Questions over Russian, US roles in Libya resurface

There is little doubt, too, that Moscow would like to draw Libya back into its sphere of influence and has been very sympathetic and welcoming to Haftar.
Sunday 17/03/2019
Clash of camps. A member of a force allied to the UN-backed government in Tripoli deployed in Sirte, Libya, March 12.    (Reuters)
Clash of camps. A member of a force allied to the UN-backed government in Tripoli deployed in Sirte, Libya, March 12. (Reuters)

TUNIS - British media are reporting that Russia is making a comeback in Libya by sending special forces to support Libya’s eastern-based military commander Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The claim about the Russians first surfaced in the United Kingdom’s Sun newspaper in October and reappeared recently in the Daily Telegraph.

The Sun reported that there were Russian military bases in Benghazi and Tobruk, plus Spetsnaz special forces, Russia’s GRU military intelligence service operatives and Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, throughout the eastern Libya.

The Telegraph said 300 Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group were based in Benghazi helping Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). “They are trying to secure the deep-water ports of Tobruk and Derna for the Russian fleet and also could control the flow of oil to southern Europe if they take over Libya’s energy industry,” a British government source was quoted as saying.

Wagner was also said to be providing the LNA with military equipment and logistical support.

The LNA ridiculed the reports of Russians in Benghazi and no one in the city confirmed the story or indicated where the supposed Russian military base is. It is the same in Tobruk.

The Russians, however, have obvious interests in Libya.

At the very least, they would like to be paid the $4 billion owed on arms sales during the Qaddafi era as well as sell more arms, resume construction of the $2.2 billion Sirte-Benghazi railway project, see Gazprom restart its activities in the country and sell Libya hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grain.

There is little doubt, too, that Moscow would like to draw Libya back into its sphere of influence and has been very sympathetic and welcoming to Haftar. He and his advisers have been to Moscow on several occasions. The notion that Russia is pursuing a definite plan in Libya, with troops on the ground in support of Haftar, is another matter.

While Russia refused to accept the legitimacy of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, on the basis that it has not been approved by the Libyan House of Representatives, it recognises the Presidential Council, talks to it and has welcomed its head Fayez al-Sarraj and other members to Moscow.

Additionally, unlike the US African Command (Africom), which actively supported the Misratan-led forces in the 2016 battle to regain control of Sirte from the Islamic State (ISIS) with missile and aerial bombing attacks on militant positions, the Russians provided no such backing when the LNA was engaged in its campaign to liberate Derna, first from ISIS and then from the pro-al-Qaeda mujahideen, a campaign that ended only last month.

Observers say that, while Moscow wants to be a major power broker in Libya and never misses an opportunity to blame the NATO for Libya’s crisis, it is still watching how the situation develops before putting all its eggs in the Haftar basket.

That was seen in December when Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy Russian foreign minister in charge of Moscow’s Libya policy, suggested that Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, Muammar Qaddafi’s son, could be a unifying figure and lead Libya. That could not have pleased Haftar, who is deeply opposed to Saif al-Islam or any other member of the Qaddafi family having political positions in Libya.

The wait-and-see approach has been that of Russian diplomats who indicate that they are aware that, even if the LNA were to emerge in full control of the country, there will be no return to the close relationship that marked the Qaddafi era.

UK media are not the only ones warning of Russian intentions in Libya. A report from Washington think-tank the Brookings Institution noted that “the risk of greater Russian influence is growing with time.” It warned, too, of the possible threat from jihadists.

The focus of the report, though, was to urge the Trump administration to re-engage with Libya. As the “least mistrusted” by Libyans of the major powers, it said, there was an opportunity for the United States to “make a substantial difference” that could stabilise the country.

That is what Presidential Council Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha wants as well. The message he is using to get Washington’s attention is the potential threat from ISIS.

Speaking in Washington in February, and later in an interview in Tunis, he warned that ISIS was not finished in Libya and that divisions in the country could allow ISIS to regroup. The way to defeat it was for Washington to use its influence to end the current divisions.

“The danger is grave because we’re not capable of fighting them in an ideal way so long as the divisions remain,” Bashagha was quoted as saying.

Presidential Council Foreign Minister Mohamed Taha Siala and the head of the Tripoli-based State Council Khalid al-Mishri were also lobbying in Washington recently.

Rarely, if ever, have so many Libyan political figures been in the US capital at the same time and few say that it and the timing of the Brookings report were coincidental.

Certainly, with the LNA in the ascendant, now controlling the east and virtually all the south and with it the internationally shunned Beida-based administration of Abdullah al-Thini enjoying a new burst of life organising services for the south and reconstruction in the east, authorities in Tripoli need all the help they can get. All the more so, now that the Tripoli militias on whom Sarraj relies for security are threatening to break with him.

It is true that the militants have not been completely wiped out in Libya, although they are on the run. The takeover by the LNA of the south-western town of Obari saw militants flee as the LNA conducted house-to-house searches. Four of them were killed in attacks by fighter jets.

The Presidential Council claimed the strike had been undertaken by US jets acting in collaboration with itself. The claim was greeted with a categorical denial by the Americans.

Sources indicated that it was the French who were responsible for the attacks and that the collaboration had been with the LNA — a collaboration that also saw French air strikes in February on Chadian opposition forces fleeing from southern Libya following the LNA offensive there.

Washington publicly backs the Presidential Council and its government but does not appear to be overly worried by suggestions that either the Russians or ISIS could take over the country.

“Libya is a closed subject here in the US, with the exception of the people at [the] State [Department] and Africom,” said a Washington Libya analyst closely linked to the Trump administration. Any idea that it was interested in getting involved in any negotiations in Libya or with Libya was “a fantasy,” he insisted.