Libya’s Haftar seeks Russian support
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.