This paper examines the new US–Russian conflict over Libya in light of the variables on the ground and recent exchanges between the two sides. It also analyzes the dynamics, current drivers, and strategic dimensions of the conflict and explores the potential implications for the future of the Libyan crisis.
US apathy over Libya
While the USA did not engage directly in the military action taken by NATO, in particular France and the UK, against the former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi in March 2011, it did provide its allies with political and logistical support. Following the killing of the US ambassador to Libya and three other employees in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi by Islamic militants in September 2012 the USA quickly withdrew from Libya, demonstrating its waning interest in the state of affairs in the country and its desire to leave the issue in the hands of its European allies.
While the decision to withdraw was taken by the Obama administration, and despite current US president Donald Trump’s vocal desire to overturn his predecessor’s policies, Trump has adhered to his election promise to withdraw the USA from foreign wars. He has therefore shown little interest in Libya, and Washington has maintained a moderate approach in relation to all parties to the conflict.
Despite its official links to the internationally recognized reconciliation government, the USA has remained in contact with the commander of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar. In late January, the media wing of the Libyan Armed Forces announced that Haftar had met with the US ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, to “discuss the recent developments in the Libyan crisis, particularly following the Berlin conference (held on January 19).” That meeting was one of a series of meetings between the two sides, the most important of which was held on January 9 in Rome, which was attended by Ambassador Norland, US Deputy National Security Advisor for Middle East and North African Affairs Victoria Coates, and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Maghreb and Egyptian Affairs Henry Wooster.
Indicators of change: US accusations and Russian evacuation
The USA changed its position significantly, however, once the Ministry of Defense and various military and security institutions concluded that Russian military activities had begun to contradict the USA’s principles of strategic security. Aspects of the conflict that had previously been of little importance to Washington became a source of concern once Libya became a target for Russian expansion in North Africa and the Mediterranean.
The Pentagon and NATO, in particular the US African Command (AFRICOM), have reiterated their opposition to Russian attempts to establish a foothold on the edge of Europe, as this would pose a strategic threat to the West. On May 26, AFRICOM announced that a number of Russian airplanes, painted to disguise their Russian origins, had departed from an airbase in Russia, crossed through Syrian airspace, and landed in Libya. “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” said US Army General Stephen Townsend. He added that, although Russia had long denied its involvement in the Libyan conflict, it was now indisputable.
This response from US institutions is evidence that US strategic security in North Africa is a red line for both Republicans and Democrats, as first emphasized at the Malta Summit held on December 3 and 4, 1989, between the US and Russian leaders, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Meanwhile, Moscow has continued to deny that it has any military presence in Libya, despite accusations by the reconciliation government, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, that Russian mercenaries belonging to the Wagner Group are present in the country. In the face of claims by AFRICOM that Moscow sent fourteen Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-24 fighter aircraft to the Jafra base in Libya, via Hmeimim military base in Syria, Russian political analysts who have guested on Arab satellite channels have focused on Moscow’s historical relationship with Libya, claiming that Russia has the right to maintain an influence and protect its interests in the country.
On May 25, the Government of National Accord confirmed that hundreds of Russian “mercenaries” had been evacuated from the town of Bani Waled, southeast of the capital. It stated that an Antonov An-32 military transport aircraft had landed at the town’s airport, 170 km southeast of the capital, to “resume the transfer of Wagner Group mercenaries who had been fleeing to an unknown destination south of Tripoli.” The government estimated that between 1,500 and 1,600 mercenaries had reached Bani Waled.
Although the Soviet Union developed a strong relationship with the “Libyan Jamahiriya” during the Gaddafi era, Gaddafi never allowed Soviet naval vessels to dock at Libyan ports despite his conflict with the USA, as he was aware that to do so would cross a red line in the Cold War.
Although Russia possesses significant influence in Syria and, as a result, access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, a fact which is accepted by the USA and may even have received US support (the Russian intervention in Syria began mere hours after a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama in New York in September 2015), Russia refuses to withdraw from Libya, which neither the Americans nor the Europeans can tolerate.
Repercussions of the renewed US–Russian conflict on the Libyan crisis
Libya is one of Africa’s strategic gateways into Europe, and its geostrategic location grants it easy access to the continent. Any Russian military presence along the Libyan coast line would pose a threat to the security of southern Europe and the US presence in Europe, in particular Italy, as the Libyan shoreline is a mere few dozen kilometers away from US military bases in Italy. This fear will help to unify the US and European approaches to Libya, and it may present an opportunity to achieve a solution to the crisis that aligns with the outcomes of the Berlin Conference and various UN resolutions, in which international and regional agreement was reached on the need to maintain the territorial unity of the country.
Lessons from military history illustrate Libya’s importance to the West. By first taking Tripoli in January 1943, British General Bernard Montgomery was later able to seize Monte Cassino in Italy in May 1944. When Hitler wanted to extend the Suez Canal into the Gulf, he dispatched Erwin Rommel first to Tripoli in February 1941.
As well as its geostrategic importance and its relevance to European security, Libya has enormous reserves of oil and gas. According to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Libya ranks fifth in the Arab world for oil, with reserves equivalent to 48.36 billion barrels. Libya also has around 54.6 trillion cubic feet in gas reserves, placing it 21st in the world. As a consequence, both the West (for political and economic reasons) and NATO (for security and military reasons) cannot afford to be lenient with regard to the Russian presence in Libya.
It is clear that the opinion of domestic parties to the conflict in Libya will be marginal in deciding the country’s fate, and will be subject to the rules and conditions imposed during the conflict between the international powers. Regional parties to the conflict will also see their options become more limited as the currently low-level conflict between Russia and the USA escalates.
Russia’s military presence in Libya is a strategic response to Western pressure on Russia, most recently in the form of NATO military exercises conducted in the Barents Sea off the coast of Russia, which Colonel Sergey Rodskoye of the Russian General Staff condemned as a form of provocation. Russia’s involvement in Libya may well be part of a plan to mirror its achievements in Syria by preparing the ground for a Russian presence in Libya that will make any future settlement more difficult.
Although Moscow has maintained relations with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and has previously held discussions with Prime Minister Fayez al‑Sarraj about ways to develop their economic relations, Russia likely has little interest in what any of the domestic actors in Libya do or do not achieve; its focus may instead be on maintaining a Russian influence in the country, whether through a traditional diplomatic presence, through local allies, or by turning a blind eye to the presence of mercenaries employed by a private Russian company. If the United Nations does eventually confirm the presence of Russian military aircraft in Libya (which it has so far failed to do), it will prove that Moscow believes that direct military interference is unavoidable if it wants to assert its influence over any new solution to the country’s conflict. Russia may use Libya’s future as a bargaining chip with the USA in exchange for concessions regarding other conflicts, in particular Ukraine and Syria.
Amr Abdelatty | 29 Jun 2020
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