Rus­sia cul­ti­vates gen­eral in bid for a base

Schism in Libya may give Is­lamic State new chance

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY CARLO MUNOZ

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.”

Haf­tar

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