Russia seeks another Mediterranean naval base in Libya
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
In recent months, Russia has been ramping up its involvement in the Libyan sociopolitical crisis, which has been ongoing since the removal of its ruler, Muammar Qaddafi. Russia has been strengthening its ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who heads the LNA (the Libyan National Army), one of the many military militias operating in Libya, and opposes the country’s official government. Haftar has also visited Moscow twice over the past half-year and met with the foreign and defense ministers in an effort to obtain weaponry. Russia views Haftar as a main means to deepen its involvement and influence in Libya, which it regards as a springboard for establishing its military naval presence in the Mediterranean Basin and gaining a foothold in North Africa.
Haftar is a survivor of Qaddafi’s regime, and for a time he worked (from Virginia) to oust him with the help of the CIA. Haftar also has longstanding ties with Moscow going back to the early 1970s. After Qaddafi’s fall, he returned to Libya and became active mainly in its eastern region (Tobruk, Benghazi). He opposes the GNA (the Government of National Accord) headed by Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, which is supported by the United Nations and the European countries and is based in Tripoli. Haftar recently called to set up a unity government without dictates – meaning by the United Nations and the European countries. Haftar is supported by the alternative government and the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, which is recognized by the West.
Haftar’s LNA militia actually constitutes the main active military force and one of the best organized in Libya. Several of Haftar’s people and members of the HoR have also warned recently in Russian Arabic news outlets that they favor Haftar and that they aim to “liberate” and unify Tripoli. Haftar also controls Libya’s main oil ports, which he took over in September 2016 when he wrested them from the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which is loyal to the GNA.
Russia Seeks another Naval Base in the Mediterranean
A significant sign of the thaw was the unusual visit by Haftar to the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on January 11, 2016, when it was off the coast of Tobruk on its way back to Severomorsk. The aircraft carrier operated in the Mediterranean as part of Russia’s active involvement in the Syrian crisis. With this move, Russia showed which side it supports in the Libyan crisis and made clear that Haftar must be awarded a prominent post (defense minister, for example) in any future settlement. It also signaled that Russia intends to expand its naval presence in the Mediterranean, beyond its Tartus base in Syria, in the direction of North Africa and the Libyan ports of Benghazi and Tobruk. It also aims to play an active role in the reshaping of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, particularly in areas undergoing crises.
While he was on the aircraft carrier, Haftar conversed in a videoconference with senior Russian officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu from the situation room. The topics were the terror organizations in the Middle East, the supply of billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry (warplanes, tanks, advanced surface-to-air missile systems), as well as the reorganization of the Libyan army and the renovation of Russian-produced weapons. This was despite the weapons embargo on Libya, which prohibits providing weapons to groups operating there with the exception of the GNA. During the Qaddafi era, Russia was Libya’s main weapons supplier, and since the revolution, the weapons have made their way to the terror organizations operating in North Africa including AQIM and the Islamic State.
Moscow views Haftar as a main power factor whom Russia can cultivate while also mocking the European countries, which gambled on the wrong horse (the al-Sarraj government) while publicly expressing support for the feeble GNA, which controls almost nothing outside of Tripoli. At the same time, the Europeans too – mainly Britain, France, and Italy – are putting out feelers behind the scenes, seeking to open channels of communication with Haftar and his eastern political support base. In this regard, Aquila Saleh, head of the HoR, and a number HoR members held a meeting with the British ambassador to Libya, Peter Millet, in Tobruk (January 17). Saleh claims Millet realizes the failure of GNA. Millet tweeted that he had discussed with head of the HoR possibilities to find a solution to the current political freeze.
In recent months, Haftar has been waging fierce battles against Islamic elements in Benghazi. He is considered the nemesis of the Islamic organizations in Libya, including some that support the GNA. From Moscow’s standpoint, Haftar’s struggle against the Islamic organizations (“terror organizations”) offers a foothold for promoting him in the domestic Libyan arena. Moscow has also called upon Martin Kobler, special representative of the UN secretary-general and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, to help Haftar obtain a key post in a future Libyan government (defense minister) while emphasizing that the current GNA government is ineffective.
It should be noted that it was the forces loyal to the GNA that spearheaded the destruction of the Islamic State’s last stronghold in the city of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast with help from Misrata-based militias, some of which are drawn from Islamic militias) after months of struggle and U.S. aerial assistance through AFRICOM forces.
The Syrian Model
Russia is prepared to give Haftar’s army military and logistical aid in bases in eastern Libya as part of his struggle against the Islamic terror organizations. The terminology Russia uses in Libya is largely borrowed from the Syrian discourse: “Bashar Assad’s struggle against the Islamic terror organizations that have taken over Syria.” Similarly, Russia maintains that Libya is waging a local struggle that affects the regional arena (the Syrian crisis affects Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon; the Libyan imbroglio affects Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Chad) and threatens – particularly because of the Islamic and international terror organizations – to destabilize it. In both the Syrian and Libyan cases, there is a need to curb the stream of refugees arriving in Europe. Egypt, too, has an interest in weakening the radical Islamic elements active in Libya, and it supports the Russian move. Russia may try to promote a settlement in Libya and serve as a mediator between the head of the GNA government, al-Sarraj, and Haftar by holding talks in Egypt. It would thereby further improve its relations with Cairo, which still has not completely recovered from the Obama doctrine in the Middle East.
In Libya, as in Syria, Russia preferred to throw its weight behind the military “strongman,” who controls the country’s oil ports, in lieu of the weak, UN and Western supported GNA. Although Russia’s backing for Haftar does not necessarily herald a quick solution to the Libyan crisis, Moscow expects that it will generate an internal dynamic in Libya that will benefit him, especially since Western support for the GNA is hesitant. Indeed, behind the scenes, some of the Western countries are aiding Haftar in his war against the Islamic elements. Europe, in particular, has an interest in rapidly resolving the Libyan crisis, even if Russia and its client Haftar are to gain a prominent place in the equation. Refugees are streaming from Libya’s shores to Europe and particularly Italy, which recently stepped up its involvement in Libya and provided patrol boats and humanitarian aid to the GNA, while also reopening its embassy in mid-January 2017.
Pawns and the Superpower
Russia appears to be setting up its pawns in the Middle East as part of its overall strategy of regaining its superpower status. As President Trump takes office, Moscow wants to test his policy. Another theater where Russia is likely to act is Yemen, which also is in a severe crisis with no solution on the horizon. It was reported in the past that Russia was demonstrating an interest in the crisis. It may try to resolve it in the future with the help of Iran, which supports the Houthis and the backers of deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have been trying to oust the Houthis from the capital city, Sana’a, and other strongholds along the Red Sea coast.
Russia’s recent mediation conference between the Fatah and Hamas terrorist movements, titled “Reestablishing the Unity of the Palestinian People,” also indicates Moscow will to be more involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Russian brokered a deal to form a national unity government ahead of elections after three days of reconciliation talks in Moscow. Fatah and Hamas delegates also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and asked him to advise incoming American President Donald Trump against carrying out his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
At present, the Libyan crisis is not at the center of the international agenda (unlike the energies that France and the international community have been investing in the Arab-Israeli conflict). It appears, however, that settling the crisis in Libya will become a major issue in the superpower struggle in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly also in forming the new balance of power between Putin’s Russia and the United States and Europe. These powers want to redivide and reshape the Middle East after its disintegration during the Obama years.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.