maiteeq warned that the United States is missing an opportunity to exert diplomatic leadership toward a democratic political settlement in Libya. Without such leadership, he said, Russia and others will seek to help Mr. Hafter establish a military dictatorship over the country.

“We don’t need U.S. money, we don’t need U.S. boots on the ground or any military intervention. We need political leadership and diplomatic leadership,” he said. “We saw back in the 1960s, when the United States did not pay attention to what was happening in Egypt, what followed there was dictatorship.

“We don’t want this repeated again,” Mr. Maiteeq said. “Libya should go to democracy and prosperity and be part of the international community.”

He added, “All of the foreign nations intervening in Libya right now, the Emiratis, the Egyptians, the Qataris, the Turks — all of them are U.S. allies” and will fall in line if the U.S. leads.

Floundering peace talks

Repeated rounds of talks, some organized by Russia and some by the United Nations, have failed to produce a durable cease-fire or a path to political negotiations between Libya’s warring factions. The Trump administration has largely stayed on the fringes, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Berlin last month for an inconclusive Libya peace summit hosted by Germany.

A U.N. Security Council resolution in recent days called for a “lasting cease-fire,” but few expect Mr. Haftar to honor it. His forces have been blocking U.N. humanitarian flights from Tripoli.

U.S. officials and private analysts fear jihadi groups will try to exploit the power vacuum in Libya. Russia may be eyeing a second Mediterranean base to complement its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus. But the U.S. administration, wary of being drawn into messy new military entanglements in the region, has stuck to broad policy statements.

“The task of bringing the Libyans back to the negotiating table has been complicated by the involvement of external actors …,” David Schenker, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told lawmakers Wednesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “What is at stake is more than Libya, but peace and stability across the southern and eastern Mediterranean region.”

Some lawmakers are pushing for a more pointed response.

Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, has asked whether Mr. Haftar should face U.S. sanctions for working with the Russian mercenary forces.

Mr. Murphy wrote a letter to Mr. Pompeo ahead of the Senate hearing to ask whether ties between Mr. Haftar’s forces and Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries could trigger mandatory sanctions on Mr. Hafter under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

“Russia’s significant financial and military support for one faction in the Libyan civil war is guaranteed to further destabilize the country, trigger further armed support from Turkey to the other side of the conflict, harm large numbers of civilians and fuel the migrant crisis,” Mr. Murphy said in a recent letter to Mr. Pompeo. “In the longer term, Putin is clearly angling for access to oil and military bases on the Mediterranean in a resource-rich country at the gateway to Africa and on NATO’s southern flank.”

Libya’s oil production has plummeted in recent weeks. Reuters reported that a blockade of ports and oil fields by militias loyal to Mr. Haftar has reduced production from 1.2 million barrels per day to about 180,000.

A source familiar with the developments told The Times on the condition of anonymity that Moscow may be working with Mr. Haftar to cut oil production with the goal of making Libya’s European customers more dependent on oil and gas from Russia, which is seeking to complete its Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Europe by the end of the year.

Mr. Mateeq declined to comment on what may be behind Mr. Haftar’s blockade of Libyan ports, but he predicted the cut of oil flow could cause a jump in global prices.

He lamented the impact on Libya. “This is hurting the Libyan people. If this continues, we’re going to see teachers cannot go to schools, doctors cannot go to hospitals, ordinary Libyans will be harmed,” he said. “For a month now, we don’t have any salaries because the main income for Libya is coming from oil. This is going to trigger a humanitarian crisis.

“We have already gone through 17 days of oil blockade,” Mr. Maiteeq said. “If this goes on for another two or three months, it’s going to be a disaster both for the Libyan economy and for North Africa.”

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