The US is utilizing the CIA’s muscle to quietly re-engage militarily in Syria and Libya. This is a seismic turnaround for the Obama administration which, only months ago, was staunchly opposed to the very concept of direct action.
Monday, May 19, DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources first revealed that US and United Arab Emirates elements were backing the retired Libyan general Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to rid the regime of disabling Islamist extremists. He first attacked Benghazi Friday, May 16 and went on to storm parliament in Tripoli two days later.
Despite the denials of US involvement, the Obama administration this week powerfully underscored its support for Hafter by a decision to send Ambassador David Satterfield to Libya to help the general “build a political consensus.” As the general’s operation gathered momentum and local allies at breakneck speed, June 25 was cited for the first time as the date of a general election.
Interestingly, Satterfield will continue his duties as Director General of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Egyptian Sinai along with his Libyan mission.
This ties in closely with the major role Egypt too has undertaken in support of the Libyan general’s enterprise. Satterfield is well placed to liaise between Cairo and Tripoli.
Jumping on Haftar’s bandwagon
DEBKA Weekly has identified Haftar’s collaborators on the ground as the CIA and the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), as well as UAE intelligence, under the supervision of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Zayed al-Nayhan and Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim.
The Americans for the most part lay on intelligence, while the UAE is providing intelligence and money. Most critically, the emirate bankrolls payouts for buying local militia support for the Haftar venture.
This effort quickly turned up trumps: Tuesday, May 20, the Libyan army’s Special Forces commander Wanis Bukhamada announced his force had joined Gen, Khalifa Haftar’s fight against the Islamist grip on government.
This show of support was a major boost to Haftar and a loss for the Libyan government, which denounced him as a renegade and accused of attempting to stage a coup.
As for Cairo’s support, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report Egypt’s spy agencies, under Maj. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Fareed al-Tuhami – who visited Washington in April — are already deployed in northwestern Libya. And Egyptian commando units are massed on the Egypt-Libya border, standing by for orders from Cairo to embark on four operations laid out on the common planning board:
Oil interests are prominent – so are Al Qaeda’s threats
1. When ordered to do so, those units will cross the border into Libya’s eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica, for the task of holding back dozens of Al Qaeda-affiliated radical Islamist militias based there, including Ansar al-Sharia, from attacking Haftar’s forces from behind.
Haftar’s army, an amalgam of former Libyan army soldiers and assorted militias, has divided its operations between the Benghazi front in the east and the Tripoli front in the west, creating a distance of 650 kilometers between the two arms.
2. Cairo is also primed for a possible assault to seize Cyrenaica’s oil and gas fields, either by brute force or by negotiating with local tribal chiefs. The Sharara oilfields in the Obara-Fezzan region are of particular interest to Egypt, but its commandos could also be sent to take over Libya’s two most important terminals, Al-Sider and Ras Lanuf located in the east and the big civilian and military ports of Benghazi and Tobruk.
3. Egyptian forces may be entrusted with purging eastern Libya of Al Qaeda strongholds and training camps. In anticipation of the coming attack, the powerful, Al Qaeda-inspired Libyan Lions of Monotheism posted a defiant video-taped statement on Islamist websites on Monday, May 19. The group accused Haftar’s troops of attacking Islamist militias in Tripoli skirmishes Sunday, and promised retribution. “You have entered a battle you will lose,” vowed the masked speaker, who identified himself as Abu Musab al-Arabi.
Obama has changed partners between 2011 and 2014
4. Finally, Egypt may intervene to prevent Libya’s bisection into two states – Libya and Cyrenaica.
Three years ago, the Obama administration, claiming to “lead from behind,” worked with Britain, France and Italy to bring down Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, in cooperation with one Gulf state, Qatar.
Egypt chose to stay out of the picture.
The contrast with the US Libyan venture of today is stark.
Washington now chooses to keep its intervention under tight wraps (until it was revealed by the debkafile report). Qatar, which has undergone a change of leadership, is gone, replaced by the UAE.
It doesn’t hurt that Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al-Nahyan family is critically influential in Cairo, largely owing to its heavy monetary investment in Egypt’s strongman Abdul-Fatah El-Sisi, and its active engagement in his relentless drive against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, the Obama administration and Egypt have for the first time joined forces for shared military and intelligence goals, one of which is to give Washington a chance to redirect the “Arab Spring” and pull it out of the turbulence it which it plunged some countries onto paths offering a hope of stability.
The US has an added interest in Libyan stability for two reasons:
Laying the Benghazi debacle to rest before mid-term elections
One: The administration can no longer afford to ignore the parlous state of Libya’s oilfields. Under the control of local tribes and militias, they produce only 210,000 barrels of oil per day, way below their 1.5 million bpd capacity.
Putting the Libyan oil industry to work on a steady, productive footing would enable Washington to assure Europeans that their energy needs will be looked after should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to counter sanctions by disrupting their gas supply via Ukraine.
Two: Barack Obama is anxious to put the Benghazi debacle behind him before the end of his term and hopefully before the November midterm elections.
Among the Islamist extremists targeted by Gen. Haftar’s campaign is the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, led by Abu Khattala, whom the US now holds responsible for the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the murders of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three CIA staffers.
The US President and the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have suffered political fallout over the many unanswered questions surrounding this affair.
In DEBKA Weekly 635 of May 16, we reported exclusively that Obama had signed a secret Presidential Directive for the capture of Abu Khattala, dead or alive, hoping to close the books on this episode.
For his part, El-Sisi, who is assured of winning the presidency of Egypt in the May 26-27 election, envisages the Egyptian army as taking over as the defender of Libya’s oil and gas fields against Al Qaeda. This role would guarantee continued financial backing from the UAE and put the Egyptians in a strong position to stunt the flow of arms from Cyrenaica to the Muslim Brotherhood, to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and to Al Qaeda’s scattered offshoots.
For insights into the US military involvement in Syria, see a separate item in this edition.