How Trump's embrace of a rogue Libyan warlord sparked a humanitarian catastrophe

Nick Turse
Contributor
A fighter loyal to Libya's U.N.-backed government (GNA) fires a weapon during a clash with forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar at the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya May 21, 2019. (Photo: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

TRIPOLI, Libya — It’s early morning in the Ain Zara suburb of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and what was once a bustling business district is now silent. The 77 Cafe is locked tight behind steel security doors, a children’s clothing shop lies in ruins, and a storefront has been peppered by machine gun fire, rendering its sign partially unreadable. What remains is a yellow M&M beckoning you to a “Center for Shopping.”

“Alwan al-Jabali, 92nd Infantry, Martyr Hamza,” a memorial by one militiaman to a fallen comrade, reads the scrawl on another former shop.

The only vehicles in view are pickup trucks with machine guns or anti-aircraft weapons mounted in the bed and a tank pulled into an industrial-sized garage hiding from the air power supporting the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of warlord Khalifa Haftar — a former Libyan CIA asset, U.S. citizen and longtime resident of Virginia.

After consolidating power in the east and seizing most oilfields, terminals and ports, Haftar is attempting to take the country — a fragile state since a 2011 revolution and NATO intervention, including American airstrikes, toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi — by force. Backed by France, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Haftar’s LNA is fighting a coalition of militias that support the Government of National Accord, the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

On April 4, after seizing the town of Gharyan, about 30 miles from Tripoli, Haftar ordered his forces to march on the capital. “Use your weapons only against those who prefer to confront and fight you,” he commanded in an audio recording posted online, promising: “Anyone who stays at home will be safe.” But civilians all across the southern edge of the capital — like Muammar Omar, 48 — felt anything but safe when, a day later, bombardment by Haftar’s forces began shaking the ground in Ain Zara.

A Libyan man carries a picture of Khalifa Haftar during a demonstration to support Libyan National Army offensive against Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 12, 2019. (Photo: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

As a veteran of the 2011 revolution that ousted Gadhafi, Omar tried to take it in stride as military vehicles roared down the street and armed fighters stalked through his neighborhood. His wife and four children were terrified, but Omar was reluctant to leave. An engineer by trade, he designed his home in 2011 and began building it “rock by rock,” in the afterglow of the revolution. “It cost me everything to build this. I even went into debt. It’s all we have,” he tells me.

Within days, Omar says, neighbors were in flight and he grew more worried. Finally, the shelling was so heavy and constant that the family fled with just a few small suitcases. “All I have in the world now are four shirts. Money is tight and it goes to the children,” he says.

Since the war began, Omar sees his family only occasionally because his wife and his kids are living with her parents and he stays with his. They were forced to split up because his elderly father and sick mother are already hosting family members who fled the war. Fourteen people now share a four-room flat. “I’m at least fortunate. I still have a place to live and a job. But there are tens of thousands of us. So many have nothing. They have nowhere to live. They have no food for their children.”

For weeks, Haftar’s forces have launched attacks on neighborhoods ringing the south of Tripoli — unleashing artillery, rockets, and air strikes, while the militias opposing them also use indiscriminate weapons. Omar believes that America can end this war and the suffering it has brought to hundreds of thousands of civilians, a common opinion among Libyans of all stripes.

Smoke rises from the south of Tripoli following clashes between the self-styled Libyan National Army under the command of warlord Khalifa Haftar and militias serving the Government of National Accord, the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. (Photo: Nick Turse for Yahoo News)

“This is the worst that things have been since 2011. We’re sick of Haftar and this war,” he says. “This started with the United States and the United States can end it.”

Libyan political analyst Mahmoud Ismael al-Ramli agrees. “The United States is capable of stopping this war with one phone call — with one word,” he says.

He and others praise the United States for aiding the revolution in 2011 and believed that the relationship between the two nations was cemented when “GNA-aligned forces” fought against the Islamic State, serving as proxy U.S. ground troops during an American air campaign of “495 precision airstrikes” in the city of Sirte between August and December 2016. But many of these same Libyans have come to blame the Trump administration for turning its back on their country and embracing the warlord laying siege to Tripoli.

They echo U.S. foreign policy experts and former government officials who say that, with one phone call last month, President Trump gave Khalifa Haftar the go-ahead to carry out a military campaign marked by atrocities. It’s a battle that may transform Libya from a near-failed state into a humanitarian catastrophe on the level of Yemen or Syria.

“I think it’s a green light. That’s the signal that Haftar and others take from such clear and unambiguous White House support,” explains Jeffrey Feltman, a former senior State Department official in the Obama administration, and until last year, a U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs. “President Trump could have gotten behind some kind of initiative to prevent the type of military assault on Tripoli that's going to lead to enormous civilian casualties and enormous infrastructure damage.”

