‘Gloves have come off’ in Libya, leav­ing Krem­lin’s fin­ger­prints

Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment has com­pli­cated con­flict, threat­en­ing to spur wider war in Mid­dle East

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY SUDARSAN RAGHA­VAN sudarsan.ragha­[email protected]­post.com

CAIRO — When Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies linked to the Krem­lin emerged on the front lines of Libya’s war in Septem­ber, their mil­i­tary ex­per­tise and ad­vanced weaponry changed the bat­tle­field. That was only the be­gin­ning.

Their ar­rival, to help eastern war­lord Khal­ifa Hifter, started a chain of events that has es­ca­lated a bat­tle for the Libyan cap­i­tal, Tripoli, and threat­ened to fuel a re­gional war over geog­ra­phy, ide­ol­ogy and lu­cra­tive oil and nat­u­ral gas reserves. A U.N. arms em­bargo, al­ready in tat­ters, is now tooth­less, rais­ing the specter of more civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

Now more than ever, the con­flict in Libya is be­ing driven by the Mid­dle East’s lat­est di­vide, pit­ting the United Arab Emi­rates, Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia against Turkey and Qatar. Over the past four months, Turkey, Egypt and the UAE have deep­ened their in­volve­ment, lay­ing bare the re­gion’s ri­val­ries and an­i­mosi­ties.

The United States, af­ter years of ne­glect­ing Libya, is now scram­bling to find a way to blunt the Krem­lin’s reach. But in the ab­sence of strong U.S. diplo­macy and poli­cies, Rus­sia and Turkey ap­pear poised to ex­ploit the se­cu­rity and diplo­matic vac­uum and con­trol the fate of Libya, as they have done in Syria.

More than 1,000 Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies are said to be op­er­at­ing in Libya, ac­cord­ing to U.S. and Western of­fi­cials and top Libyan com­man­ders. Most work for the Wag­ner Group, a shad­owy pri­vate army linked to the Krem­lin and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. It has also fought in Syria, Ukraine and other na­tions that Mos­cow con­sid­ers strate­gic to its in­ter­ests.

The Krem­lin de­nies any re­la­tion­ship with the mer­ce­nar­ies. Hifter’s self-de­scribed Libyan Na­tional Army says it de­ploys only Libyan fighters, de­spite clear signs of the mer­ce­nar­ies’ pres­ence.

As the war has in­ten­si­fied, so has hate speech, dis­in­for­ma­tion and fake news as both sides seek to use pro­pa­ganda as a weapon. It is di­vid­ing tribes and com­mu­ni­ties and frac­tur­ing ef­forts at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Con­cerns are also grow­ing about more refugees flee­ing vi­o­lence, spilling across bor­ders and at­tempt­ing dan­ger­ous sea jour­neys to Europe. And rem­nants of a once-de­feated Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate are look­ing to take ad­van­tage of the in­sta­bil­ity.

The new ten­sions are ham­per­ing ef­forts by the United Na­tions and Eu­ro­pean coun­tries to bro­ker a cease-fire and peace deal, cen­tered around a con­fer­ence in Ber­lin that has been post­poned sev­eral times.

“The tide has shifted on the ground, and that has re­ver­ber­ated diplo­mat­i­cally and geopo­lit­i­cally,” said Fred­eric Wehrey, a Libya scholar with the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace. “The Rus­sians’ new­found lever­age is a fur­ther blow to the Euro­peans’ ap­proach to Libya and the Ber­lin process. There are just more chefs in the kitchen now.”

Hifter’s for­tunes shift

As the 76-year-old Hifter, a dual U.s.-libyan cit­i­zen who lived for years in North­ern Vir­ginia, marched across the coun­try from his eastern strong­hold, Mos­cow as­sisted diplo­mat­i­cally and fi­nan­cially. In ad­di­tion to other aid, Rus­sia printed bil­lions of Libyan di­nars for Hifter to pay his troops and co-opt tribes to sup­port his ad­vance, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts.

Rus­sia hopes to re­gain bil­lions of dol­lars in oil and mil­i­tary con­tracts it lost when Libyan dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gaddafi was ousted and killed by rebel forces in the 2011 Arab Spring re­volts and NATO in­ter­ven­tion. To Mos­cow, Libya is also a part of a strat­egy to ex­tend Rus­sian in­flu­ence across the Mid­dle East and Africa.

Hifter, who is aligned with a ri­val eastern gov­ern­ment, vowed in April to take over Tripoli swiftly and oust the U.n.-in­stalled Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Ac­cord. But by the end of the sum­mer a mil­i­tary stale­mate was en­trenched. Eastern tribes were no longer join­ing Hifter, and many brigades had re­turned home, an­a­lysts said.

“As of late Au­gust, the Hifter army was at a very per­ilous place,” said Jalel Har­chaoui, a Libya re­search fel­low at the Clin­gen­dael In­sti­tute in The Hague.

Then, the Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies ar­rived on Tripoli’s front lines.

With their ex­pert snipers, high-tech guns and com­bat dis­ci­pline, the Rus­sians in­flicted a heavy toll on the pro- GNA mili­tias, in ca­su­al­ties and morale, Libyan com­man­ders and fighters said on a re­cent visit to the Tripoli front lines.

By late Novem­ber, the GNA turned to its main bene­fac­tor, Turkey, which has supplied it with weaponized drones, ar­mored ve­hi­cles and mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers.

