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Russia’s rising dawn over Libya, or is it another Syria in the making?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) meets with Khalifa Haftar eastern Libya-based military commander at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Reception House in Moscow, Russia on 13 January 2020. [Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout - Anadolu Agency]
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) meets with Khalifa Haftar eastern Libya-based military commander at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Reception House in Moscow, Russia on 13 January 2020. [Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout - Anadolu Agency]

Russia’s role in the Libyan crisis has been rather slow to develop, because Moscow was deeply busy with Syria’s civil war.  Sometimes, Russia even appeared disinterested in Libya from the start. In 2011, as the West prepared to intervene militarily in the North African country, it needed a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution, and Moscow was expected to vote it down. Its ambassador to Tripoli had already urged his president, Dimitri Medvedev, to intervene. Instead, he was fired and Russia abstained, allowing Resolution 1973 authorising the use of force against Libya to pass; hence NATO’s intervention.

But the Russian anger and feelings of being tricked by the West in Libya never went away. Vladimir Putin, after returning to his presidency in 2012, in repeated angry outbursts, accused the West of destroying Libya, murdering Muammar Gaddafi and overpassing the mandate of Resolution 1973, which called for the protection of civilians, not a change of regime.

Nobody expected Moscow to keep watching while strategic Libya— an old friend too — is being slaughtered by Western-encouraged militias, or even worse, handed over to the West. Russia might have taken longer than expected to reconfigure its strategy in North Africa, and whether its model of intervention in Syria can be duplicated in Libya. During that period, Moscow went along with the UN-sponsored efforts to mediate the conflict. It even voted for UN Resolution 2259, establishing the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and recognising it as the only legitimate authority in Libya. As the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad was secure and Khalifa Haftar appeared on the Libyan scene, Russian diplomacy actively sought to reactivate its links to Libya.

READ: Will blurring the line between war and peace help Russia in Libya?

Moscow’s doors were open to all Libyan factions. It hosted GNA leaders, tribal dignitaries and even representatives of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the slain leader’s son, while deciding on its winning horse in the conflict. General Haftar, with the help of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, reached out to Moscow asking for help, despite his old connection to its rival Washington. After all, the man belonged to the old Libyan military cadres who are no stranger to Moscow, he is familiar with its weapons, and once was Gaddafi’s man, before falling out over the 1980s Chad war. Haftar needed Moscow as much as Moscow needed him.

Finding the interlocutor meant the Kremlin must move on by gearing up to correct its strategic error made in 2011, by allowing NATO to bomb Libya and decided: if the West blessed and led the 2011 war in Libya, Russia must win it.

Moscow never accepted the Western narrative that the “Arab Spring” of 2011 was a spontaneous eruption against tyrants in the Arab world. Instead, it coined its own term for it, describing what happened as “colored revolutions”, encouraged and even planned by the West, including in Ukraine and other “near abroad” countries, to use the Russian terminology.

Attending the 2015 Moscow Conference on International Security, I heard complaints from Russian analysts, former officials and military officers about how Russia was misled in 2011 by giving up on Gaddafi. Libya, access to warm waters and Mediterranean ports have always been of interest to Moscow. In 1945’s Potsdam (also known as Berlin) Conference, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, tried unsuccessfully to have trusteeship over Libya. Gaddafi, once in power in 1969, compensated some of that failure. Libya became a top client of the Soviet arms industry and hundreds of Soviet military experts flocked to Libya to train its army, even helping it gain access to missile systems know-how. Putin visited Libya in 2008, where he signed lucrative hydrocarbon deals, infrastructure contracts worth billions of dollars and, in good gesture, wrote-off about $5 billion of Soviet-era Libyan debts as a gesture to Gaddafi.

Since 2015, secretly, Russia was helping General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), while publicly denying it. Haftar, in return, promised Russia more lucrative deals and a bigger chunk of the reconstruction for Russian companies.

As the conflict recently escalated, Moscow’s immediate goal became shielding the LNA from total defeat, which appeared almost imminent just couple of weeks ago — just like in Syria. Long-term strategic Russian objectives are several. Libya’s long Mediterranean coastline, its location as a gate to Africa and its oil and gas are just examples. However, the most sensitive goal is for Russia to have a foothold just minutes away from NATO’s bases in southern Europe. A strong Russian presence in Libya will help hold Turkish ambitions in Libya checked. Turkey is not only supporting the GNA, but wants to terminate any future role for Haftar.

READ: Turkey informs Idlib opposition of incoming operation by Assad, Iran, Russia

The Syria style intervention by Russia in Libya might not be needed now, but soon could be. In the meantime, Moscow must find a way to deal with the difficult ally it got itself — General Haftar himself.

While the Trump administration is all but retreating from the region, Putin is advancing. If the US’ plan is beefing up Turkey’s efforts in Libya, to counter the Russian expansion, it might be too late. Turkey’s far more concerned with Russia in Syria than in Libya, despite Libya’s strategic importance to Ankara.

The US’ African command, AFRICOM, sounded the alarm by accusing Moscow of further destabilising Libya, while ignoring Ankara’s actions. In a 29 May statement, AFRICOM commander, General Stephen Townsend, stated: “Like I saw them [the Russians] in Syria they are expanding their footprint in Africa.” But what the US or the entire West are going to do about it is the real dilemma.

The statement pointed to Russian fighter jets being camouflaged in Syria before arriving in Libya to support Haftar’s offensive capabilities. Residents of Bani Walid, 180 kilometres southwest of Tripoli, speak of a couple of daily flights arriving in the town’s airport, transporting military hardware to the LNA. That town is likely to act as a fallback base for the LNA, just in case Tarhuna, the main LNA base further north, falls to the GNA forces, however unlikely that is now at least. Is Libya about to become another Syria? Not yet!

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

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