The Kremlin is relying on General Khalifa Haftar to gain a foothold in Libya. It is playing the terrorism card but is thinking of oil control and a naval base.
The cold war continues between the United States and Russia. This time the proxy battlefield is Libya, a former ally of what was then the Soviet Union. The Russians took no part in the war that broke out against Tripoli in 2011 and led to the assassination of Ghaddafi and to the break-up of the country. Neither did it oppose the UN resolution that allowed NATO to intervene militarily, violating the terms of the resolution itself that foresaw only the creation of a no-fly zone, not a change of regime. Once the damage had been done, the Russians claimed they had been deceived by the Americans and that the invasion was a violation of international law.
Now Russia also seems to want to intervene in Libya, following the increase in its political influence in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
On 2 March, last, during the visit of Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the Libyan “government of national unity” (a government with limited legitimacy since it does not enjoy the support of all the factions, and which is opposed by another “government of national salvation” with Islamic characteristics), Sergey Lavrov, the chief Russian diplomat, affirmed that “The unity of the Libyan people and the territorial integrity of Libya have been violated. As old friends, we wish to help you overcome this crisis”.
On 24 March, the American general Tom Waldhauser, head of United States Africa Command (Africom), said that “There are many Russian soldiers in the country and Russia intends to exert its influence in Libya “.
General Khalifa Haftar, a powerful leader from Cyrenaica, who lived for decades under US protection, in 2016 went twice to Moscow to meet the ministers for external affairs and defence: during his last visit on 26 November, he repeated the need for collaboration with the Kremlin to combat terrorism. On 11 January, Haftar went to visit the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov at anchor off the coast of Libya and took part in a video conference with the defence minister Sergey Shoygu.
Moscow seems to be relying on this man to gain a foothold in Libya where the French, British, American and even the Jordanians (as a peripheral colony of the USA) are already present.
Pentagon sources speak of the deployment of Russian Special Forces in Libya. Leaked information mentions dozens of military advisers being present in the west of Egypt, a few kilometers from the Libyan border. Why in Egypt? Because the Cairo government has good relations with Moscow and relies on the Libyan National Army, headed by Haftar, to combat and halt terrorism.
Through Egypt, Russia could supply Haftar with arms and military training, thus preparing for its leadership role on the Libyan scene, banking on a man who has changed his allegiance more than once and is now a figure of the first order on the political and military scene.
If the gamble were to pay off, the Russians would go into Libya through the main door: another point for the benefit of Moscow in this cold war, after that of Syria. If this were to happen, the Russians would also have control over Libyan oil and then why not have a military base that could be second in the Mediterranean only to that of Syria.
Mostafa El Ayoubi
Middle East Analyst