The offensive of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of eastern Libya, against Tripoli seems increasingly compromised after a series of setbacks and the withdrawal of hundreds of Russian mercenaries from the front lines south of the capital.
However, on Tuesday, Washington accused Moscow of having sent fighter planes to support the Marshal’s offensive against the capital, seat of the Government of National Unity (GNA), recognized by the UN and which is supported militarily by the Turkey.
An update on the ongoing reconfiguration attempt in this country in the grip of chaos since the fall of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Is there a Moscow-Ankara arrangement?
On Monday, GNA forces gave a 72-hour ultimatum to pro-Haftar troops to withdraw from the Tripoli region, where the GNA controls airspace with Turkish support.
The summons came shortly after the GNA forces took over Al-Watiya air base, a major rear base at Camp Haftar, 140 km southwest of Tripoli.
Analysts said that in the face of these recent GNA victories, Moscow and Ankara had reached a tacit agreement in order to avoid a direct confrontation on Libyan soil.
Thus, the withdrawal, between Sunday and Tuesday, of the mercenaries of the Wagner group – reputed close to the Kremlin – was “coordinated” by Moscow and Ankara, affirms Jalel Harchaoui, researcher at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague (Netherlands) ).
They were transported by Russian army planes to the Al-Joufra military base in central Libya.
And Russian fighter planes have been deployed there to “dissuade the GNA forces from advancing beyond the limits of (the region) Tripolitania,” said Wolfram Lacher, a researcher at the German Institute for International Affairs and Security.
“The suspension of Turkish drone strikes during the withdrawal of the Russian mercenaries (…) suggests that there is a Russian-Turkish agreement,” he notes. “Turkey and Russia are trying to carve out spheres of influence in Libya.”
“But it remains to be seen how other foreign powers will react: the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France”, who supported or support the marshal, said the expert.
“They could try to torpedo a Russian-Turkish arrangement in Libya, because it would marginalize them and grant Russia and Turkey long-term influence” in this country close to Europe, he said.
What support from Russia to Marshal Haftar?
“With this withdrawal (of the mercenaries), Russia ends the offensive against Tripoli, but Russian support remains essential for the survival of Haftar” in its traditional areas, recalls Mr. Lacher.
And this failure of the offensive “constitutes an opportunity for the Kremlin to increase its political influence in Cyrenaica (in the east) without ever, of course, cutting ties completely with Ankara,” adds Jalel Harchaoui.
According to Emad Badi, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, Russia “will further increase Haftar’s dependence on him, because he now needs any form of foreign support to (…) not lose face.”
Russian intentions also suspected by the United States: Moscow “is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya,” the chief of the American command for Africa (Africom) alerted on Tuesday.
“As it has done in Syria, it is expanding its military footprint in Africa by using state-supported mercenary groups like the Wagner group,” accused General Stephen Townsend.
But “Moscow does not wish to wage a long and costly war in Libya as it has been doing since 2015 in Syria,” said Harchaoui.
The French Minister of Foreign Affairs, however, worried Wednesday about “a + Syrianization + of Libya (…) 200 kilometers from the European coast.”
Is Haftar in disgrace with Moscow?
“If it were up to the Russians, Haftar would have far less power today,” said Harchaoui.
Since 2014, the marshal has been unconditionally supported by Abu Dhabi and Cairo. And, according to analysts, the Gulf countries, particularly the Emirates, are responsible for funding the Wagner group.
At the end of April, the marshal proclaimed full powers over the whole country, an announcement that was not followed up, which however torpedoed hopes of a resumption of interlibyan dialogue.
The Russians now seem to be banking on another influential figure in eastern Libya: Aguila Saleh, the elected President of Parliament, based in Cyrenaica.
Thus, Tuesday, the head of the Russian diplomacy Sergey Lavrov called to him to say to him “the prospect of settlement of the crisis by the use of the force” and to press him to launch “urgently a constructive dialogue” interlibyan, according to a statement from Russian diplomacy.
And, according to a video circulating on social networks, Mr. Saleh seemed to comply with this request, listing the recommendations of his “Russian friends” to restart the dialogue, before dignitaries from eastern tribes.
Russia deploys military fighter aircraft to Libya
U.S. Africa Command assesses that Moscow recently deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there.
Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) fight against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord.
The Russian fighter aircraft arrived in Libya, from an airbase in Russia, after transiting Syria where it is assessed they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya.
Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command.
“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way.
Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia.”
Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions.
U.S. Africa Command assesses Moscow’s military actions have prolonged the Libyan conflict and exacerbated casualties and human suffering on both sides.
“The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Townsend said.
U.S. Africa Command assesses that Russia is not interested in what is best for the Libyan people but are working to achieve their own strategic goals instead.
“If Russia seizes basing on Libya’s coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa.
“If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”
Russia’s destabilizing actions in Libya will also exacerbate the regional instability that has driven the migration crisis affecting Europe.