Russia Tests Trump with Bid for Lead Role in Libya
Continuing the theme that the US must take a leadership role in Libya and that a Special POTUS Envoy appointment is the way forward, I wrote with my new collaborator Thomas Dinham in the Beyond BRICS section of the Financial Times.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi believes Haftar is a bulwark against Muslim Brotherhood influence in Libya and a pliant proxy capable of securing Egyptian influence in a future Libyan state. Russia sees Libya as another theatre in which to expand its putative regional role and prove its credentials as the leading international player in the “fight against terrorism”. Haftar, with his anti-Islamist agenda, reliance on Russian equipment and the backing of the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk – Libya’s legitimate legislature which asserts a claim counter to the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) that it is also Libya’s font of government – represents a viable means of out-manoeuvring the west and bringing Libya closer to Russia’s orbit.
Both Egypt and Russia view the incoming Trump administration as potentially amenable to their preferred outcome in Libya, which would see Haftar officially assuming control of Libya’s security forces, free of direct civilian oversight. With Haftar and the LNA controlling the most important levers of the state, a token civilian administration would provide a democratic facade while deferring to Haftar and, by extension, Cairo and Moscow, in all important matters. The attempt to impose this outcome would not only mean a drastic curtailment of western influence in the oil-rich state, but also a dramatic escalation of Libya’s civil war…..
Fortunately, Trump, given his pragmatism and promise to be bold in his defense of American interests , might not see things Russia’s way. Reports that the Trump administration is considering appointing a special presidential envoy, focusing specifically on Libya, indicate that there may yet be hope for a new grand political bargain for the country, one that can reverse the zero-sum mentality that has characterised so much of international and domestic Libyan policy to date. While allowing military domination of most of Libya by an alliance of Haftar, Egypt and Russia may seem like a quick-fix route to stability, the short and long term dangers of an Islamist backlash or a descent into full scale civil war far outweigh any benefits this approach may offer. The Trump administration should act quickly by appointing the leading contender to be POTUS envoy, Phillip Escaravage, without delay. Such a move would signal to the Russians that they cannot simply muscle in on Libya and that the Trump Administration has robust plans to defend American interests even amidst the thorniest and most politicized of conflicts.
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