Russia enlarges military footprint in Libya

Sunday 19/03/2017
Growing engagement. Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar leaves the main building of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, last November. (AFP)

Tunis - Russia, 19 months after becoming a key player in the Syrian war, is in­creasing its military presence in Libya and is likely to back Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the tumultuous civil conflict.

Haftar, a fiery commander in eastern Libya, has declared war against radical Islamists, includ­ing the Islamic State (ISIS) and al- Qaeda, but is controversial for per­ceived iron-fist tactics.

In September, Haftar gained con­trol of main oil terminals in the country’s east but lost ground to Islamist forces early this month.

While Haftar has received intel­ligence and security support from France, Britain and the United States, as well as backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, West­ern countries have stopped short of fully embracing him.

Russia, however, seems will­ing to offer full-scale support for Haftar, drawing comparisons with their backing of President Bashar Assad in Syria. Russian engage­ment with Haftar and his forces seems to be growing at a time is it also increasing its business ties.

In February, the Russian firm Rosneft signed a cooperation agreement to help redevelop Liby­an oilfields.

“The agreement envisages the establishment of a joint working committee of the two partners to evaluate opportunities in a variety of sectors, including exploration and production,” a statement by the Libyan National Oil Corpora­tion said.

On the military front, Haftar made two visits to Moscow in 2016 and was greeted on board a Russian aircraft carrier off the coast of To­bruk in January. Russian military contractors have been operating in eastern Libya, where Haftar is strong.

Owner of the private Russian firm RSB-group Oleg Krinitsyn told Reuters that the contractors had been pulled out of Libya when their tour finished in February and that their presence was related to a commercial partnership that was unlikely to have occurred without Moscow’s approval.

In early March, Russia also ap­peared to have deployed special forces to an airbase near Libya’s border with Egypt, Egyptian and diplomatic sources told Reuters. This was likely an attempt to prop up Haftar’s forces there.

Asked whether Russia was re­peating its military strategy from Syria in Libya, the US military com­mander in Africa, US Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser said: “Yes, that’s a good way to charac­terise it.”

The impact that increased Rus­sian influence will have on Libya’s conflict remains to be seen.