The Tripoli gov­ern­ment and Ankara signed an agree­ment to carve out gas drilling rights in the Mediter­ranean Sea. That an­gered Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and the Eu­ro­pean Union, which see the deal as an ef­fort to block them from drilling. Ear­lier this month, Greece ex­pelled Libya’s am­bas­sador and filed a com­plaint with the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

The GNA and Turkey also signed a se­cu­rity pact, and Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan said he would send Turk­ish troops to Libya if the GNA re­quested them.

“Now, the bat­tle lines have sharp­ened right across the Mediter­ranean,” Wehrey said. “The gloves have come off.”

Ear­lier this week, the ten­sions over Turkey’s grow­ing ties to the GNA prompted Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fatah al-sissi to blast the deals.

“We will not al­low any­one to con­trol Libya,” Sissi told re­porters. “It is a mat­ter of Egyp­tian na­tional se­cu­rity.”

Turkey has close to $18 bil­lion in out­stand­ing con­struc­tion and other con­tracts in Libya. But the con­test for Libya also re­flects, to a de­gree, dif­fer­ent views of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam. Turkey and Qatar sup­ported Egypt’s elected Is­lamist pres­i­dent, Mo­hamed Morsi, and his Mus­lim Broth­er­hood move­ment. Sissi ousted Morsi in a 2013 coup.

Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Ara­bia, along with Hifter, view the Broth­er­hood, which they have branded a ter­ror­ist group, as dom­i­nat­ing the Tripoli gov­ern­ment and the mili­tias sup­port­ing it. Is­lamists are fight­ing on both sides, al­though their in­flu­ence ap­pears lim­ited, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts.

The U.S. on the back foot

The ar­rival of the Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies star­tled U.S. diplo­mats and politi­cians.

Since April, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sent mixed sig­nals. While the State Depart­ment urged both sides to halt their hos­til­i­ties, Pres­i­dent Trump spoke with Hifter by phone, en­dors­ing his mil­i­tary cam­paign.

But in Novem­ber, af­ter news re­ports about the Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies, the U.S. gov­ern­ment and the GNA re­leased a joint state­ment call­ing for Hifter to end his Tripoli of­fen­sive. The United States said it ex­pressed sup­port “for Libya’s sovereignt­y and terri

“The tide has shifted on the ground, and that has re­ver­ber­ated diplo­mat­i­cally and geopo­lit­i­cally. . . . There are just more chefs in the kitchen now.”

Fred­eric Wehrey, a Libya scholar with the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace

to­rial in­tegrity in the face of Rus­sia’s at­tempts to ex­ploit the con­flict against the will of the Libyan peo­ple.”

Se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials then met with Hifter in Am­man, Jordan, in an ef­fort to per­suade him to ac­cept a cease-fire. A bi­par­ti­san bill is mov­ing through the U.S. Congress seek­ing to im­pose sanc­tions on Rus­sia for the de­ploy­ment of the mer­ce­nar­ies in Libya.

This week, a Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry spokes­woman, Maria Zakharova, said Mos­cow was sur­prised by the bill.

She noted that Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo told re­porters this month that the United States was will­ing to work with Mos­cow to ne­go­ti­ate an end to the hos­til­i­ties. Pom­peo also warned coun­tries against send­ing arms to Libya.

But weapons have con­tin­ued to flow to both sides. The UAE, a key U.S. ally, is de­ploy­ing armed drones and now work­ing with the Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies to back Hifter. On Dec. 12, em­bold­ened by his back­ing from Rus­sia, Hifter an­nounced a de­ci­sive “zero hour” bat­tle for Tripoli.

Show­down in Tripoli

“We’ve seen many ex­pres­sions of con­cern from the U.S. over the in­creased Rus­sian in­volve­ment but no real en­gage­ment to do any­thing about it,” said Wol­fram Lacher, a Libya an­a­lyst at the Ger­man In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional and Se­cu­rity Af­fairs.

This is Hifter’s fourth “zero hour” dec­la­ra­tion to take over Tripoli — but the first one with the pres­ence of the Rus­sians. In­tense clashes have been re­ported on sev­eral front lines. The city of Misurata, whose mili­tias form the bulk of pro- GNA forces, de­clared a mass mo­bi­liza­tion of its fighters to send more to Tripoli to fend off Hifter.

Hate speech, too, has ratch­eted up. On Face­book, Twit­ter and other so­cial me­dia, pro-hifter tribal and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have de­nounced Misurata res­i­dents as lack­eys of the Turks — and have called for their ex­ter­mi­na­tion.

“Whole streets will be wiped out,” de­clared one eastern pro-Hifter fig­ure in a widely tweeted video this month. “We will burn and crush Misurata.”

PHO­TOS BY LORENZO TUGNOLI FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The site of a drone strike in Libya, on the front line of Suani, out­side Tripoli, in Oc­to­ber. Af­ter al­leged Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies be­came ac­tive in the area, drone strikes be­came more pre­cise and fre­quent. Mili­tias sup­port­ing the U.n.-backed gov­ern­ment now avoid us­ing ve­hi­cles.

ABOVE: Mili­tia fighters look for en­emy forces from a po­si­tion in Suani. BE­LOW: A notebook with Rus­sian writ­ing found on the front line by a mili­tia­man aligned with Libya’s gov­ern­ment.

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