Libya warns of Rus­sian clout as U.S. pulls back

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Rus­sia’s role in help­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad se­cure vic­tory in Syria’s civil war has em­bold­ened Moscow to ex­pand its op­er­a­tions into Libya with the goal of sup­plant­ing Amer­i­can and other Western in­flu­ence there, the top se­cu­rity of­fi­cial in Tripoli’s U.N.-backed gov­ern­ment warned in an in­ter­view.

“The Rus­sians suc­ceeded in Syria, so they think they will be suc­cess­ful in Libya,” In­te­rior Min­is­ter Fathi Bashagha told The Washington Times. He said “the time is right” for the U.S. to ex­ert more diplo­matic mus­cle to end the civil war in the oil-rich North African na­tion.

With­out more ro­bust U.S. pres­sure on re­gional pow­ers back­ing Libya’s di­vided fac­tions, Mr. Bashagha said, Moscow will ex­ploit the sit­u­a­tion and ex­pand its pres­ence in the Mediter­ranean be­yond the sole naval base it op­er­ates in the Syr­ian port of Tar­tus.

“This is a big con­cern for us now if the U.S. doesn’t act fast,” he said.

Mr. Bashagha is among the most in­flu­en­tial se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in Libya’s in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Ac­cord (GNA), which con­trols Tripoli but faces a mil­i­tant ri­val dom­i­nat­ing the eastern half of the coun­try.

His com­ments dur­ing a visit to Washington high­light a vex­ing new layer to the war in Libya, where of­fi­cials say Qatar and Tur­key are back­ing forces loyal to the GNA while Egypt, the United Arab Emi­rates and — at least at times — the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion have sup­ported anti-ji­hadi rebel leader Khalifa Haf­tar.

With Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies ap­par­ently now also back­ing Mr. Haf­tar, the con­flict rep­re­sents a mount­ing chal­lenge for the U.S., which was al­ready wary that ji­hadi ter­ror­ist groups, in­clud­ing po­ten­tially resur­gent el­e­ments of the Is­lamic State group, could ex­ploit the chaos in Libya.

Libya’s power vac­uum has been ex­ac­er­bated by a month­s­long as­sault that Mr. Haf­tar’s self-pro­claimed Libyan Na­tional Army has been wag­ing against the GNA­con­trolled gov­ern­ment in Tripoli.

Rus­sia has de­nied nu­mer­ous re­ports that it has dis­patched mer­ce­nary forces to fight for Mr. Haf­tar and blamed “ma­li­cious ru­mors and fab­ri­ca­tions” spread by Amer­i­can me­dia.

“We sup­port the ap­pro­pri­ate ef­forts [to end the Libyan con­flict], in­clud­ing through the U.N. We’re in di­a­logue with those who in one way or an­other in­flu­ence the sit­u­a­tion,” Rus­sian Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Ryabkov told the ITAR-Tass news ser­vice Nov. 7.

The White House has sought to avoid get­ting pulled into the fight, although Pres­i­dent Trump had an un­ex­pected phone call with Mr. Haf­tar this spring in which he praised him as a force against ex­trem­ist mili­tias in Libya.

Some in Washington have also re­garded the GNA with sus­pi­cion be­cause of claims that the Tripoli-based gov­ern­ment, de­spite U.N. back­ing, is too le­nient to­ward Is­lamists. GNA of­fi­cials sharply re­ject that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has shown signs of mov­ing away from Mr. Haf­tar — who was a Libyan army colonel un­der dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi and is sus­pected to have CIA ties — and align­ing more closely with the GNA. Other signs show U.S. of­fi­cials’ mount­ing con­cern over Rus­sia’s ac­tiv­i­ties in Libya.

Af­ter pri­vate talks among U.S. of­fi­cials, Mr. Bashagha and GNA For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­hamed Ta­her Siala this month, the State Depart­ment is­sued a state­ment “un­der­scor­ing sup­port for Libya’s sovereignt­y and ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity in the face of Rus­sia’s at­tempts to ex­ploit the con­flict against the will of the Libyan peo­ple.”

