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Could Libya be Russia's new Syria?

Emily Sherwin Moscow
April 10, 2019

The rumors that Libyan General Khalifa Haftar has Kremlin support are as consistent as his advance on the country's capital. In Syria, Russia has flexed its military muscles — but it isn't showing its cards on Libya yet.

General Khalifa Haftar, commander in the Libyan National Army, wears a Russian hat after a meeting in Moscow
Image: Reuters/M. Shemetov

As the conflict in Libya heats up, the words out of Moscow have remained cool and rational.

During a recent visit to Egypt, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia's "task is to help the Libyan people overcome their current differences of opinion, and come up with a stable agreement" to reconcile the sides. 

And at the beginning of the week Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia will use every possible opportunity to call on all sides to avoid causing bloodshed and "deaths in the civilian population."

Since early April, the forces of military strongman Khalifa Haftar (above) have been pushing towards the Libyan capital, Tripoli. That is where the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj is based, which has accused Haftar of attempting a coup. Haftar heads the self-titled Libyan National Army, which is backed by a rival government in the east of the country.
Russia seems to be trying to avoid taking a clear side in the escalating conflict.

- A Member of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli's forces, prepares himself to go to the front line in Tripoli
Russia has called for dialogue between the two warring sides in LibyaImage: Reuters/H. Amara

"It's a very delicate diplomatic situation for Russia," says Viacheslav Matuzov, a long-term diplomat now working as an independent Middle East expert.

Various Russian allies support different parties in the conflict: Turkey and Algeria, for example, support the UN-backed Tripoli government, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia back General Haftar.

Going beyond the Libyan conflict, both Algeria and Egypt are top buyers of Russian weapons. And Turkey is an important partner for Russia internationally, both in the conflict in Syria and with the increasing rifts between Turkey and NATO, an alliance which Russia sees as a threat. On top of all that, Russia needs to keep Saudi Arabia onside as a fellow oil giant.

Libyan National Army (LNA) members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, pose for a picture with their weapons as they head out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli
Some experts believe forces of Haftar's Libyan National Army have received arms from MoscowImage: Reuters/E. O. Al-Fetori

Matuzov argues that the main reason Russia is nevertheless involved in this diplomatic muddle is Moscow's fear that the chaos in Libya could allow the resurgence of the "Islamic State,"which would be a serious security concern for Moscow.
The Libya tightrope

Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer agrees that Libya is a diplomatic "conundrum" for Moscow. "Russia will be treading very cautiously in the conflict," he says. It "will not declare its allegiance openly."

But while Matuzov insists Russia is as neutral as its official statements are, Felgenhauer argues, "it's obvious that Moscow is supporting Haftar" behind closed doors — something that the Kremlin has denied.

In fact, both General Haftar and Prime Minister Sarraj have visited Moscow, but Haftar seems to have the edge in the Kremlin. He has visited three times since 2016 and was even taken aboard Russia's flagship aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in 2017, reportedly for a video conference with Russia′s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. 

Felgenhauer believes one thing could have tipped the scales in Haftar′s favor: Money. After all, the strongman is in charge of nearly all of Libya′s oil-producing regions. "That means he has the money — which means he is important for Moscow," the analyst says.

Felgenhauer argues that despite the UN arms embargo on Libya, Moscow could be angling to sell Haftar weapons — or even already be selling them. The fall of Libya's long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 lost Russia billions in arms sales, according to some estimates.

Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands at a meeting
Russian officials have met with both sides in the conflict in recent years. Above, Libya's Prime Minister Sarraj (L) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.Image: picture-alliance/TASS/A. Novoderezhkin

On April 7, Russia blocked a UN Security Council​​​​​ ​​statement that would have urged forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar to halt their advance on Tripoli, insisting that the statement should urge all forces in the country to stop fighting.  Felgenhauer sees the move as a clear sign of Russia's tacit support for Haftar.

Murky signs

According to various media reports, Russia may have another way of quietly taking sides in Libya. In late 2018, Russian daily RBC reported that there are Russian troops in the east of the Libya, citing a source close to the Russian Defense Ministry. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a video showing Yevgeny Prigozhin taking part in talks with general Haftar in Moscow.

Russian soldiers are seen guard at a checkpoint near Wafideen camp in Damascus
Russian troops have been on the ground and in the air in Syria since 2015Image: Reuters/O. Sanadiki

Prigozhin is a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is a shadowy figure who apparently heads Russia′s social media "troll factory," as well as a private Russian military company called Wagner Group. It has reportedly turned up in conflicts all over the world, including in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela and Central African Republic.
Former Russian diplomat Matuzov thinks that sending Russian mercenaries to Libya would be impossible, calling the claims "disinformation." He says if there were mercenaries in Libya, "we would already know." Matuzov says there is no clear distinction between various warring groups in the country, explaining that fighters in the conflict often move between the groups "depending on how the situation on the ground develops" — and that is why "there are no secrets in Libya."

But military expert Felgenhauer isn't so sure. He thinks Russian mercenaries are quite possibly on Libya's ground and in its airspace and argues that this would be a very elegant solution for Russia′s diplomatic conundrum. Because they aren't officially associated with the government, "mercenaries allow [Russia] to get involved — while not getting involved," Felgenhauer says. "They allow plausible deniability." 

Russland Wladimir Putin embrace during a meeting Baschar al-Assad in Sotschi
Russia's military operation in Syria has propped up Putin's long-term ally Bashar AssadImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik/M. Klimentyev

Syria 2.0?

In early 2018 Russia′s announcements of its plans to withdraw troops from Syria only increased rumors about a potential Russian military operation in Libya. However, Russia is unlikely to launch a large-scale intervention in Libya like it did nearly four years ago in Syria, in part because it is still entwined in the conflict there.

"Syria hasn't gone away," Felgenhauer points out. "Russian capabilities are already overstretched. We're not the Soviet Union anymore." 

He also doesn't think it fits Russia's overarching strategic aims. "The main thrust of Russian foreign policy and military policy is anti-Americanism. That works in Syria and in Venezuela, but in Libya it's not clear who the Americans are actually supporting."

Matuzov agrees that Libya won't be Russia's new Syria. For one thing, he says, the two military bases Russia established in Syria during the conflict mean Moscow doesn't need another foothold to cover its strategic interests in the Middle East. And moreover, he adds, Moscow simply couldn't afford a base in Libya.

Matuzov also cites another reason why Russia won′t launch a full-scale military operation like in Syria: "Libya is like quicksand. Anyone who steps into it will get sucked in."