This past week, a US defense news site, Defense One, raised the possibility that the Trump administration might be shifting its backing in Libya, yet again. The US, as does the EU, officially backs the UN-recognised GNA in Tripoli. In April, the administration seemed to be flirting with the idea of shifting this allegiance to the surging Haftar and the LNA, as he began his offensive on Tripoli, and seemed poised to take control over all of Libya. At the time, the statement released by the White House noted that President Trump “recognised Field Marshal Hifter’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” This took many, including in the State Department, by surprise. Perhaps it was Trump being impulsive. Perhaps it is Trump’s seeming affinity for quasi-dictatorial strongmen. Or perhaps it signalled a deeper policy shift within the White House and National Security Council and an anticipation that Haftar would take control over all of Libya.
Well, we are nearing December, and Haftar’s offensive has long stalled on the outskirts of Tripoli. This likely explains why the US has since distanced itself from Haftar and from this position. In fact, just last week, the administration seemed to clarify its policy by holding publicised meetings with senior GNA representatives in Washington and releasing a clear statement regarding whom the US supports, or at least, whom it does not. As we noted here on this site, this is likely due, in part, to the growing role and influence of Russia which is now backing Haftar’s efforts, including by supplying mercenaries. Less troubling for the US, Haftar continues to enjoy considerable support from the UAE, as well as Egypt and Jordan.
What peaked Defense One’s, as well as our interest, and other media outlets, was an odd meeting between US National Security Council officials and Aref al Nayed, a Haftar linked politician, noted Islamic Scholar and former Libyan ambassador to the UAE (2011 until 2016). Al Nayed’s name should not be new to seasoned Libya observers – the prominent religious and political figure has made headlines over the past few years, as he attempts to position himself as the political future of Libya, a figure that can unite both sides along with international support.
Al Nayed has more than once expressed his interest in running for President. According to Defense One, the White House was “noncommittal” to al Nayed’s proposal that they shift their backing to him. Al Nayed also met with State Department officials in recent months. The State Department, which continues to support the GNA, and reiterated this recently, refused to comment, and replied by stressing that “The United States is engaged in broad outreach with a variety of Libyan stakeholders to promote progress toward an equitable economic and political solution to the conflict in Libya.” Indeed, just this week, an American delegation in Libya met with Haftar to advance a cease fire.
The NSC meetings with al Nayed were described by one former American official as “unusual”, and similar to the failed US experiment to bring in Ahmed Chalabi to Iraq after overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003. The official, according to Defense One, noted that al Nayed was “very western, very connected…. (but) doesn’t have the backing of people on the ground who would vote for him, so he’s looking for the West to make him into a leader.” However, Libya experts in Washington said that the meetings, and their publication, at least suggest the administration is considering the option as it looks for ways to end the conflict. As one previous Libya director at the NSC explained, the administration understands that both the GNA and Haftar have their limitations.
According to Nayed’s proposal, he would be a candidate for president, after Haftar takes control of the rest of the country, and facilitates elections. However, it is unclear if this would happen, since, at times, Haftar has expressed interest himself in being an Sisi-like or even Ghaddafi-like strongman figure and remaining in power.
Defense One notes that Nayed has been known to American officials since the 2011 overthrow of Ghaddafi, and was, since then, trying to position himself as a unifying figure with strong tribal ties on the ground. They question, however, how he can do that as he seems to rarely be on the ground.
In mid-2017, al Nayed launched a political movement called Ihya Libya, or “Reviving Libya”, with the intention of bringing a “stable, democratic and prosperous country”. Al Nayed pointed to four “pillars” he would focus on, including peace, security and rule of law, economic development, human development and governance, and public sector reform. To advance these, there would need to be a process of national and local dialogue and reconciliation first. In 2018, al-Nayed re-launched his political platform and announced his intention to run for president in the next election, as the House of Representatives has “failed to approve plans for a constitution referendum… and elections for a new parliament and president.” Al Nayed said, at the time, that the decision was based on “extensive discussions with representatives from towns, tribes… women… youth… and many other activists as well as with Libyans outside the country…”.
Rumours and reports regarding international backing for al Nayed were were picked up in the Libyan press as well. But even before this, already in July, as it seemed Haftar’s offensive to take Tripoli was stalling, rumours began to emerge that the UAE, Haftar's main backer, was considering shifting its support from Haftar to al-Nayed. One report even noted a source claiming that Abu Dhabi would impose al-Nayed on Haftar, since the attempt to take Tripoli has failed and created only chaos.
The energy sector news site OilPrice.com also raised this possibility, noting that Trump administration officials held multiple meetings with al-Nayed, who is described as “expected to hold a top leadership position once Tripoli is liberated by Haftar’s Libyan National Army.” The website suggests that the revelation of these meetings “renewed speculation and confusion over the future of Washington policy in Libya.”
Its not clear the US is changing policy, despite the meetings. Rather, it is more likely that Washington is keeping its options open for now and maintaining connections with any party who has the potential to be influential. However, what does seem to be clear from these reports is that the UAE is looking into switching its backing to al-Nayed over Haftar. The question remains – does he have support on the ground? And will the major international players back this move? This is certainly a development to follow.