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US strike rekindles debate over Trump plans for Libya

Barack Obama made a show of battling the Islamic State in conjunction with Tripoli's UN-backed unity government. Will the new president drop the GNA for an anti-Islamist strongman?
A member of Libyan forces loyal to eastern commander Khalifa Haftar holds a weapon as he sits on a car in front of the gate at Zueitina oil terminal in Zueitina, west of Benghazi, Libya September 14, 2016. Picture taken September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori - RTSNU2U

As he's done several times since last summer, Barack Obama, in one of his final acts as president this week, ordered a bombing raid against Islamic State (IS) militants "in conjunction" with Tripoli's UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

The raid on militants who were fleeing the former IS stronghold of Sirte reportedly killed more than 80 fighters and sent a clear message on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration that the Pentagon is fully committed to the fight against the terrorist group. Just as significantly, the Pentagon's statement highlighting the GNA's role reminded the incoming administration that the United States has a Libyan partner in that fight.

"The whole point is to demonstrate that the GNA is the one that we support in their effort to rid the country of [IS]," Ben Fishman, who served as director for North Africa in Obama's National Security Council, told Al-Monitor. "It's clearly a demonstration that this is the current administration's policy and has been consistently over the past couple of years."

That message is seen as particularly relevant after Trump officially took power Jan. 20. The billionaire businessman and his lieutenants raged against "radical Islam" and championed counterterrorism over nation-building throughout the campaign, leaving Libya watchers fretful that he may abandon the Islamist-tinged GNA in favor of Khalifa Hifter, the anti-Islamist strongman who commands the Libyan National Army formed of rebels against Moammar Gadhafi, regime defectors and allied militias.

"With Trump coming in, the door opens to Hifter playing perhaps the biggest role in Libya," said Lydia Sizer, a former State Department Libya desk officer under Obama. "Which is a little frustrating for some countries, including Italy, which are really committed to the unity government effort."

An intense lobbying campaign to set a new course under the new administration has been playing out behind the scenes for months.

Back in May, the Treasury Department sanctioned Agila Saleh Issa, the president of the Hifter-allied House of Representatives (HOR) in Tobruk, for "stalling political progress in Libya." Two months later, Issa, Hifter and several others hired a Canada-based firm to lobby Congress and the administration on their behalf.

"We hope for your support," the HOR wrote in a statement to Trump after his election in November, "and we call for the lifting of the arms embargo on the Libyan army which is waging a war against terrorism."

Meanwhile, countries such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which openly support Hifter, have continued to pour millions of dollars into their US lobbying operations. A UN report last year criticized both countries for bringing weapons into the country, in violation of a Security Council embargo; the next report is expected in March.

And Russia, with whom Trump says he wants to work more closely in the fight against terrorism, has repeatedly hosted Hifter, most recently on its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov off the Libyan coast on Jan. 11. Tellingly, as part of a November 2015 agreement with their Canada-based lobbyist, Issa and Hifter sought $500 million in "security equipment" and "technical support" from the Russian government.

"From what I understand, there are a group of pro-HOR, pro-Hifter people reaching out to the incumbent administration. And certainly Cairo has been active in promoting the Hifter side and I'm sure they haven't made their views unknown to the incoming team," Fishman said. "All that adds up for me to an initial campaign of influence to get the new administration to at least rethink the current Obama policy of supporting the GNA."

To get in front of the issue, Fishman penned a Jan. 19 analysis for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy titled "Shifting International Support for Libya's Unity Government."

"If the Trump administration steers away from the internationally backed unity government and toward the Russian/Egyptian-backed strongman, Khalifa [Hifter]," he argued in the opening sentence, "it risks ending Libya’s fragile accord and sparking another civil war.”

Italian observers have also been paying close attention to Trump. Italy used to be Libya's colonial overlord, and it has taken a lead role in helping with the post-Gadhafi transition. Earlier in January, it became the first Western country to reopen its embassy, which had been closed since the country erupted into chaos in 2015.

"As is happening in Syria, where the new head of the White House is willing to cooperate with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad to destroy the Islamic State, the same could happen in Libya if Trump is convinced that working with the Kremlin and its ally Hifter is the best way to give a future to Tripoli and free it from terrorists," reported La Stampa, one of Italy's largest newspapers, in a Jan. 19 article that quickly made the rounds among Libya watchers on social media.

Still, Libya experts don't expect a quick 180-degree turn under Trump. For one thing, both the GNA and the arms embargo are recognized by the United Nations; for another, US law restricts the types of foreign forces that Washington can train and arm.

Instead, the new administration could turn a blind eye to arms embargo violations. In addition, Fishman noted, the Obama administration regularly signed multilateral joint statements decrying challenges to the GNA's authority.

"We could stop putting our name on those statements," he said. "And basically that could signal that the US isn't behind the GNA anymore and all bets are off about what the consequences of basically attacking [it] would be."

Put simply, Sizer said, the United States could alter its policy in Libya by simply disengaging.

"During the campaign, Trump made a big deal of saying how much of a failure the Libya intervention was, and he also talked a lot about the failure of the Iraq state-building process, so I really can't see him advocating for policies that would commit a lot of taxpayer dollars to building a country that's really not a priority," she said. "And the fact of the matter is, to help rebuild Libya in a way that's going to foster a democratic transition requires a lot of time and resources."

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