Will Trump play Russian roulette in Libya?

Will Trump play Russian roulette in Libya?

Comment: Despite Russia's desire for greater influence in Libya, the US, with former ExxonMobil chief Tillerson leading foreign policy, is unlikely to renounce 60 years of influence, writes Guma ElGamaty.
8 min read
07 Feb, 2017
A fighter jet flies over the Zueitina oil terminal in Libya, 14 September 2016 [AFP]

Modern relations between the United States (US) and Libya can be traced back to 1951, when Libya became an independent modern state under a monarchy rule following a period of 33 years of Italian colonisation and eight years of British and French administration.

The US quickly established close relations with the newly set up government of Libya; they offered economic help to a very poor country and gained military presence in return. "When oil was discovered in large commercial reserves in Libya in 1963, US oil companies gained great concessions" and were crucial in helping Libya become a major oil exporter.

Two of the major US oil companies who started the early oil exploration in Libya were Exxon and Mobil, along with at least four others. "Both Exxon and Mobil once had significant business interests in Libya, producing the country's first oil field and shipping oil to market".

However, those companies pulled out of Libya in the early 1980s when relations between the Gaddafi regime and the Reagan administration deteriorated sharply. In 1998, Exxon had a $250 billion merger with Mobil to create the world's largest energy producing company and the newly created Exxon Mobil represented the biggest merger in history.

Exxon Mobil returned to the Libyan oil market in 2005 and is continually looking to strengthen its presence in a country that has the largest oil and gas reserves in Africa, and fifth largest shale oil and gas reserves in the world. The former chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, has just been confirmed as the Trump choice for Secretary of State in charge of American foreign policy.

The Obama administration's military intervention, along with key NATO partners such as the UK, France and others, implemented UN Security council (resolution 1973) to protect civilian lives in Libya; which was certainly a game changer.

Now that the presidential race is over, will Trump still claim that he was opposed to the intervention?

The intervention was crucial in hastening the fall of the Gaddafi regime after six months of the Libyan revolt. President Obama however, did publicly admit that Libya was one of the biggest failures of his foreign policy when he stated in an interview "My worst mistake was probably failing to plan for the day after for what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya,"

Donald Trump, back in 2011, supported the US intervention in Libya and has stated in an interview "Now, we should go in. We should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically, stop him from doing it and save these lives."

However, during his presidential campaign last year, Trump wanted the voters to believe that he opposed the intervention in Libya. This was out of political expediency, simply because he wanted to highlight what he called "foreign policy failures" by his opponent Hilary Clinton, who was in charge of US foreign policy as Obama's Secretary of State.

  Read More: Defining Haftar's role vital to rescuing Libya's political agreement

Now that the presidential race is over, will Trump still claim that he was opposed to the intervention? Or will he just criticise the handling and the failure of the aftermath to which Obama has already conceded?

It is too early to have a clear picture of what the Trump administration's policy towards Libya will be, however, General Haftar's supporters have already hailed Trump's victory, hoping that he will shift US policy towards supporting Haftar in the Libyan conflict. They hope that a new axis of alignment and cooperation will emerge involving Trump, Putin, Sisi and Haftar.

A Washington based academic argued recently that "Trump is likely to be influenced by Russian and Egyptian entreat­ies (appeal) to support Haftar". The academic went on to argue that "Donald Trump may be tempted to opt for a strongman to bring stability to that fractured country and please some of his foreign friends, such as Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi".

The notion that the 75 year old Haftar can extend his military control over the whole of Libya, and bring stability as a result, is flawed.

There are now clear indications that both the US and Russia are keeping their options open because they know the real capabilities and potential of Haftar

Haftar controls the east of Libya, where a quarter of the Libyan population resides, and although aided by military help from countries such as the UAE and Egypt, he is still struggling to clear the remaining pockets of few hundred extremist fighters in some districts of Benghazi.

However, for Haftar to march on to the west of Libya and take over the capital Tripoli or Misrata, is an entirely different ball game. As the influential Brussels based "Crisis Group", in a recent detailed report on Libya, put it "Haftar's promise to 'liberate' Tripoli and destroy militias there is a mirage, because the armed groups across western Libya remain well-equipped and numerically superior".

