Amid flurry of contacts, Russia pursues own strategy in Libya

Moscow is in a position to deal with both rivals in the Libyan crisis, which puts the interests of the United States and the West at risk.
Thursday 04/06/2020
Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, and Russia’s acting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, attend a conference on Libya in Berlin, Germany, last January. (AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, and Russia’s acting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, attend a conference on Libya in Berlin, Germany, last January. (AP)

TUNIS – The visit of Libyan Presidential Council Vice-President Ahmed Maiteeq and Government of National Accord (GNA) Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala to Moscow reflected growing fears within the GNA of Russia’s increasing intervention in Libya in favour of the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Russia’s growing presence in the North African country comes amid speculation it is preparing for direct military intervention through the backdoor of Libya’s Tobruk-based parliament, which is creating friction between Haftar and Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh. Haftar was in Cairo on Wednesday.

There is speculation that Maiteeq and Siala’s mission in Moscow was to persuade Russia that the GNA in Tripoli does not pose a threat to its interests in Libya by trying to entice it with economic agreements in exchange for abandoning the goal of establishing a Russian base in central or eastern Libya.

If the two Libyan officials succeed in their mission, they will have provided an important service to the United States, which recently levelled criticism at Moscow’s growing intervention in Libya. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the US ambassador to Libya recently accused Russia of supporting the LNA with fighters from the Wagner Group and military planes.

Libyan media outlets reported that Maiteeq and Siala attempted to lure in Moscow by promising to fully pay Libya’s debts to Russia since the era of the ex-Soviet Union, and which amount to some$7 billion, in addition to giving concessions of oil and gas exploration to Russian companies.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the continued detention of Russian citizens by the GNA was an obstacle to any understanding between Moscow and Tripoli.

Based on what appears to be a tacit agreement between Moscow and Ankara to share influence in Libya, Russia is in a position to deal with both rivals in the Libyan crisis, which puts the interests of the United States and the West at risk.

On Wednesday, the French presidency expressed its “deep concern” over the situation in Libya, fearing an agreement between Turkey and Russia that “serves their interests” at the expense of Libya’s interest.

A statement issued by the Office of the French President stressed that “the complexity of the Libyan crisis is being compounded by foreign intervention,” meaning Russia and Turkey, and warned of the “danger of having the crisis get out of everyone’s hands.”

The statement added that French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his concern about “strengthening the Turkish presence, according to seemingly dangerous conditions.”

NATO countries, however, are divided about how to engage with Libya. Turkey and the United States support the Tripoli-based GNA, while France and Greece support the LNA.

There are conflicting reports regarding the military base in the Russian plan that AFRICOM has warned about. Some say that Russia is more likely to seek control of Al-Jafra base in central Libya, described by some as the most important military base in the country, while others see that it will seek to establish a military base in the city of Tobruk in the eastern region.

Observers also do not rule out coordination between Russia and Egypt that would be aimed at persuading the GNA’s rival camp to have the Libyan parliament directly request Moscow’s aid in order to formalise and legitimise Russia’s intervention. The problem is that Haftar opposes the plan because he sees it a threat to his influence while expanding the authority of Saleh.

The Tobruk parliament is an internationally recognised legal body established according to the provisions of the Skhirat Agreement, just like the GNA and the Presidential Council. This is why Russia is expected to push for convening it very soon in order to gain its approval for Moscow’s direct intervention. This would be similar to Turkey’s signing a Military Cooperation and Demarcation of Maritime Borders Agreement with the GNA in Tripoli.

At the end of last April, Haftar attempted to cancel the Skhirat Agreement and seek a popular mandate to manage Libyan affairs. Many saw his move as an attempt to block the way for a greater role by Saleh, especially during any talks that might take place.

For his part, Saleh has presented a political proposal to end the conflict that has failed to win over the army’s support, as the latter seems more interested in solving the conflict militarily.

Lately, there have been signs of rapprochement between Saleh and Moscow. A video of Saleh’s meeting with tribal nobles in the eastern city of Al-Qubba showed him holding documents he said were reports from Moscow telling him that “the situation is about to collapse” in the western region.

Observers believe Haftar’s visit to Cairo, coinciding with the visit of the Tripoli delegation to Moscow, was aimed at pressuring him to agree to the Russian proposal, as Moscow seems to be under time pressure to complete the necessary arrangements for its intervention in Libya.

But some sources told The Arab Weekly that Haftar’s visit to Cairo confirms he still is a pivotal figure in the military and political equations, and that there is no truth to the information propagated by the parties affiliated with Fayez al-Sarraj’s Presidential Council, which is controlled by Turkey and the Islamists, regarding Haftar’s fading popularity due to the military progress made by the Ankara-backed militias.