Libya’s Haftar seeks Russian support

Sunday 03/07/2016
Libyan troops loyal to Khalifa Haftar sit on an armoured personnel carrier in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

Tunis - Libya’s UN-backed govern­ment’s deputy chief Omar Maetig and his rival Gen­eral Khalifa Haftar recent­ly visited Moscow to court Russian military and diplomatic support.
Haftar met with Defence Min­ister Sergei Shoygu, the head of Russia’s National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and senior offi­cials at the Foreign Ministry, Rus­sian state media said.
Arms supplies and Moscow’s role in the Libyan conflict were said to have been the main topics of the talks.
Maetig, who arrived in Moscow on June 26th, one day after Haf­tar, was met by the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council and the head of Arab and African Affairs Department at the Foreign Minis­try, state media reported.
Haftar shares Russia’s opposition to Islamist groups, often branding them as “terrorists”. His secular­ist vision of the country’s political process appeals to Moscow, which is suspicious of political forces that use Islamist slogans.
Considering his extensive mili­tary background and Soviet-era training, Haftar may be a perfect Russian ally in Libya, even though he resided in the United States for two decades after the early 1990s and was connected to CIA-supported movements opposed to despot Muammar Qaddafi.
Egypt also supports Haftar and France is said to be embedding troops within his forces.
Haftar’s trip to Russia came after his forces defeated Islamist mili­tias, including the hard-line Ansar Sharia and Majliss Shura groups, in Benghazi and Derna this spring after a stalemate of about ten months.
Rival militias aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) authority led by Faiez al- Sarraj had failed to make a tangi­ble progress against Islamic State (ISIS) fighters entrenched in the central city of Sirte. The militias have lost more than 300 fighters in the battle against ISIS since early May. Almost one-third of the loss­es occurred in the last two weeks of June.
Maetig played down his low-level meetings in Moscow when compared to Haftar’s. “I met the officials whom I wished to meet with,” he said.
“The talks of Haftar in Moscow may announce a change in Rus­sia’s positions towards the crisis in Libya. It could be the beginning of a turn for the worst in the conflict,” said a Libyan former minister who asked not to be named.
Other analysts said Russia’s intention in backing Haftar was not to reject his rivals but to have him inside the political consensus backed by major Western powers and Libya’s neighbours. They said talks with Haftar and Maetig re­flected Moscow’s desire to follow its own path in the Libyan conflict.
Moscow recognises the Presi­dential Council and Sarraj as its head and has voted for it at the UN Security Council. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who in March described Libya as a “black hole”, has insisted, however, that Russia will only recognise the GNA and Sarraj as prime minister once the Libyan House of Representa­tives has approved a cabinet.
The House of Representatives is seeking an official role for Haftar in the future national Libyan military.
Analysts said it was unlikely that any weapon supplies would flow to Libya soon despite Haftar’s trip to Moscow. Without proper main­tenance since 2011, Libyan weap­onry has considerably degraded, especially its military aircraft.
Just before the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011, Moscow had signed a $10 billion in arms deals with Tripoli. In 2008, Russia wrote down $4.5 billion of Libyan debt to secure the accords of multibillion-dollar contracts with Russian de­fence manufacturers.
After the first major Libyan-So­viet arms deal in 1974, the Libyan National Army almost entirely re­lied on Soviet-produced weapons and hardware. The army depended on Soviet defence instructors for training, which resulted in almost all senior Libyan command officers being trained in the Soviet Union.
As a result of its traditional military links, the Haftar-led Lib­yan National Army relies on So­viet training and weapons, making Russia an ideal candidate to pre­pare the future army that the GNA plans to build.
Despite Russia’s obvious in­terests in Libya, Moscow is un­likely to repeat in North Africa its military incursion in Syria in sup­port of Syrian President Bashar Assad.