‘The Trump people may think Libya a less sensitive theatre to cooperate with the Russians on counter-terrorism than Syria… we have Daesh [Isis] running around there and if this guy Haftar is being effective…’
The focus of Nato’s conference in Brussels, the first since Donald Trump got to the White House, was on the message he sent to an organisation of Western allies he had called “obsolete” while speaking of his admiration for Vladimir Putin.
The message, a veiled threat, conveyed by US defence secretary James Mattis, was that the continuing failure of the alliance to pay its share on security would lead to the US reevaluating its commitment to the defence of Europe. That and the continuing fallout over Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s departure after clandestine contacts with the Russians, were the sources of fascination and foreboding here.
Almost unnoticed a development took place at the end of the summit, on Libya, which is likely to have great resonance in relations between Nato, the US and Russia, Trump and Putin. Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that the alliance is likely to provide security support to the Libyan government of Fayez al-Sarraj.
“We have said for some time that we are ready to help Libya but that any assistance has to be based on a request from the Libyan government,” said Stoltenberg. “This is the request we received yesterday – training local forces is one of the best weapons in the fight against terrorism and building stability.”
Libya has, of course, become a source of huge trouble for Europe since David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy instigated Nato’s military intervention and the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi six years ago. It is the main conduit for hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and also the lawless place where Isis has established its main base for carrying out attacks in the Maghreb.
Special forces of Western countries are already in action in Libya – the US has carried out airstrikes on Isis and other Islamist terrorists. But any formal deployment of forces by Nato faces problems. There is the danger of mission creep: being sucked into a violent and semi-anarchic quagmire, as well as the fact that the Government of National Accord, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, which Nato is supposed to prop up, has very little territory and very little power…