The US does not support the offensive byLibya’s eastern-based military leader Khalifa Haftar against Tripoli and believes Russia is working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to move militia fighters and equipment to Libya, senior US officials said.
“The US does not support LNA military action against Tripoli. The attack on the capital diverts resources from what is a priority for us – counterterrorism,” Henry Wooster, deputy assistant secretary at State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said in a conference call, referring to Haftar’s Libyan National Army.
Haftar launched an offensive a year ago to seize Tripoli and parts of north-west Libya. Since 2014, Libya has been split between areas controlled by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the north-west and territory held by Haftar eastern-based forces in Benghazi.
Haftar is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while government is backed by Turkey. The UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Libya in 2011 amid an uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Jim Jeffrey, US special envoy for Syria, speaking to reporters on the same call, said the battlefield could become more complicated. “We know that, certainly the Russians are working with Assad to transfer militia fighters, possibly a third country, possibly Syrian, to Libya, as well as equipment.”
Russian private military contractor Wagner Group has up to 1 200 people deployed in Libya, strengthening Haftar’s forces, a confidential UN report said.
President Donald Trump called Haftar last year, early in the offensive, in a move some diplomats took as a sign Washington might back the former Gaddafi officer. Since then the US urged all sides to de-escalate, a call that fell on deaf ears.
Asked if Haftar’s foreign backers could persuade him to end the offensive given recent setbacks, Wooster said: “I don’t think in the near-term, at least in the foreseeable future, there’s any likely prospect that would happen.
“As long as there is an objective they can meet through Haftar as an instrument, we don’t see them backing down,” Wooster said.
US officials also expressed discomfort about ties between Haftar and Assad.
“There is a troubling other element that is Haftar’s establishment of so-called diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, very much a part of the question of Syrian mercenaries, at least on his side of the equation,” Wooster said.
Haftar opened an embassy in Syria in March and called on Damascus to unite in a common fight against Turkish backed militant groups. Turkey has long called for the departure of Assad and backed Syrian rebels against Assad forces.
Assad looks to shed his country’s pariah status and regain Arab support. The United Arab Emirates reopened its Damascus embassy in December 2018 and forged closer ties after supporting rebels fighting Assad.