“The message to General Hifter was very clear, that we feel a military incursion into Tripoli would be disastrous right now, or ever,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to characterize the closed-door discussions.
At least 200 civilians are believed to have been killed since Hifter’s forces launched an operation in April against the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The offensive has triggered an increase in foreign weaponry pouring into Libya in support of the two warring sides and exposed divisions within the Trump administration.
The State Department did not disclose the location of the meeting but said it occurred Sunday in the Middle East region. The talks also included Richard Norland, the U.S. ambassador to Libya; Matthew Zais, a senior Energy Department official; and Brig. Gen. Steven deMilliano of U.S. Africa Command.
For years, the United States had taken a clear position of support for the GNA, which was created in 2015 as part of U.N. efforts to broker a deal to end Libya’s de facto partition, rather than other actors vying for legitimacy. That stance has been complicated by the GNA’s inability to rein in militias in the areas it controls and, more recently, by what has appeared to be President Trump’s affinity toward Hifter’s cause.
A call between Trump and Hifter in early April, shortly after Hifter launched his offensive, appeared to provide evidence of that shift, giving Hifter a boost at a time when he has been seeking international validation. The call angered officials from the GNA, who viewed it as a betrayal.
Even before then, American officials had gradually shown more openness to Hifter, who has amassed a formidable arsenal with help from the United Arab Emirates, Russia and other countries, and who has sought to claim a mantle of effectively handling extremists in eastern Libya. But up to now, interactions between U.S. officials and Hifter have occurred in a lower-level, low visibility way.
U.S. officials in Washington have rebuffed efforts by individuals linked to Hifter to arrange a Washington visit for him in recent months.
The GNA has also received military support from Turkey in an apparent violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
The senior administration official said Hifter, “in many ways,” had achieved his objectives, raising the profile of several complaints that include the distribution of state revenue and a “militant component of the militias in Tripoli.”
Germany is leading an effort to hold a political summit on Libya to breathe new life into a U.N. process.
“Our goal is to figure out how to get those problems resolved, so we don’t have a really problematic intervention,” the official said.
While Libya has not been the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities, an apparent expansion of Moscow’s role there has galvanized attention in Washington. Military officials say Russian troops and mercenaries, at least some of them affiliated with Kremlin-linked security firm Wagner, have provided on-the-ground support to Hifter.
The official said the United States had asked Libyans to find ways to reduce the violence and had stressed to Hifter the “very negative potential” outcomes from Russian involvement.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department on Tuesday, David Schenker, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said the Trump administration had asked European countries to take steps to designate or sanction Wagner.
Hifter “controls some 80 percent of the territory of the country right now, although certainly a much smaller percentage of the population, but has armor and significant forces under his control,” Schenker said. “We remain engaged at the highest levels, and that means we do talk to Hifter.”
The official said the U.S. delegation also highlighted the need for steps toward “free, fair and meaningful” elections.
Asked about reports of divisions between the State Department, which has voiced consistent support for the GNA, and the White House, which is seen as more open to Hifter, the official said: “I don’t see a Hifter solution; I don’t see a GNA solution; I see a Libyan solution.”