UNITED NATIONS • The White House revealed last Friday that President Donald Trump reached out personally to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar as a push at the United Nations to broker a ceasefire hit trouble.
Observers see Mr Trump's words of praise for the strongman, at the expense of internationally recognised leader Fayez al-Sarraj, as evidence of United States support that explains Mr Haftar's determination to pursue his offensive to seize Tripoli. His name is spelt as Hifter in some news reports.
Mr Trump and Mr Haftar spoke last Monday "to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya", according to the White House. A statement said Mr Trump "recognised Field Marshal Haftar's significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources", adding that "the two discussed a shared vision for Libya's transition to a stable, democratic political system".
The White House did not say why it delayed giving news of the phone call.
Mr Haftar, seen by his allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as a bulwark against Islamists, has declared that he wants to seize the capital, now controlled by a UN-recognised government and an array of militias.
Mr Haftar backs a rival administration based in eastern Libya that is refusing to recognise the Tripoli government's authority.
Last Thursday, Russia and the US opposed a British bid, backed by France and Germany at the UN Security Council, to demand a ceasefire in Libya.
Russia insisted on having no criticism of Mr Haftar in the proposed resolution, while the US said it wanted more time to consider the situation.
Diplomats say the signalling from Washington goes a long way towards explaining Mr Haftar's aggressive strategy in the face of strong condemnation by the European powers and the UN.
"Haftar believes he has to fight until the end," said one diplomat at the UN, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Despite some military setbacks, Mr Haftar maintains that he "can prevail," according to several others.
News of Mr Trump's phone call "clarifies" the US position, noted one diplomat at the UN, after Britain fought in vain for five days to try to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire and unconditional humanitarian access to the combat zones.
In terms of international backing, Mr Haftar enjoys the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and - now, clearly - the US.
Mr Sarraj, whose control over his country remains extremely tenuous, is backed by Qatar and Turkey.
Mr Haftar would not have unleashed his offensive without a green light from his backers, and getting him to back down from the "impasse" will depend on their will, the diplomats said.
Meanwhile, anti-Haftar forces near the Libyan capital yesterday launched a counterattack, a spokesman for the group said.