Fighters loyal to the Libyan internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) fire a heavy machine gun during clashes against forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar, on May 21, 2019 in the Salah al-Din area south of the Libyan capital Tripoli. (Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Libyans’ belief that the United States has considerable sway over the conflict in the country is not unfounded. The U.S. military has conducted operations in Libya for a considerable amount of time. Under a program code-named Obsidian Lotus, for example, U.S. commandos have trained and equipped Libyan special operations forces for missions against al-Qaida and ISIS, better known here as Daesh, or militants. One of the units trained under Obsidian Lotus ended up under the control of Haftar, according to Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who headed Special Operations Command Africa from 2015 to 2017.

Bolduc, for his part, believes that the United States made a mistake when the Obama administration ordered the U.S. military to cease cooperation with Haftar, because he wasn’t willing to work with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord. Bolduc, who has described Haftar as a “guy that we could trust,” argues that the Libyan general was an effective military partner.

This is a reputation Haftar’s LNA has cultivated. A previously undisclosed letter sent by Haftar’s government to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed that the warlord’s force has long “waged war against terrorist groups, militias, and criminal insurgents, including Al Qaida, ISIS, and the like.”

Libyan National Accord Government troops clash military commander Khalifa Haftar's troops on course of the airport in Al Sawani region of Tripoli, Libya on May 15, 2019. (Photo: Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


But critics point out that Haftar has long traded on this reputation as a bulwark against terrorist groups in order to gain support for his consolidation of power. “I have to hand it to Haftar,” says Col. Reda Essa, a Libyan military commander involved in the fight against the warlord. “He’s extremely convincing. He convinced people he was successful in fighting terrorism, but he demolished the city of Benghazi in the fight against Daesh and still allowed their forces to escape to Sirte unharmed.”

Representatives of Haftar and the LNA did not respond to requests for comment.

Officially, the United States supports the al-Sarraj government and initially took a hard line on Haftar’s offensive. On April 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an unequivocal rebuke of the Libyan-American warlord’s campaign. “The United States is deeply concerned about fighting near Tripoli,” he announced. “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.”

At that point, the fighting had already forced thousands to flee. Salah Isaid, whose home is on the southern edge of Tripoli, was trapped in his house with his family, when shelling started around 7:30 in the morning, Isaid made his children crawl on the floor, afraid that the intensifying gunfire would rip through their windows or walls.

Libyan National Accord Government troops clash military commander Khalifa Haftar's troops on course of the airport in Al Sawani region of Tripoli, Libya on May 15, 2019. (Photo: Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The family tried to escape by car six times, but was turned back by armed men, though they didn’t know for which side they fought. The Government of National Accord’s “army” is, in reality, a coalition of militias, including homegrown fighters from Tripoli, others from the western mountain town of Zintan, and, to a large extent, those of the coastal city of Misrata. While some wear uniforms, others dress in street clothes, and most are armed with aging weapons seized nearly a decade ago from Gadhafi’s forces, and are fed by coalitions of women from their neighborhoods who cook meals that are brought to the frontline by volunteers. The ad hoc nature of the GNA’s army, creates frustration at checkpoints for civilians like Isaid.

Finally, early one morning, with little more than the clothes they were wearing, Isaid, his wife and two children managed to drive out of their ravaged neighborhood to safety on the coastal edge of the capital, joining tens of thousands of Libyans made homeless by Haftar’s offensive.

On April 15, President Trump spoke to the warlord by phone, although the call was not made public at the time. Three days after the still unannounced conversation, American policy executed a 180-degree turn as the U.S. joined Russia in blocking a British-authored United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya.

The Wall Street Journal, citing a senior U.S. administration official and two Saudi sources, reported that lobbying by Saudi Arabia and Egypt convinced Trump to reach out to Haftar. A White House official declined to comment to Yahoo News on the veracity of the story. Bloomberg, citing three diplomats, reported that White House national security adviser John Bolton gave Haftar a “green light” and that President Trump expressed his support for the assault on Tripoli to the field marshal. The White House disputes this.

When the administration finally released a readout of the phone call on April 19, it hardly read as a rebuke: “The President recognized Field Marshal Haftar'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.”

Libya watchers say that this public praise emboldened Haftar to unleash heavier firepower on Tripoli and signaled to his backers, including the UAE and Egypt, that they had a green light to continue or even increase their support. “It opens the floodgates to the type of financial and military assistance — from the Saudis, Egyptians and others — for a battle for Tripoli instead of on some kind of political approach,” says Feltman, the former State Department official.

Displaced persons like Salah Isaid were shocked by President Trump’s support for the warlord who drove them from their homes. “Why would the United States support a war criminal and a dictator?” asks Isaid. “Haftar is endangering civilians. Doesn’t America understand this?”

