As the Libyan National Army offensive moves towards Tripoli, US troops have been withdrawn, leaving UN-supported Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and his Government of National Accord largely on their own.
Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the former army chief aligned with Qaddafi regime loyalists, after amassing power and resources in eastern Libya began an offensive to wrest control of Tripoli, from the Government of National Accord (GNA). Russia has been a key supporter of Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA).
Libya’s unrest encapsulates the rash consequences of NATO’s October 2011 campaign of air strikes supporting insurgents seeking to overthrow the government of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, a move strenuously opposed by Russia in the UN Security Council.
Following the NATO onslaught and Qaddafi’s death, Libya descended into anarchy with no functioning government as competing militias and militants established control over large parts of the country. The largest groups formed separate governments — a Tobruk-based one supported by the LNA in eastern Libya and the western UN-backed GNA in Tripoli.
The bifurcated power-sharing resulted in an uneasy truce as one side marshalled resources to contest control for uniting the country, an idea whose time Haftar, who has assiduously been courting Russia for years, apparently thinks has come. In November 2016, Russia first hosted Haftar in a series of three visits with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Haftar consistently received a warm reception from the Russians.
Amid rising violence in Libya, the international community sought to forge a unified response as concerns that Russia, as it did in Syria, might take advantage of the chaos to reprise its role as potential kingmaker.
Washington’s small troop contingent had been in Libya to assist local forces in combating the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda militants, as well as to protect diplomatic facilities. The US military’s exit came as the international community seeks a diplomatic solution in Libya, even as reports surface of Russian mercenaries there.
On April 7, Russia prevented the adoption of a UN Security Council statement calling on the LNA to halt military activities. Russia insisted that the declaration should include wording urging all parties to the conflict to cease fighting even as Moscow supported the Security Council’s statement that called on Libyan combatants to end hostilities and search for a political solution to the crisis.
The next day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged all sides “to avoid any actions that could provoke bloodshed and the death of civilians” but Moscow refrained from condemning Haftar’s campaign.
One element in Haftar’s agenda that has won plaudits from foreign governments despite his record of opposing the GNA is his fight against Islamist forces, including those aligned with ISIS.
The struggle against ISIS is one of the Kremlin’s highest priorities, as demonstrated in Syria. With ISIS losing its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Moscow fears the chaos in Libya could allow an ISIS resurgence in North Africa.
Thousands of Russians flocked to Syria to train and gain combat experience, many of whom subsequently returned to Russia and carried out terrorist incidents. Haftar’s battle against Islamic militants is a central element in Moscow’s cautious support.
Libya is where Moscow can capitalise on opportunities provided by the West’s indecisiveness to acquire leverage amid the chaos without having to commit too much to exert that influence.
Russia isn’t fully committed to a Haftar victory and consequently maintains communications with all the political factions. As for Moscow’s longer-term agenda, it seems likely that Russia will look to improve business and investment relations with Libya while increasing its political influence.
One ace in the hole that Russia can offer whatever government prevails in Libya is its expertise in assisting the revival of the country’s battered hydrocarbon industry.
A second would be supplying weaponry to any new Libyan administration at a fraction of the cost of Western ordnance. Russia’s arms sale footprint in MENA is steadily increasing. Algeria and Egypt are top buyers of Russian weaponry and NATO member Turkey is to take delivery of Russian S-400 antiaircraft systems, much to the consternation of its alliance allies.
Events in Libya are further proof for the European Union and the United States, if any is needed, that Russia is expanding its MENA footprint, a political reality to consider for the foreseeable future.
John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.
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