There are now clear indications that both the US and Russia are keeping their options open because they know the real capabilities and potential of Haftar. They have realised that it is impossible for him to extend and maintain his control over the whole of Libya, without pushing the country into an even deeper and more prolonged civil war that could go on for years, with catastrophic consequences for the whole region.

Read More: Conference on Libya's future postponed over travel ban

Two top advisors of Trump, Steve Bannon and the Lebanese born Walid Phares, who are likely to help him formulate his strategy and policy in the Middle East, are already speaking to many Libyan politicians and influential actors from different sides. Phares is organising a big conference on Libya under the theme "Libya-US Relations 2017: New Vision, Hope, and Opportunities" scheduled for 16 February; however it has just been postponed to April due to recently imposed travel complications. 

Furthermore, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson announced last Friday that the head of the government of national accord (GNA), Fayez al-Serraj, is to lead a delegation on an official visit to Moscow this month.

The Russian spokesperson was quoted as saying that "Russia was trying to help ensure Libya held together as a single country and wanted competing factions to resolve their differences through talks, not violence". The GNA - based in the capital, Tripoli - has faced stiff opposition from Haftar, and is expected to discuss possible cooperation and economic opportunities in Libya with Russian officials.

For Haftar to march on to the west of Libya and take over the capital Tripoli or Misrata, is an entirely different ball game

Al-Serraj is expected to discuss the possible reactivation of lucrative military, transport and oil exploration contracts potentially worth over $10 billion, that Russia negotiated with Libya before the revolution of 2011, but which are yet to be executed.

In addition to deals for military supplies and training, Russian oil company Gazprom gained vital contracts for the right to explore oil and gas in Libya.

A Russian railway company also agreed upon a contract to build a 600km lrailway from Benghazi to Sirte; a further new railway project linking Benghazi to the city of Tobruk in the east may also be discussed.

It is clear that both the US and Russia are taking a long-term strategic outlook on Libya, with potential economic interests at the heart of any immediate political option they choose to pursue. It is also clear that both countries would like to keep channels open, and contacts with all the key players in Libya today.

A strategy of only backing and supporting the controversial General Haftar, in the hope that he can emerge as the dominant power that can impose control and stability in Libya, is a very risky one.

Egypt - which has actively supported Haftar over the last three years - has recently begun reaching out to others in Libya, making extensive contacts with crucial players within the anti-Haftar camp in the west of Libya, including Misrata.

The UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement is currently the only way forward and offers the best framework to achieve consensus and compromise, whereby a role for Haftar can be accommodated, providing the army does not interfere with political decisions, and remains accountable to the political leadership of the country.

Libya is already supplying gas to Europe through a pipeline under the Mediterranean Sea which runs into Italy

It can be assumed that Russia is concerned with the geopolitics of energy, specifically natural gas, and is aware of Libya's relevance to the global energy market.

Libya is already supplying gas to Europe through a pipeline under the Mediterranean Sea which runs into Italy. The potential for further gas production in Libya is massive, and it is capable of meeting much more of Europe's energy needs, thus making European countries less dependent on Russia.

This potential competition is partly why Russia would be keen to have a stake in developing and producing Libyan natural gas, allowing them to maintain market share and control over gas supplies to Europe.

However, Russia can only realise its lucrative strategic economic interests in Libya, if there is a consensus leading to a united and stable country, with all sides and stakeholders represented within any political arrangements.

Despite Russia's recent desire to exert a greater influence in Libya; the US, with the former ExxonMobil chief Tillerson at the helm of its foreign policy, is unlikely to suddenly give up over 60 years of interest and influence in the North-African country.

Given Libya's strategic location and huge potential for rebuilding and development, Tillerson and other close aides are likely to advise Donald Trump not to gamble by allowing Russia to gain a major foothold in Libya, or contemplate playing a game of Russian roulette with Putin over its future.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process.

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab