After years of turmoil in Libya, United Nations envoys believed they were on the verge of striking a deal this month that would have brought the country’s factions together at a conference to agree on a unified government and a plan for elections. Then Khalifa Hifter, a 75-year-old warlord who aspires to become Libya’s next dictator, launched an offensive against the capital, Tripoli, that ruptured the peace process and may lead to another devastating Arab civil war.
What prompted Hifter to conclude he should seek military victory rather than compromise? In the past few days, the answer has gradually become clear: His offensive has been egged on and materially supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. These Arab governments and Russia have deliberately sabotaged an international effort that had the support of the European Union, the African Union and the United States, in addition to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.
Hifter has had backing from these outside powers, as well as from France, for years, even as he consolidated control over eastern Libya and established a rival regime to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli. But days before launching his latest offensive, the self-styled general visited Saudi Arabia, where he was promised millions of dollars in aid to pay for the operation,according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The money, meant to pay off tribal leaders and recruit new fighters, represents another reckless gamble by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has already launched a disastrous intervention in Yemen as well as failed attempts to subjugate the Lebanese and Qatari governments.
On Sunday, Hifter got an explicit endorsement from Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whom he met in Cairo. Sissi had returned only days earlier from visiting President Donald Trump at the White House, but he showed no hesitation in contradicting U.S. demands that Hifter end his attack.
For now, the attempt to install Hifter in Tripoli doesn’t look likely to succeed. The offensive has had the effect of rallying otherwise fractious Libyan forces; hardened militia men from other cities have poured into the area to stop the invasion. Hifter’s supporters point out that the resisters include extremist elements on a U.N. sanctions list. But then, Hifter’s forces include war criminals and exponents of the Saudi brand of religious fundamentalism.
The most likely result of the fighting is more needless suffering for Libyans, thousands of whom have already been displaced by the fighting. The flow of refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe could increase, and the Islamic State, which the United States spent years working to defeat in Libya, could revive. All this thanks to the meddling of Arab governments that the Trump administration portrays as its close allies and cooperative partners in the region.
Trump often complains of U.S. clients who accept Washington’s aid and protection, only to take advantage of its fecklessness. Should he care to look, he could find an excellent example of that unfolding in Libya.