The warlord Khalifa Haftar's cunning exploitation of geopolitical rivalries has handed Russia outsized influence over the conflict.
Al Arabiya TV recently broadcast General Khalifa Haftar’s speech in which he announced the beginning of a “decisive battle and the advancement towards the heart of [Tripoli] to set it free.”
With Haftar ordering the Libyan National Army (LNA) to advance on the capital for the civil war’s “final battle” eight-and-a-half months after the launch of “Operation to Liberate Tripoli,” it is far from clear how events will play out on the ground. There have been reports of diplomats leaving Tripoli, which could be an indication that the fighting will be more intense.
After all, Haftar has previously made similar announcements that were not followed by any decisive LNA victory. This time around it is also unclear how or if power dynamics will shift as a result of Haftar’s forces making this new advance on Tripoli.
In preparation for a major escalation of violence in Libya’s civil war, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met last month with Emirati officials to discuss the crisis. Although Pompeo has been attempting to convince US allies which sponsor the LNA – such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt – to put pressure on Haftar to abandon plans for forcefully taking Tripoli, it seems unrealistic to imagine this administration having the capacity to lead diplomatically on the Libya file successfully.
Since Trump’s presidency began, which was shortly after the US military and its local partners toppled the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) in Sirte at the end of Obama’s presidency, Washington has not been a significant player in Libya. Throughout Trump’s time in the Oval Office, Libya has not received much of his attention.
Furthermore, contradictions and confusion in Washington’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Libya have damaged the US’s credibility. With US allies — both in NATO and the Arab region — taking different sides in the conflict and even intervening militarily, the Trump administration has mostly outsourced America’s Libya policy to Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Paris, Rome, and Riyadh.
Nonetheless, officials in Washington are increasingly unsettled by recent developments in Libya that have left certain experts concluding that Haftar may soon succeed in taking Tripoli through his sustained military campaign. Perhaps the main reason pertains to Russia, which has supported Haftar in various ways throughout Libya’s civil war.
Russia has deep interests in Libya which pertain to a host of areas such as energy, investment, and security. As President Vladimir Putin seeks to continue regaining clout in countries where the Soviet Union was highly influential, Libya is undeniably one of them.
Similar to Russia’s strategies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Moscow is determined to capitalise on western governments’ strategic blunders in Libya to increase Russian power in the oil-rich Mediterranean country.
Haftar, whom the Kremlin believes is a bulwark against extremism in post-Gaddafi Libya, has received Russian support since the country was bifurcated five-and-a-half years ago. However, Moscow’s Libya foreign policy has been nuanced.
In recent years, while strengthening the LNA, Putin’s government has also maintained diplomatic channels with Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. But Moscow has recently aligned more closely with Haftar, at least for now.
Although Russian support for Haftar may be primarily transactional and possibly temporary, it has made a difference on the ground throughout recent weeks. Indeed, weaponry and mercenaries from Russia have contributed to Haftar’s recent gains and increased the odds of the LNA successfully usurping Tripoli.
As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Frederic Wehrey recently wrote in reference to ongoing battles in Libya, “Russian anti-tank missiles, the dreaded Kornets, snake between sand berms to incinerate their target with a devastating accuracy.”
Haftar exploits geopolitical competition
Having noted Russia’s military accomplishments in Syria and Moscow’s growing partnerships with traditionally Western-allied Arab states, American diplomats and lawmakers view Russia’s muscle-flexing in Libya with major unease.
Last month, the State Department harshly condemned Haftar’s westward offensive on Tripoli, calling out the LNA and accusing Haftar’s coordination with the Wagner Group as a violation of Libya’s sovereignty.
As of writing, lawmakers on both sides of Washington’s partisan divide are pushing for legislation to sanction contractors from Russia that are involved in Libya’s conflict.
Haftar is fully aware of Washington’s concerns about a growing Russian role in Libya. The eastern commander understands how Libya fits into the grander picture of the West and Russia jockeying for influence in North Africa.
Throughout this conflict, Haftar has, in a typical Cold War-style, played Washington on one side against Moscow and Beijing on the other to gain leverage. Earlier on in Libya’s civil war, when Wehrey asked Haftar how much longer the LNA’s fight against the GNA would continue, the eastern commander (who is a dual citizen of Libya and the US) responded: “That depends on how much help we get. The Russians and Chinese have offered to help us, but we are waiting for America.”
Regardless of how the North African country’s civil war evolves throughout the remainder of this year and into 2020, a safe bet is that the conflict will become a growing flashpoint in the US and Russia’s competition for influence, geopolitical strength, and wealth in the African and Arab worlds.
Having left many Arab statesmen convinced that Russia “saved” Bashar al Assad and his regime in Damascus, Moscow will possibly play a game-changer role in Libya too or at least gain that perception in the region.
In helping Haftar achieve his battlefield objectives, Moscow is buying more goodwill with some of Washington’s close Arab allies which share the belief that the LNA is the Libyan actor which deserves external support. This marks a continuation of Russia’s strategy of capitalising on wedges between the US and some of its partners in the Middle East and North Africa.
Indeed, Moscow wants Arab states to view Russia as the go-to power broker and arms dealer for those involved in the region’s hottest conflicts.
By the same token, Moscow will need to consider the role that Turkey plays in Libya as a supporter of the country’s UN-recognised government. If increased Russian support for Haftar is met with stronger Turkish backing for the GNA, the Kremlin could find itself becoming bogged down in a conflict that pits Moscow and Ankara against each other at a time in which both capitals need to work with each other on Syria-related problems and other issues.
Most likely Turkey, not the US, will be the NATO member that does the most to push against Russia and the Kremlin’s agenda in Libya, assuming that Moscow continues providing Haftar with such support.
In the event that Turkey deploys military forces to Libya, Russia will need to make difficult yet essential decisions about how Moscow wants to deal with Haftar going forward.
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