The U.S. gov­ern­ment “calls on the ‘Libyan Na­tional Army’ to end its of­fen­sive on Tripoli,” the state­ment said, to “pre­vent un­due for­eign in­ter­fer­ence, re­in­force le­git­i­mate state au­thor­ity, and ad­dress the is­sues un­der­ly­ing the con­flict.”

Ex­pand­ing Rus­sian pres­ence

Mr. Bashagha said Moscow is tak­ing the same steps in Libya that it used in Syria years ago: de­ploy­ing mer­ce­nar­ies from a Krem­lin-linked Rus­sian firm known as the Wag­ner Group to gain foothold in the na­tion with­out hav­ing to com­mit of­fi­cial Rus­sian forces.

Although Rus­sia has of­fi­cially de­nied the pres­ence of Wag­ner Group forces in Libya, sources in Moscow and Western diplo­mats told Bloomberg News that hun­dreds of the mer­ce­nar­ies have been sent to Libyan front lines since Septem­ber and are em­ployed by the se­cu­rity firm headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an as­so­ciate of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Bashagha told The Times that “Rus­sia’s Wag­ner mer­ce­nar­ies are now present in sev­eral air bases in Libya” Their ap­par­ent mis­sion is to bring el­e­ments of the for­mer Gad­hafi regime back to power “be­cause they know that if there is a dic­ta­tor­ship in Libya, they will have good re­la­tions with it.”

The long-term con­cern, he said, is that an ex­pand­ing Rus­sian mer­ce­nary op­er­a­tion will un­der­cut other for­eign pow­ers at­tempt­ing to in­flu­ence the sit­u­a­tion on the ground, and that “even Haf­tar will lose [his] con­trol to the Rus­sians.”

“For the Rus­sians, Libya is very im­por­tant geopo­lit­i­cally, be­cause Libya has a big re­serve in oil and gas and we have a very big coast­line, close to Europe, across from NATO bases in Europe, and be­cause Libya is the gate­way to Africa,” Mr. Bashagha said. “The Rus­sians want to in­crease their in­flu­ence in Africa go­ing for­ward.”

Mr. Putin hosted a large del­e­ga­tion of African lead­ers this month for a sum­mit in

Sochi, pitch­ing at the time Rus­sia’s po­ten­tial value as a source of aid and weaponry. Mr. Bashagha said the Krem­lin is ex­ploit­ing the lack of a co­he­sive NATO re­sponse to the in­sta­bil­ity in Libya.

The U.S. and Tur­key, which is back­ing the GNA in Tripoli and whose pres­i­dent, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, vis­ited with Mr. Trump at the White House this month, can find com­mon cause in Libya lim­it­ing Rus­sian in­flu­ence, the min­is­ter said.

U.S.-Tur­key ties have been strained by mul­ti­ple de­vel­op­ments in re­cent months, not the least of which is Ankara’s ac­qui­si­tion of so­phis­ti­cated Rus­sian mil­i­tary hard­ware against the wishes of Washington and other NATO al­lies.

Mr. Bashagha said he did not know whether the Libya sit­u­a­tion was dis­cussed dur­ing Mr. Er­do­gan’s visit to the White House, but he and other GNA of­fi­cials “hope that the U.S. and Tur­key will work to­gether in Libya.”

“We also hope that Egypt will work with us on a pos­i­tive track. We hope they change their po­si­tion to­ward the GNA to counter the Rus­sians,” he said. “Egypt is very im­por­tant for us. … We would like to send good, pos­i­tive mes­sages to Egypt that we care about their se­cu­rity. Their se­cu­rity is our se­cu­rity.

“We want them to know that we see Egypt as a very im­por­tant neigh­bor and we share their con­cerns,” he said. “The pres­ence of Rus­sia in Libya won’t serve Egypt or any­one else.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The time is right” for the U.S. to ex­ert diplo­matic mus­cle to end the war be­tween the Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Ac­cord and Libyan Na­tional Army, Libyan In­te­rior Min­is­ter Fathi Bashagha says.

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