Trump and Russia’s growing role in Libya

Sunday 12/03/2017

As the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was returning to Russia in January from Syria through the Mediterranean, it made an unlikely stop off the Libyan coast near Tobruk. A Russian helicopter flew in self-proclaimed Libyan National Army commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who was received on board in an official military ceremony.
Less than two months later, the Western-backed Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj went to Moscow, urging for Russian mediation to compel Haftar to concede. He returned empty-handed.
Moscow’s consequential moves since last year are yielding high returns for a low-risk investment, steadily transforming Russia into a potent player in southern Europe’s backyard. Now that the Islamic State (ISIS) has been nearly eradicated from Libya, US President Donald Trump’s administration will have to assess if a Russian foothold in the south of the Mediterranean poses a threat to US national security.
Libyan rivals have been enticing Moscow to intervene, in particular after its military campaign in Syria. The Government of National Accord Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq went to Moscow in May 2016 to enlist Russian support in the fight against terrorist groups in Libya. The United States ended up providing airpower to the forces led by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and helped liberate Sirte from ISIS last December.
In the case of Haftar, the gateway to Russia has been the warming of relations between Moscow and Cairo since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Egypt in February 2015. Haftar went to Moscow twice last year while his troops were defeating the Petroleum Facilities Guard led by Ibrahim Jathran, a close ally of the GNA, and seizing control of oil terminals in Ras Lanuf, Al-Sidra, Zueitina and Brega. Haftar handed the seized oil crescent terminals to Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), which promptly resumed oil exports from eastern Libya.
On February 20th, the NOC signed an agreement with Russia’s Rosneft to jointly evaluate opportunities for oil exploration and production. The White House’s executive order in January banning travel from Libya among seven countries led to the postponement of a major February 16th conference by the National Council for US-Libyan Relations that was meant to promote investment opportunities for US firms in the Libyan energy and infrastructure sectors.
No doubt Haftar is gaining the upper hand. Sarraj has failed to extend his control over the western part of Libya and is struggling to exert influence on forces in Misrata and Tripoli.
While the GNA looks for international support across the board, Haftar’s dealings with foreign powers have been more tactical. He managed to militarily shape a Libyan status quo in which no long-term or comprehensive solution can be reached without his consent.
International efforts to integrate him in the institutions that emanated from the Libyan political agreement have failed. Sarraj’s only hope is for Haftar to accept an official role that legitimises the GNA but the Libyan military leader is in no rush to concede.
For the European Union, the predominant concern remains curbing the flow of migrants across the central Mediterranean via Libya, hence Brussels has been eager to engage Haftar. However, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said at February’s Munich Security Conference that Russia was testing NATO in Libya and that “we don’t need the bear sticking his paws in”.
Libya is increasingly becoming one of the many issues in which the Trump administration and the Europeans do not see eye to eye.
Two key policy questions will define the US approach to Libya: What to do with Haftar and how to react to Russia’s involvement. The Emirati, Russian and Egyptian support will likely ensure that the Trump administration does not challenge Haftar.
The Libyan field marshal made it clear what he hopes to happen. “If Russia and the United States come together to stamp out terrorism, that can help us. We are going to shake their hands. We will align with them,” he said on February 5th to France’s Journal du Dimanche. Such an improbable US-Russian deal in Libya would significantly weaken European influence in North Africa.
Indeed, what will happen in Libya in 2017 largely depends on what steps Haftar takes and on how the Trump administration shapes its relations with Moscow. The most plausible scenario is for Washington to intermittently focus on ISIS while remaining neutral on Libya, which will allow Haftar’s influence to grow on its own.
Ultimately, Putin will have yet another bargaining chip with the Europeans. Moscow is increasingly becoming the go-to place for Libya and the United States seems fine with that as long as ISIS is subdued.