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As Violence Escalates In Libya, U.S. Pulls Troops Out


More than seven years after the death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya is on the brink of civil war. Warring militias there are locked in a power struggle for control of the capital city Tripoli. To the west, the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli. To the east, forces loyal to a general named Khalifa Haftar. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement urging Haftar to immediately stop his military operations. And over the weekend, the U.S. military pulled its troops out of the country.

Jeffrey Feltman served as the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs until last year, and he's in our studios with us this morning. Thanks so much for coming in.

JEFFREY FELTMAN: Thanks for inviting me. This is an important story.

MARTIN: It is, indeed. And as you well know, Libya has been unstable for a long time, ever since Moammar Gadhafi was unseated in 2011. President Obama described his handling of the aftermath of that as the, quote, "worst mistake of his presidency." Can you just help us understand what is happening right now?

FELTMAN: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, it is worth keeping in mind that despite the instability, despite the political chaos in Libya since 2011, this is not Syria. We have not seen the type of destruction, or fatalities or casualties that we've seen in Syria in the same period.

But what you have is, you have a government in Tripoli that's recognized internationally. So it has the support of the Security Council, but has been unable to build momentum to expand its control over the country facing, as you said in the introduction, a rival force in the east headed by General Haftar, who was once an officer in Gadhafi's army who's now moved his forces first south and now up on the edge of Tripoli, leading to the situation that's on the verge of civil war.

MARTIN: And Haftar is getting support from Russia. Right?

FELTMAN: Yes. Haftar traditionally has gotten support from Egypt, from the UAE, from France, for going against Islamists in eastern Libya. But now he also has the support of Russia, and he seems to have the support of Saudi Arabia. He had an important meeting with Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman in Riyadh on March 27. I think that that support from Russia, the support from Saudi Arabia, helps explain why he's moved now.

I think he's long wanted to do this. It's been an aspiration of his, but it's proving to be more difficult than he thought. He thought that he would be able to basically walk into Tripoli. And in fact, he's getting - he's facing considerable resistance. And that's one of the reasons why I think we should all welcome the strong, direct statement by Secretary of State Pompeo from last night.

MARTIN: So you think this was a good move by the Secretary of State to release this?

FELTMAN: It was absolutely, absolutely the right thing to do. There was a lot of ambiguity about the U.S. position. And I think Haftar was playing an ambiguity to hit to his advantage. And now there's no more ambiguity. What the U.S. needs to do now is sort of rally the international community, build support for taking measures against Haftar. There have been sanctions passed by the U.N. under U.S. leadership against others who've tried to use a military solution in Libya. I think it's time to think about that for Haftar, as well.

MARTIN: Why had the Trump administration been ambiguous, to use your word, when it comes to Libya?

FELTMAN: I think a couple of reasons. One is, you know, the Trump administration, I think, saw Libya as not our problem, not a U.S. problem. It was an African problem, an Arab problem, a European problem, but it wasn't a U.S. problem.

And second, I think the U.S. was hedging its bets a bit. You know, the government in Tripoli that's recognized had not really been able to expand its control. It was reliant on desperate local militias. And Haftar had gone after some very bad forces, Islamic forces, in the east. So I think the U.S. was hedging its bets.

But the U.S. has proven uniquely credible in trying to change the situation on the ground in Libya, as the Trump administration has shown twice in the past year or so. There was an oil crescent crisis last summer when Haftar tried to unilaterally seize the oil revenues of Libya for his own purposes. The U.S. pushed back against that successfully. And then second, in February, there was an attempt to keep one of Libya's largest oil fields off production. The U.S. again pushed back and got the field open.

So I think the U.S. has proven it can, when focused on Libya, make a real difference. And the Pompeo statement, I hope, is the beginning of a concerted international effort led by the U.S. to stop the move on Tripoli.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Feltman is the former U.N. undersecretary-general of political affairs at the U.N. Thank you so much for coming in this morning. We appreciate your context on this.

FELTMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.