Trump's Call to Libyan National Army Leader Increases Risk of 'Protracted Urban Conflict,' Experts Say

A phone call from President Donald Trump to Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar helped to escalate deadly violence in the Libyan capital of Tripoli this weekend, as well as undercutting the United Nations’ hope for a ceasefire in the country.

A number of airstrikes, allegedly including strikes by armed drones, hit Tripoli in Sunday’s early morning hours, escalating Haftar’s assault on the city as he attempts to oust the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and take control of Libya. The Libyan National Army’s (LNA) attacks on Tripoli have now killed an estimated 227 people, injuring more than 1,000 and leaving at least 16,000 displaced.

“The U.S. speaking out in favor of Haftar is a major event and could contribute to the GNA losing morale, or a splintering of the alliance against the LNA. And that increases the chances of a dirty, protracted urban conflict.” —Jalel Harchaoui, Clingendael Institute of International Relations

The airstrikes followed a conversation Trump had with Haftar last week, which the White House revealed several days later on Friday. A number of sources reported Sunday that Trump appeared to give approval to the leader, who legal experts have accused of ordering his troops to commit war crimes, to move ahead with the air campaign—going against a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire last Thursday.

According to the White House’s statement on Friday, Trump told the LNA leader he “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’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.”

As Patrick Wintour reported in the Guardian:

Haftar ordered his troops into Tripoli on April 4, after three years of fighting to secure control of southern and eastern Libya. The strikes in Tripoli have been backed by the United Arab Emirates, reportedly with funding from Saudi Arabia.

“On March 27, one week before the offensive, Haftar visited Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman,” Tom Stevenson wrote in the Middle East Eye Saturday. “There, the Saudi rulers appear to have offered support for Haftar’s plans to take Tripoli. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Saudi Arabia supports and is financing Haftar’s campaign.”

In addition to undermining the U.N.’s hope for a ceasefire, Trump’s call to Haftar also indicated a reversal in U.S. policy regarding Libya. On Friday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters, “A military solution is not what Libya needs,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on April 7 that the U.S. “oppose[s] the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces.”