Libya’s GNA shares Turkey’s American lobbyists

Washington lobbyists for Libya’s warring factions are competing for influence over the Trump administration’s policy on the conflict, but some of the lobbying firms working for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli also work for its top foreign patron, Turkey. 

Turkey’s lobbying in Washington is well known and it has spent lavishly at properties connected to President Donald Trump as part of its efforts to win points with the administration. The GNA is now enlisting some of those same firms, the most prominent among them being Mercury Public Affairs.      

The GNA has retained Mercury since April last year to lobby the U.S. government and other interest groups on its behalf. Several of its most high-profile lobbyists signed onto this contract according to records kept under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by the United States Department of Justice. Former Republican Senator David Vitter, former Trump adviser Bryan Lanza and Suheyla Tayla, a former Turkish-American policy expert at the U.S Embassy in Ankara, are registered as lobbyists for the GNA contract, which Politico reports to be worth $150,000 per month.

Mercury has a long history of working with Turkish clients including the Turkish-American Business Council (TAIK) headed by Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, a close ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey’s embassy in Washington also employs Mercury. 

FARA records show that lobbyists now working for the GNA all worked for, or are simultaneously registered with, Turkish interests in the United States. Lanza, the former Trump aide, lobbied cabinet officials on TAIK’s behalf in 2018 and is now on the GNA contract. Tayla, a lobbyist for the Turkish embassy, registered as well on the day the GNA deal was signed in April. Morris Reid, Mercury’s lead on GNA work, is also servicing both the Tripoli government and TAIK. 

Mercury’s work for the GNA has centred on establishing a clear U.S position on the Libyan war. Included among informational materials submitted to the Department of Justice by Mercury is a page for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that called for a report on U.S. strategy on Libya and includes a “detailed description of Libyan and external security actors and an assessment of how those actors advance or undermine stability in Libya”. 

This is a thinly veiled reference to the Tobruk-based government opposing the GNA and its backers including Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. 

Persuading the Trump administration to adopt positions favourable to the GNA is a goal shared with another Turkey-linked lobbying firm, Gotham Government Solutions. Among the lobbyists registered to support the GNA are Gotham’s founding partners Bradley Gerstman and David A. Schwarz. 

Both men have ties to Trump and those in his orbit. Gotham has assisted Trump’s New York businesses since 2010 and Schwarz served as counsel for the president’s former fixer Michael Cohen in the investigation into illicit payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. Gerstman meanwhile assisted Trump in preparing the launch of his campaign for president at Trump Tower in 2015.

Like Mercury, Gotham aims to change U.S. policy decisively towards the GNA. U.S. diplomats meet with both sides, but at times strategy has been confused. Last April, a phone call took place between Trump and Haftar where Trump praised him for “fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”. The State Department later rebuked Haftar’s Tripoli offensive.

Gerstman told Ahval he put the fault for Trump taking that call on Haftar’s Gulf allies and former National Security Advisor John Bolton, whom he described as a “disaster”.

Gotham’s FARA filing shows the GNA contract to be worth $1.5 million and is focused on highlighting its contributions to U.S goals while undermining Haftar’s image with the administration. To do this, Gotham is working to point out human rights violations committed by Haftar’s forces and announced that it was seeking freelance journalists to send to Libya for that purpose. 

Gerstman described Haftar as a “Gaddafi disciple aligned with Russia”. The general assisted Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s coup in 1969, before joining the U.S-backed opposition and returning to Libya during the anti-Gaddafi uprising in 2011. 

Mercenaries belonging to the Russian Wagner Group have supported Haftar in his campaign against the GNA, something Moscow denies as being indicative of any support for him. 

Gotham has in the past worked for Turkish political organisations, but ones not associated with the Turkish government. In May 2017, it worked for Washington Diplomacy Group, an organisation tied to Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Turkish preacher that Turkey blames for a failed 2016 military coup. The lobbying contract for this group expired in February 2018. 

However, Gotham is now working together with the GNA, an important ally of Ankara in the Mediterranean. To that end, Gerstman has criticised Haftar’s supporters that oppose Turkey’s support of the GNA. Gerstman called the European opposition to Turkey’s decision to defend Tripoli hypocritical for what he called bending over backwards to avoid criticism of Russian or Emirati support for Haftar.  

Asked if Turkey’s stance on Libya was favourable to the United States, Gerstman said: “I hope Turkey can come back to the world of intelligent and democratic nations, but I don’t see anything wrong with Trump having a good relationship with Erdoğan … Turkey is an influential actor in the region and can’t be ignored.” 

Gerstman said that supporting the GNA was also important economically for the United States as the biggest oil producer and as U.S Africa Command worked through the GNA on counterterrorism. 

Along with the GNA Prime Minister’s Office, Gotham has registered to lobby on behalf of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) since September 2019. 

Mercury’s attempts to raise Tripoli’s profile in Washington share these themes. A message disseminated by Mercury’s David Vitter on Nov. 21 about a press statement related to Trump’s meeting with GNA officials. In it, Vitter pointedly noted that Washington had recognised the GNA as Libya’s official government since 2015 and called Russian support for Haftar as a reason to oppose the general’s advance on Tripoli.

These arguments have not fallen on deaf ears. On Nov 25, four days after Vitter’s statement, U.S officials called the presence of Wagner mercenaries “incredibly destabilising.” After leaving a Berlin peace conference on Libya, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was questioned by a reporter on whether Trump would recognize Haftar as Libya’s leader if he took Tripoli. He declined to answer, but took a moment to point out U.S interests in the country.

“America has a counterterrorism interest there. There are important energy opportunities there in Libya,” Pompeo responded. The secretary expressed hope that shuttered oil facilities would be reopened, a move the GNA accused Haftar of being behind. 

Mercury and Gotham put a heavy emphasis on areas that win American favour, but it is not clear how much of a role their lobbying played in these stances. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.