Reports are circulating that earlier this month, Libyan governmental challenger Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar toured the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov while it was anchored off the Libyan coast. Unconfirmed Libyan media reports soon followed claiming that Russia had signed a $2 billion military equipment deal with Haftar, despite UN sanctions against his Eastern Libyan government; one of two rival establishments contending the North African state. Russian support could tip the balance of power further in favour of Haftar’s forces, and could further diminish the legitimacy of the waning UN-backed government in Tripoli. Has Russia found its next strongman on the Mediterranean?
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the powerful military officer who commands Libya’s Eastern government’s Libyan National Army, at this stage appears to be the primary rival of the fragile UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). A one-time ally of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, who was eventually sentenced to death in absentia for plotting to overthrow the ruler, the 73 year old Haftar oversees forces which now control the bulk of Libyan territory and the majority of its crucial oil production infrastructure. He served in the Libyan army under Gadhafi, and played a role in the coup that brought him to power in 1969. In 1973, Haftar commanded the Libyan deployment in the Yom Kippur War. In 1987, he was captured during the war against Chad. While a prisoner of war, he plotted with fellow Libyan officers to overthrow Gadhafi. He was released around 1990 in a deal brokered by the U.S. government and spent nearly two decades living in exile in the United States, eventually gaining American citizenship.
Earlier this month, Field Marshal Haftar claimed that Russia was seeking to end the arms embargo on the country, and could supply his forces with modern military equipment. A UN arms embargo in place since 2011 prohibits the transfer of weapons into Libya. Only the UN-backed GNA can bring in weapons and related materiel into Libya with the approval of a UN Security Council committee. According to these latest reports, Haftar boarded the Admiral Kuznetsov in Tobruk as it was relocating from a relatively brief deployment to Syria, where two aircraft from the carrier’s air wing had been lost in non-combat accidents, to its home port in Severomorsk.
According to the Russian defense ministry, Haftar spoke with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on collaboration against Middle Eastern terror groups, and received medical supplies from the Admiral Kuznetsov for his fighters and civilians under his jurisdiction. Haftar has visited Russia twice in the past seven months, meeting with the Kremlin’s foreign and defence ministers, as well as the national security chief to seek support. Russia subsequently printed notes worth 4 billion Libyan dinars ($2.8 billion) for the Libyan central bank and transferred the cash to an eastern Libyan city under Haftar’s control, thought to be Marj or Tobruk, where branches of the rival government’s Central Bank have been established.
Haftar’s forces have seen repeated success in recent months, having driven Islamic State-affiliated militias out of the Ganfouda neighborhood of Benghazi in mid-January following a several-month siege. Jihadi forces remain in control of the central Benghazi areas of Al Saberi and Souq al Hout, however at this stage they are surrounded by forces loyal to Haftar.
These moves are likely intended to bolster the Kremlin’s ambitions as a global player, cement President Vladmir Putin’s domestic image as a Middle East power broker, and to highlight the failings of U.S. foreign policy.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army has been fighting a two-year military campaign against Islamist militants in the Sirte basin, and other militia-based opponents in Benghazi and elsewhere in the east. Beyond this, his forces recently seized critical oil and gas infrastructure in the Sirte region, and many suspect that Haftar will eventually seek national power. Although Russia has not confirmed that it will offer Haftar direct military support, his visit to the Kuznetsov is likely to embolden the military commander and increase his prestige across the country at a time where his political rivals appear stalled. Military aid from Russia would likely add decisive momentum to Haftar’s already-successful forces on the battlefield, although any such deal would almost certainly cause further tension between Russia and the UN.
Despite the repeated failures of the GNA to truly assert itself over Libya, Haftar has avoided direct confrontation with the rival government where possible, and has instead focused on consolidating his hold over the Cyrenaica region. He has successfully contained jihadists in Benghazi and has seized oil terminals in the east of the country, after dislodging military units of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, who were reportedly loyal to the GNA although were not directly in the GNA’s military force structure. This is likely to be an act of strategic patience by Haftar, who is able to demonstrate battlefield and governance successes while the GNA falls further into disarray, while simultaneously avoiding conflict with the powerful Misrata militia, who remain loyal to Tripoli but show little interest in expeditionary conflict beyond their own small enclave of western Libya.
Russia seems intent to increase its involvement in regional affairs in the coming year, having now brought many of the main players in the Syrian civil war to peace negotiations in Astana following the recapture of Aleppo. Moscow is also reportedly positioning itself as a neutral party to negotiate peace in the Yemen conflict. These moves are likely intended to bolster the Kremlin’s ambitions as a global player, cement President Vladmir Putin’s domestic image as a Middle East power broker, and to highlight the failings of U.S. foreign policy.
Beyond Russian support, Emirati and French air force operations have also reportedly been based out of the Al Khadim Airport in the city of Marj, Haftar’s headquarters, since March 2016, indicating a level of cooperation with his alternative government. Russia is likely to remain Haftar’s primary backer, having seen an opportunity to expand their influence in a vacuum left by the GNA’s failures and simultaneously establish a Mediterranean outpost to compliment their naval facilities at Tartus in Syria.
The UN mission in Libya must now question the value of supporting the failing GNA, which may lead to the economically-disasterous partition of Libya. Should the Cyrenaica region break away under Haftar’s umbrella of protection, given current territorial holdings it will take with it the bulk of Libya’s crucial oil infrastructure. This would leave the GNA entirely and permanently reliant on international support, and would leave Libya still fractured. If the UN were to cooperate with Russia, France and the UAE in its support of Haftar, the GNA could potentially be encouraged to seek a compromise position in an Eastern-led, but more successful, national government. Such a solution would be highly dependent on Haftar’s ability to display the same levels of operational success in Western Libya, which is no certainty given the powerful and fractuous militias present here. In either outcome, at this stage it appears unlikely that the GNA will be a successful government, and the UN support may be a wasted effort.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently provides MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to a leading U.S. investment bank.
Photo credit: Joe Pyrek