By Tom Kington and Bel Trew
Russia is being urged to play a key role in stabilising Libya, a high-risk move that could give Moscow a new foothold in north Africa and control of a migrant flow that Europe is seeking to halt.
Italy is turning to Russia to help combat the immigration crisis, despite warnings from European allies about Vladimir Putin’s motives. “Italy has always had close ties with Russia, and now that we want a peaceful, unified Libya, we will be happy if Russia wants it too,” Mario Giro, the Italian deputy foreign minister, said.
Italy’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, will press Theresa May to embrace an enlarged role for Russia in Libya when they meet in London tomorrow.
Britain was Italy’s closest partner in efforts to stabilise Libya and halt the passage of migrants into Europe — more than 180,000 arrived last year.
General Khalifa Haftar is backed by a rival government to the UN-supported unity government in Tripoli; both Russia and the US are believed to be moving towards favouring him.
Faiez al-Sarraj, Libya’s prime minister, visited Brussels and Rome last week to broker deals to stop Africans using Libya as a stepping stone to Europe.
Mr Sarraj, however, has little authority outside Tripoli, thanks in part to his powerful rival, General Khalifa Hiftar, who is backed by a rival government in Tobruk in east Libya. The general also has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and now Russia.
Joseph Muscat, the Maltese prime minister, warned last week that “the situation is getting complicated” with Russia intervening on General Hiftar’s side. George Vella, the Maltese foreign minister, warned of Russia’s motives. “We all know the Russians’ dreams have always been to have bases in the Mediterranean,” he said.
Russia’s defence ministry denied Italian TV reports that talks between General Hiftar and the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, had led to an agreement on the construction of two Russian military bases in east Libya.
There are signs that the Trump administration is also moving towards support for General Hiftar, in part over fears about Mr Sarraj’s dependence on Islamist militias. An Italian government source said that Italy was now afraid that Russia’s growing ties with General Hiftar could undermine its efforts to work with Tripoli. “It’s key that the new Trump administration now works with us on Libya, and we think they will,” he said.
About 9,000 migrants have risked violent winter storms this year to sail out from Libyan beaches, frequently forced to board packed dinghies at gunpoint by traffickers who control the coast. A record 181,000 people landed in Italy by boat in 2016, which was also the deadliest year for the crossing: more than 4,500 drowned attempting the journey.
Funding the Libyan coastguard has its risks. Videos shared by Sky television with The Times yesterday show heavily-armed men in fatigues using plastic pipes to beat migrants that they have fished out of the Mediterranean near Sabratha, west Libya.
Italian officials also acknowledge that relying on Mr Sarraj is hazardous because his influence has been curtailed by the campaigns waged by General Hiftar, whose new-found friendship with Moscow follows a lifetime of ties to the US. After leading a foiled coup against Colonel Gaddafi in 1987, reportedly backed by the CIA, General Hiftar lived in Virginia before returning to Libya after Gaddafi was killed in the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
Akram Bouhlaiga, one of the general’s aides, said Moscow was backing General Hiftar and would lobby the UN to drop a six-year weapons embargo on Libya so that it could arm the strongman, whom they trust.
“They know he has a good track record, they can see how successful he is at fighting Islamic State and terrorism. Meanwhile the [UN-backed government] is very weak, [its prime minister] has no popularity,” he said from General Hiftar’s base in Benghazi.
The Russian foreign ministry has denied taking sides, claiming last week that the Kremlin was carrying out “consistent work with both centres of power in Libya”. Mr Sarraj is expected to visit Moscow this month.
“Russia is seeking any way to increase its grip and its legitimacy in the Mediterranean,” said Pierre Razoux, a research director at the French defence ministry’s Institute for Strategic Research.
“It is playing a role in talks on the future of Cyprus, and it is obvious they would like a naval and air base on the island, which would be a problem for the UK base there.
“Russia also wants access to offshore gas in the area, as well as good relations with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is backing General Hiftar. It is also talking to Algeria about a naval base there,” he added. Algeria has bought fighter aircraft, tanks and helicopters from Russia, which used its military campaign in Syria as a “shop window”, analysts have said.
“Italy will be telling Russia to encourage Hiftar to do a deal with al-Sarraj, while pushing al-Sarraj to do the same. Anything to avoid another Syria,” Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said.
Tom Kington was born and raised in London and has worked as a journalist in London, Lebanon and Italy. He now lives in Rome
Bel Trew – Middle East reporter for The Times based in Cairo.