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Libya turns into an arena for conflict between Russia and the West

January 17, 2017 at 5:44 pm


It seems that Libya has been drawn into a new phase of international conflict between Russia and the West, especially after Russian warships arrived in Libyan waters. This occurred amid expectations of Moscow seeking to establish a military base in Libya, as well as Italy’s deployment of military units in Tripoli under the pretext of protecting its embassy, not to mention the presence of 1,000 American troops.

In addition to this, France has participated in the fighting in Benghazi, while American planes are participating in bombing Daesh alongside the Misrata Brigades who are pro-Government of National Accord, or GNA, backed by the UN, in Sirte (450 kilometres east of Tripoli).There has also been news regarding the presence of British and Italian special forces soldiers in western and central Libya.

The Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, entered Libyan waters last Wednesday on its way back from Syria. News then spread the next day that Italy (Libya’s former colonial master) sent troops into Tripoli under the pretext of protecting its embassy, which it opened last week. This made Italy the first foreign country to re-open its embassy in the Libyan capital in two years.

Rome did not hesitate in expressing its displeasure over media reports of Libyan renegade General Khalifa Haftar, commander of forces loyal to the Council of Deputies in Tobruk, signing an agreement with Moscow to implement an arms deal made by late dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2008. This will be in exchange for allowing Russian naval forces ships to use the Benghazi port.

In response to Russia’s actions, Italian Foreign Minister Angelo Alfano said “the potential agreements between General Haftar and Russia, as well as Russia’s involvement in the Libyan arena, after Syria, pushes us to take more action to gain a leading role in the Libyan arena, even by means of dialogue with Haftar.”

Alfano’s statement was made during his announcement that Rome would be sending urgent aid, including medical supplies, to east Libya which is mostly under Haftar’s control.

However, while the Russian aircraft carrier was in Libyan waters, the pro-Haftar interim government in the city of Bayda criticised the presence of two Italian warships near the western Libyan coast.

Libyan media reports have stated in the past that Haftar’s aircraft have repeatedly bombed Italian military units located in Al Jufrah province’s airbase, which is under the control of the Misrata Brigades.

According to a Libyan military source quoted by Algeria’s Alkhbar newspaper, Britain is rebuilding a complete air defence system in Misrata for the Misrata Brigades, despite the UN’s ban on importing weapons to Libya. The British are also training pilots and technicians, as well as importing warplanes, missile defense system and radars. This will be the long-term plan, while the short-term plan will entail the rehabilitation of the old Russian air defence system.

This last task was assumed by Ukraine in order for Libya (GNA-controlled) not to be exposed to any raids from “unknown” aircraft. This is what happened at the Tripoli airport battle in 2014, when dozens of Misrata fighters were killed in “unknown” raids according to the Libyan source.

As for the US, its troops directly participated in the operation to liberate Sirte from Daesh. There are also American and British special forces units in the area separating Misrata and Sirte, which was clearly evident during the clashes with Daesh fighters in May 2016.

While Washington, London and Rome have coordinated their operations to a large extent with the GNA, French troops participated in military operations with Haftar in Benghazi. This was confirmed after a French helicopter fell out of the skies over Tripoli during clashes with the Benghazi Defence Brigades, an armed group from the east that are opposed to Haftar and backed by the Misrata Brigades.

There have also been reports of French special forces troops present in the southwest of Libya chasing armed terrorist groups who roam the African coast, in northern Mali.

While the Russian aircraft carrier was docked in the Tobruk marina last Wednesday, Haftar met with Russian Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, and held video talks with Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu. Haftar called on Moscow to supply him with arms.

According to Dr Jawad Al-Hamad, a Jordanian strategic expert, “Russia will not adhere to the international ban imposed on supplying arms to the parties in the Libyan conflict.” He supported his statement by citing the fact that “Moscow sent heavy weapons to Syria (where it supports the regime forces against the opposition) despite the ban on selling arms to Al-Assad’s regime.”

Speaking to Anadolu news agency, Al-Hamad did not rule out the possibility of Moscow “activating the agreement signed with Gaddafi’s regime in 2008, which was scheduled to go into effect in 2010. One of its clauses stipulates allowing the establishment of a Russian naval base in Benghazi, similar to the Tartus base in Syria.”

According to Arab diplomatic sources, the deal that Haftar is seeking to activate is worth $1.8 billion and includes the purchase of nearly 20 fighter jets, S-300 anti-air missile defence systems, T-90 tanks and modernising 140 T-72 tanks.

According to these sources, during his last visit to Moscow on 27 November 2016, Haftar asked to purchase 12 Su-35 and Su-30 warplanes, as well as 4 Yakovlev 130 jet trainers.

However, the presence of Russian naval or airbases in east Libya means that the “European backyard is in danger,” said Al-Hamad, adding that “Europe is worried about any Russian action in eastern Libya, as it is a core issue for it since it has economic and trade relations with Libya.”

Italy’s Eni company controls most of the investments in Libya’s petrol and gas sector, and owns a number of oil and gas fields. In addition to this, Italy received an influx of over 180,000 illegal immigrants in 2016 from Libya’s coasts.

Italy is generally afraid that the Russian presence in Libya will affect its economic influence in its former colony, especially since Russia has lost investments amounting to $10 billion before Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 and would therefore be seeking to recoup those losses.

Many Russian analysts believe that the Russian fleet’s activity in the Mediterranean represents one form of its response to the US missile shield erected in Eastern Europe, which Moscow considers a direct threat to its national security.

However, according to Al-Hamad, the establishment of a Russian naval base in Libya”allows the Russian military to be close to Europe and the American bases in Sicily. This is strategically unacceptable for Washington.”

“America’s current silence regarding Russia’s expansion in Libya perhaps intends to lure the Russian bear deeper into the quagmire of international conflicts in the Middle East, and perhaps expresses the West’s satisfaction with the Russian role in fighting terrorism,” added Al-Hamad.

He ended by saying: “Washington made an early decision not to interfere militarily in Libya, leaving the matter up to its European allies and leaving a small number of American troops on the ground in Libya, Syria and Iraq.”

Al-Hamad added that we must wait for the beginning of US President-elect Donald Trump’s presidency to begin next Friday “to judge the American policy towards Russia’s expansion in Libya, especially in light of the Republicans’ harsher dealing with international issues compared to the Democrats.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.