Russia cultivates general in bid for a base
Schism in Libya may give Islamic State new chance
A string of recent moves suggests Russia is looking to exploit the political chaos in Libya to expand its influence across the Middle East and North Africa.
Moscow’s support for Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a former senior military chief for deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi and now head of the rival faction to the official government in Tripoli, closely mimics Moscow’s strategy to expand its influence in Syria, said Emily Estelle, a Libya specialist at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.
But while cultivating Gen. Haftar, Russian officials also are hedging their bets by looking to renew Gadhafi-era economic and military basing pacts with the leadership of the Government of National Accord, or GNA, in Tripoli, she said in an interview this week.
“Russia is playing the same game” in Libya as it is in Syria, where Moscow has been the primary military ally to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, she said. “Russia can gain on multiple fronts here,” Ms. Estelle noted.
Gen. Haftar, who was rumored to be a CIA source during his exile beginning in 1987 — which included a long stay in the United States — returned to Libya in 2011 after Gadhafi’s overthrow and brutal assassination by anti-regime forces. He led the loose coalition of local paramilitary forces in eastern Libya battling other militias for control of the country, eventually molding them into the Libyan National Army.
Spurred by the GNA leadership in Tripoli, Gen. Haftar closely aligned himself with Russia, where he visited the Kremlin on multiple occasions, requesting arms and support from President Vladimir Putin. Aside from Mr. Putin, Gen. Haftar has also reportedly met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, to secure Moscow’s support.
“He wants to be the next Gadhafi,” Ms. Estelle said.
But his lack of support inside Libya and the general disdain for him among Arab leaders show Gen. Haftar “likely is not capable of being the next Gadhafi,” she said. His armed crackdown on Islamic extremists in eastern Libya has only made Gen. Haftar more of a pariah in the eyes of the Arab world, Ms. Estelle noted.
But strong backing from Moscow, coupled with a renewed focus by the Islamic State on Libya, could catapult the general into the upper echelons of the country’s ruling class.
“You cannot live with him, you cannot live without him. He is going to be involved,” Ms. Estelle said.
Analysts say Moscow is looking to secure former Soviet military bases inside Libya as a key base in North Africa. Coupled with Moscow’s naval seaport in the costal Syrian city of Tartus and a major air base in Latakia, securing military facilities inside Libya could bridge Russian forces across the Mediterranean Sea. Russia is also lobbying officials from the GNA with lucrative economic investment deals in Libya.
But Moscow’s backing of a figure as polarizing as Gen. Haftar only undercuts efforts to form a unified government in Libya, former U.S. Special Envoy for Libya Jonathan Winer said Wednesday.
As Gen. Haftar’s forces and the GNA continue to clash, Islamic State is taking advantage of the schism to recapture its former Libyan stronghold of Sirte.
“No one wants to be in a conflict over Sirte,” he said, referring to the reluctance between Gen. Haftar’s faction and Tripoli to cooperate in battling Islamic State. “They need [political] solutions that get Libya beyond the militias.”