African migrants who fled battle zones in Libya gather at a detention center in Zawiya, west of the capital Tripoli, on April 27, 2019. (Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Some 75,000 people have been displaced since the conflict here began in April, according to the United Nations, but Libyan government officials say it’s a major undercount. “This is the number of registered internally displaced persons — IDPs — but we suspect that 200,000 or more people have left or are staying with relatives,” says Naser al-Kriwi, a member of the Tripoli Crisis Committee, a city government task force attempting to cope with the war’s humanitarian toll.

About 1.5 million people — almost a quarter of Libya’s entire population — have been affected by the current conflict, according to the U.N. More than 2,600 people have been killed or wounded — including at least 126 confirmed civilian casualties, a number that experts say is likely lower than the actual figure.

Death and displacement represent, however, just a fraction of the war’s impacts. An already overtaxed health care system has, for example, been pushed to the brink. “The current conflict overloaded the weak health facilities with heavy casualties on a daily basis. Since the beginning of the crisis, an average of 70 casualties were reported per day,” says Hussein Hassan, the World Health Organization’s health emergencies team leader for Libya.

Homes and businesses along the southern edge of Tripoli, Libya's capital, have sustained damage or been demolished in fighting between the self-styled Libyan National Army under the command of warlord Khalifa Haftar and militias serving the Government of National Accord, the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. (Photo: Nick Turse for Yahoo News)

Destruction is written across the south of Tripoli in the form of homes and shops pockmarked by machine gun fire. Others sport large holes in their walls caused by heavier weapons. Many have been looted and armed fighters have clearly taken up residence in some of the structures. “The destruction is beyond belief. Homes are demolished — so are mosques, shops, schools, clinics, roads, sewers,” says Mohamed Fadel Gubran, chairman of Tripoli’s Higher Committee for the Return of Displaced Persons.

The academic school year in Tripoli was suspended in conflict areas, affecting more than 122,000 children, according to UNICEF. At least 70 schools and administrative buildings have been converted to makeshift shelters, says Gubran.

The bombardment of Ain Zara that began in the first days of the war has continued for weeks, as desperate civilians have endured rockets, shelling and airstrikes, and a complete lack of water and electricity. Neighborhoods all across southern Tripoli have experienced such attacks, but the worst of them took place on April 16 — the day after Haftar’s phone call with Trump — when the LNA indiscriminately reigned artillery shells on residential areas.

“The use of indiscriminate, explosive weapons in civilian areas constitutes a war crime,” said Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya Ghassan Salamé in the wake of attacks on heavily populated neighborhoods on April 16. “Liability for such actions lies not only with the individuals who committed the indiscriminate attacks, but also potentially with those who ordered them.”

Two nights later, several more neighborhoods were shelled, while others were hit by rockets. “The escalation of attacks in residential areas, including the use of artillery, rockets and airstrikes is deeply worrying. Thousands of children, women and men’s lives are at risk,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet lamented.

Fighters loyal to the Libyan internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) carry a wounded comrade during clashes against forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar, on May 21, 2019 in the Salah al-Din area south of the Libyan capital Tripoli. (Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Just days ago, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., announced that he and other members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs were calling on the Justice Department to begin an investigation into war crimes by Haftar and his subordinates. “Mr. Haftar is,” Malinowski said, “a citizen of the United States and subject to our laws. And I think it’s about time that we held him accountable under our laws.”

In the meantime, experts fear that the situation will deteriorate further, mirroring the fighting in Yemeni and Syrian cities. “I’m really worried about an extended battle for Tripoli — which has largely escaped the type of physical destruction you've seen in Sanaa or Aleppo — in which the capital will suffer the same level of civilian casualties, infrastructure destruction and displacement as those cities,” says Feltman. “The miracle of Libya, since 2011 — partially because it's a relatively small population and a large territory — is that it hasn’t seen that type of destruction and devastation.”

With Haftar’s offensive stalled and a ceasefire unlikely, the potential exists for a prolonged struggle that may decimate large swaths of the capital and beyond. U.N. envoy Ghassan Salamé warns that Libya is now “on the verge of descending into a civil war that could lead to the permanent division of the country.”

Residents of Tripoli like Muammar Omar, the father of four who fled the Ain Zara suburb, are already thinking about what will happen if Haftar’s forces push further into the capital. He says that his car is now the place his family is most often together. He picks them up in the morning, drives his wife to the dental clinic where she works, drops the children off at school, and then goes to work.

“I hated Gadhafi and I fought against Gadhafi. We wanted freedom and a democratic government,” he says. “But now, I don’t care anymore. Why did we fight Gadhafi? Haftar is just like Gadhafi.”


This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.

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