The warring factions in Libya's stalemated conflict don't seem to be interested in a diplomatic solution. The United States could use its clout in order to trigger discussions — but it appears to be doing the opposite.
A civil war is raging in Libya. Since April, the capital, Tripoli, has been under siege by militias led by General Khalifa Haftar. To date, this offensive marks the high point of tensions between the two groups vying for leadership: Haftar and his militias in the east of the country, and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in northwestern Libya.
In early July, the Tajoura refugee camp, located east of Tripoli, got caught up between the front lines. According to the UN, 53 people were killed in two air raids targeting the camp; some 130 were injured. The UN indicated the attacks could amount to war crimes — an accident could be ruled out since both warring parties had received the camp's geographic coordinates in order to avoid exactly that kind of attack. The GNA, internationally recognized as Libya's leadership, blamed Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). Haftar, however, has rejected any responsibility.
The UN Security Council condemned the airstrikes in the strongest terms and intended to emphasize the point with an official statement. That was when the US delegation put its foot down, without providing a specific reason. Such a condemnation from the UN could have been seen as a criticism of Haftar's approach — and President Donald Trump publicly pledged support for Haftar in April.
Read more: Khalifa Haftar: Libya's military strongman
Change of tack in US policy
In a phone call between Trump and Haftar on April 15, the US president "recognized Field Marshal Haftar's significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources," according to a White House statement published several days later. "The two discussed a shared vision for Libya's transition to a stable, democratic political system."
When he's dealing with the outside world, Haftar presents himself as a campaigner for a free Libya where extremists have no place. He's the strongman who drives terrorist organizations like "Islamic State" out of the country, the general claims. That is, of course, to Trump's liking.
But publicizing the conversation with Haftar was an unusual step, as the US still officially recognizes the administration led by al-Sarraj as Libya's legitimate government. Just several days prior to the phone call, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had criticized Haftar's Tripoli offensive in the strongest terms. "We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar's forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital," Pompeo said on April 8.
Trump's friendly phone call has signaled the opposite, namely that Haftar has "been given a green light by the United States to continue. And that's disastrous," Jeffrey Feltman told DW. The US diplomat was UN undersecretary for political affairs from 2012 to 2018 and US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs from 2009 to 2012.
"You've seen the US try to have it both ways: To not look as though they're backing a brutal military assault on Tripoli, while also not backing away from Haftar," Feltman told DW. "Appearing to back Haftar's move on Tripoli is a mistake that undermines any hope for a successful political process."
Read more: Could Libya be Russia's new Syria?
Haftar has 'little regard for democracy'
The US is not the only Security Council member to support Haftar. Officially, Russia and France have recognized the Government of National Accord, but according to experts, they simultaneously back Haftar. In addition, several countries in the region are ignoring an arms embargo which the UN body adopted in 2011. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates supply arms to Haftar, and financially support the LNA. Both countries are partners with the US, but the Trump administration has not used his influence to clamp down on those arms supplies.
Washington's behavior had "given a green light to Haftar's regional supporters who are violating the UN arms embargo," said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank. "So it's been, I think, tremendously damaging to peace and US interests."
Wehrey, who met Haftar in 2014, believes it's unlikely the general will halt his military campaign without pressure from third parties. "Haftar has long said that he wants to rule the country," Wehrey told DW. "He has very little regard for democracy and pluralistic politics. He believes Libya should be ruled with a strong hand, and preferably under him."
Outside influence a decisive factor
Currently, neither Haftar and his LNA nor the Government of National Accord give the impression they are working toward a diplomatic solution. This is why it's crucial that other countries take action, experts have said. "The US should first of all call for a ceasefire. It needs to be very forceful in holding all sides accountable for their actions on the battlefield. Most importantly, the US needs to exert diplomatic leverage toward the regional states that are interfering in Libya, sending in weapons and really pouring gasoline on the fire," said Wehrey.
However, he does not believe Washington will apply pressure on its key associates, Egypt and the UAE. "I don't think that's going to happen because of other US concerns, personal ties between the Trump administration [and the two countries]," he said. In addition, there were important "other regional factors, like the Iran concern."
Feltman warned that if world powers like the US did not commit to a political peace process and bring the warring factions to the negotiating table, the civil war could have dire consequences for the people in Libya, and Tripoli in particular. Both sides had to "finally roll up their sleeves and work out their differences politically, " he said. Otherwise "it could very easily become like Aleppo. And why would anyone want that?"