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Libya is under the spotlight again, but for all the wrong reasons

May 16, 2024 at 9:00 am

Two Libyan flags at Martyrs square in Tripoli, Libya [Getty]

Libya, over last few weeks, has been creeping back into the headlines after being out for while, as the political process in the fractured country stalled and the United Nations’ efforts to bridge the gap between its ever-disagreeing politicians failed. Despite too little being worthy of news headlines is happening in the country, suddenly things have changed with the unexpected resignation of Abdoulaye Bathily as the UN envoy to the country on 16 April, yet the UN mission’s X account still says he is the UN’s point man.

Then came the visit to the country of the Italian Prime Minister, Georgia Meloni, on 7 May, further giving Libya another spot on the world headlines. What made such a visit a notable event is the fact that Ms. Meloni travelled to Benghazi to meet Eastern Libya’s strongman, Khalifa Haftar. Many analysts believed such a high profile visit by a European leader bestows more legitimacy on General Haftar who has, since 2014, become key interlocutor to Libya’s present and future.

Reporting on the visit, the Italian government’s website referred to him as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, without mentioning his assumed title as the Commander of General Command, i.e., Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), as he likes to be called. This is because, officially and to most European countries, neither he nor his army are official organs of the recognised Government of National Unity in Tripoli.

READ: Italy’s Premier meets Libya leaders to discuss joint energy, infrastructure projects

The Italian government’s website said Ms. Meloni discussed with Haftar the “Italian initiatives in the fields of agriculture and health that also concern the area of Cyrenaica”. Cyrenaica is the historical name of eastern Libya that Italy used while occupying the country from 1911 to 1943. But, in today’s Libya, the word carries certain negative connotations since, to many Libyans, it is synonymous with the partition of the country.

Ms. Meloni is said to have expressed to the General her “appreciation for the results achieved by the two nations’ cooperation on migration”. Illegal migration from Eastern Libya has dropped by some 67 per cent compared to last year, thanks to Haftar’s LNA’s crackdown on human trafficking. Ironically, such matters, including migration, are government portfolios, but the Italian Prime Minister did not meet the parliament elected government in Eastern Libya, since Rome does not recognise it as an official government. Mr. Haftar, though, dominates the entire eastern region, including its parallel government. Apparently, reconstruction of the flood devastated Derna was also discussed but, again, with Haftar not with the relevant government department. Reconstruction work has been going on well, thanks to Mr. Haftar’s army.

What really brought Libya back under the spotlight of Western strategists and policy makers is the widening Russia presence in at least three military bases in Eastern and Southern Libya. Moscow has been Haftar’s military backer for years, first through the Wagner mercenary group, whose forces are now under the direct control of the Russian Defence Ministry. Since the death of Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, last August, all the group’s fighters and assets across the world have become part of the Russian army.

This explains why Russia’s deputy Defence Minister, Yunus Bek Yevkirov, has been shuttling back and forth between Benghazi and Moscow since late last year.

Over the last few months, Russia has been delivering weapons and other military hardware to eastern Libya, via Tobruk’s harbour.  Today, Russian forces are present in at least three locations in Libya: Sirte’ Al-Qardabiya Air Base, Al-Jafra Air Base and Brak Al-Shati Air Bases in southern Libya.

However, what Russia is doing now appears to be restructuring the former Wagner group into a more centralised fighting force under the Ministry of Defence in order to establish its own Africa Corps. Wagner, as a private military company, spearheaded the corps by gaining a foothold in at least five African countries including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic and Libya. In the Russian master plan, the Africa Corps is likely to be commanded from Libya, while spreading out to Africa, beyond the Sahara. Libya is the perfect location, given that it is strategically situated on the southern Mediterranean shores, with a long coastline. It is also rich in oil, gas and other unexploited minerals, including gold. Russia has, for decades, been seeking a foothold in the region. Coupled with its military bases on the Syrian coast, gaining bases in Libya gives it a wider overview of the entire eastern Mediterranean – a long-term strategic advantage.

READ: Libya: Presidential Council calls on Russia to play a ‘positive and constructive role’

NATO members are worried that an expanded Russian presence in Libya is a direct security threat to the Western alliance’s southern flank.

According to an anonymously leaked document said to be prepared by military experts in Libya, Moscow plans to stay in Libya for years to come, despite the fact that departure of all foreign forces from Libya has been a prerequisite for any successful reconciliation process in destabilised Libya. The UN Security Council, in which Moscow has a veto power, has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Libya, including in its October, 2023, resolution 2701. On 6 May, the Council issued a statement, again, calling for the departure of all “foreign forces, foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya without delay.”

But it is not only Russia that has forces in Libya. Turkiye, since 2019, has stationed troops and Syrian mercenaries in at least two bases: a naval base in Misrata, east of Tripoli, and in Al-Watayia Air Base, south-west of the capital. Italy maintains a small “training” contingency in Misrata harbour. More recently, the US embassy to Libya, for the first time, was forced to deny  any US military presence in the country. News reports have been circulating that through Amentum, a private US military company, the US government has been funding training programs for militia in Western Libya.

Any foreign military or security presence in Libya is a threat to the country and a big hurdle to UN mediation efforts. It helps the different political and military protagonists to entrench their positions in any negotiations to end the conflict. It also makes Libya the potential battle ground between different international players, like Russia and NATO, for example. Mr. Bathily, in a recent interview, has highlighted that fact by saying “military and geopolitical position of Libya in the central Mediterranean – this geographical position of Libya has renewed a kind of geopolitical interest of a number of regional and international powers” in the country.

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