By Aneela Shahzad
If the Russians interfered with the 2016 US presidential elections, it was a huge calculation and it certainly paid off.
What they have achieved in return is the clearing off of US superpower pretense from the MENA chessboard.
Trump proved to be in Putin’s pocket from the onset. On Crimea, Trump simply told the G7 leaders in 2018 that, “Crimea is Russian because everyone speaks Russian in Crimea”.
For Erdogan too, Trump has proven to be nothing less than a best friend. In Syria, Trump ordered the withdrawal of US forces after a phone call with Erdogan in October 2019, explaining to the White House that Erdogan is making a “safe zone in northern Syria and US forces will not support or be involved in it”.
Two days later Trump wrote a threat/request letter to Erdogan, asking him to cooperate with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — Erdogan allegedly trashed the letter and ordered the Syrian operation the same day.
Surely, Trump knew that Turkey could not allow the SDF to operate in northern Syria, making its own Kurdish province unstable, but he had to posture this pro-SDF stance because of the US baggage of false promises and betrayals with the Kurds in the past, before ditching them once again, making it obvious to them and the world again that the US is not a reliable friend.
The next month, in November, just after Turkey announced its support for Tripoli, the State Department issued a statement warning Khalifa Haftar to stop his offensive on Tripoli and also warned against Russian interference in Libya.
This was in stark opposition to the April statement wherein Trump had praised Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources in a phone call, and vowed to work for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system with him together — which was again a reversal from the US’ constant previous warnings to Haftar to put down his fighting, even till a week earlier.
What we see in this whole scenario is not so much of Khalifa’s winning or losing, as much as the US being played like a ping-pong ball between circumstances it seems to have no control over.
In the big picture, when the first Arab Spring protests happened in Libya in February 2011, NATO forces largely led by US airpower, took less than a week to attack the Gaddafi regime, bombing Libyan cities into rubbles within weeks.
The British were the first to recognise the rebel government and Qatar acknowledged supplying arms to Libyan rebels. In 2016, at the creation of the Government of National Accord (GNA), the US and EU issued a joint statement describing it as the “only legitimate government in Libya”.
How then are they unsure about who they want to support in Libya today? From Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria and then Libya, all in a mere 10 years, had been perhaps a little too much for the Allies to handle.
With the US losing control in Iraq and Syria, Russia and Turkey took centre stage in the Syrian conflict with the Astana Process (2017), and it looks like sooner than later, they have cleared grounds for themselves in Libya too.
But in Libya, the chessboard is much more colourful and revealing. Here the Arabian Peninsula is being decisively divided between the Saudis and the Qataris; here the EU is proving to be more disconcerted than ever; and here Trump seems to be burying the coffin of “US relevance in global politics” for good.
In the EU, the Berlin Conference seems to have been rendered useless with a failed effort for a ceasefire. Later, Haftar visited both Merkel and Macron, seemingly for “ceasefire” talks.
But now it is clear that they were actually talking out an alliance, as just days later, the EU announced a new air and naval mission in the Mediterranean, to monitor the UN arms embargo in Libya.
After which, of course, the French frigate Provence intercepted a Turkish cargo ship allegedly transporting anti-aircraft missile systems for Libya’s GNA — whereas they acted blind to three military cargo planes from UAE to Haftar’s base in Al Marj.
So, with Trump’s U-turn, Germany and France are in the opposing camp from the US now.
But the irony is that all that the US and EU are left with now is only diplomacy and Russia and Turkey are really playing the shots on ground. In fact, they have simply hijacked Libya.
We know that the Saudis and the Emiratis have never been friends, especially after Russia stole their ambition in Syria. Then how are they both in the same camp in Libya now, unless Russia is stealing again?
Or, is Russia playing another game? In February, Russia arranged for diplomacy between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.
There have been talks on foreign investments in Syria, building infrastructure, using the Latakia and Tartus ports and pressuring the US to relax sanctions on Syria. Perhaps, these steps led to Russia’s acceptance in the Haftar camp.
It should be noted that Russia deployed mercenaries to fight for Haftar in September last year, and in January there was news of Turkish military deployment in Tripoli, following the influx of more than 2,000 Syrian fighters.
With so many gains in Syria together, and following each other right into Libya, it is hard to assess that the two powers would have just turned against each other. Rather it seems like a geopolitical move to expunge Libya of Western interests first and later decide upon the bounties.
As for now, Haftar has only become weaker with this new status quo. With Russia in his camp now, he may be led to fight a Russian war in place of a war that he was almost winning before this change and in which his own relevance would only have enhanced.
After six years of blood, injury and destruction, Libya seems to have gone back to square one, only with a new set of antagonists that have learned to play the game better.
Aneela Shahzad is a geopolitical analyst. She also writes at globaltab.net.