By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
Libya’s rival factions are battling for attention from a Donald Trump administration that has shown little interest in cleaning up the chaos left over from its predecessor.
Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, held his first official meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House last month. Meanwhile his chief rival, military strongman Gen. Khalifa Hifter, is refusing to call it quits and has instead doubled down on his beltway influence campaign.
During his meeting with Serraj, the US president “underscored the United States’ continued support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the United Nations-facilitated efforts to achieve political reconciliation in Libya,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders. Still, the prime minister's reported request that the Trump administration lift the international arms embargo on Libya appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
Not to be outdone, Hifter’s family and loyalists have recently hired two new lobbying firms and even launched a think-tank in the Washington area to help the eastern-based military leader court Congress and the executive branch.
Hifter's son, Khaled Khalifa Hifter, a captain in the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, hired Washington-based Grassroots Political Consulting on Nov. 1 to "advocate the political and strategic interests of the Hifter family in the US Congress," according to lobbying disclosure records. "The advocacy efforts are to provide a clear narrative of the Hifter family, its capabilities and desires [to] strengthen multilateral relationships for the restoration and the future of Libya and its people." The contract is for $20,000 per month for six months.
And on Dec. 1, Hifter’s chief of staff and self-proclaimed governor of Eastern Libya, Gen. Abdelrazek al-Nadhouri, retained the services of Keystone Strategic Advisers to “provide strategic political and communications counsel” for the Tobruk-based government. Nadhouri ’s interests in Washington are represented by Vladimir Petrovic, Serbia’s former ambassador to the United States.
“We aim to inform Congress and other stakeholders about the situation on the ground and explore what can be done to improve the security situation which would benefit civilians in Libya and the US national interest,” Petrovic told Al-Monitor.
Meanwhile, a man named Okba Hifter filed articles of incorporation for the nonprofit Sphera Institute in September 2016 in Virginia, where Hifter lived after turning against Moammar Gadhafi in the 1980s. The Sphera Institute did not respond to repeated Al-Monitor inquiries concerning Okba Hifter's relationship to Khalifa Hifter. The institute hired Isaac Alsufy as its director and Muath Alsufy as a lawyer, records show, but shut down in late November.
Despite Sarraj’s recent meeting with Trump, both he and Hifter have had to fight an uphill battle to grab the attention of a president who has sent mixed-messages about his commitment to Libyan peace-making.
Standing beside Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who had asked the United States to play a more active role in Libya, Trump told reporters on April 20 that he “does not see a role in Libya” beyond combatting the Islamic State. Just the day before, however, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley reassured the Security Council that the United States remained firmly behind the UN-backed framework for political reconciliation.
The very next month, US Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde, who is currently based in Tunis, met with Sarraj in Tripoli along with AFRICOM Commander Tom Waldhauser, the first high-ranking official to travel to Libya since 2014.
Counterintuitively, both the now-disbanded General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, which is close to Sarraj's GNA, and their rivals in the Hifter-allied House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk have retained the same Canadian consulting firm to help make their case. Montreal-based Dickens and Madson is run by former arms dealer Ari Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Iraqi Jew and Israeli citizen best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
Ben-Menashe says he has met with various Libyan factions and members of both the HoR and the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli to help them make peace and earn the Trump administration’s support. Sarraj was minister of housing and utilities under the Islamist-controlled GNC and maintains ties to officials represented by Ben-Menashe.
“We’re putting them together in multiple places,” Ben-Menashe told Al-Monitor. “It’s a difficult [task] but from the beginning they both agreed to have us present both sides and all that.”
Should the two factions reconcile, Ben-Menashe says he hopes to get the US government to “recognize them as a group.”
Coming off a late July meeting facilitated by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, Sarraj and Hifter issued a joint statement calling for new elections as early as next year. But reaching that point could be considerably more complicated even as top US officials remain silent on the issue.
“These deals last usually as long as a few weeks; sometimes it’s just a few days,” former US special envoy to Libya Jonathan Winer told Al-Monitor in an August interview. Winer left his post when Trump took office and has not been replaced since.
“As of right now, it’s being handled in what I would call a routine fashion but by very, very capable career diplomats who are doing the best possible to … keep things from getting worse and to maintain the option for the administration to work with other countries to try to improve the situation,” said Winer. “But it hasn’t been an area, so far as I can tell, that the administration has engaged in.”
Nonetheless, the State Department budget request for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 seeks $31 million in foreign assistance for Libya, a 50 % increase over last year. Economic aid accounts for the bulk of the requested increase, rising to $23 million up from $15 million in fiscal year 2017.
Winer said he met frequently with the leaders of various competing factions in his capacity as Obama’s envoy to Libya, including Hifter, whom he currently views as the primary obstacle to peace.
“Gen. Hifter wants military support so he can become a dictator and run the country that way,” he said. “They just want recognition of the east so they can control oil and resources independent of Tripoli.”
In addition to Hifter’s scaled up lobbying campaign, Hifter already has some powerful allies in Washington.
Walid Phares, a Middle East adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, has been singing his praises as a counterweight to Tripoli, which right-wing critics in the United States see as dominated by Islamists. Phares notably participated in a Capitol Hill event this May organized by the nonprofit National Council on US-Libya Relations, which included several speakers close to Hifter and critical of Sarraj’s government.
And until late April, Hifter ally Aref Ali Nayed, Libya’s former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, retained the services of US law firm Greenberg Traurig to promote his vision to US policymakers via his Libya Institute for Advanced Studies (LIAS). The UAE, along with Egypt, are among Hifter’s strongest backers in the region. The firm was paid $45,000 in 2015 but hasn’t reported any activity since, according to lobbying records.
“According to many officials,” Libya expert Mattia Toaldo of the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote in June, “while being largely disinterested in Libya, the Trump administration has delivered a clear message to [Hifter]: play ball with whatever strategy comes out of Cairo and Abu Dhabi.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, the short-lived, Tripoli-based National Salvation government close to the GNC hired the Alexandria Group in April 2016 just days before disbanding. Still, the Alexandria Group reported $42,000 in fees last year, the only Libyan lobbyist to record any payments.
Further adding to the complexity, Ben-Menashe in 2013 had previously lobbied on behalf of Libyan warlord Ibrahim Jadhran, who seized control of the country’s eastern ports that year and proceeded to sell Libyan oil abroad without the consent of Libya’s former central government. This prompted the United States to seize one of Jadhran’s oil tankers in the Mediterranean and blockade shipments from ports under his control.
Correction: Dec. 21, 2017. This article has been updated to remove reference to ties between the Sphera Institute's staff and the US government because we could not corroborate that former State Department employees who share the same names as Institute staffers are in fact the same people. Apologies.
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