By Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner
Although Russia will not likely invest as much of its military and political capital there as it did in Syria, Libya is set up to play an important role in Russian foreign policy this year due to Moscow’s vested geopolitical, security, and energy interests in North Africa.
From the Russian perspective, the NATO/GCC military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi—waged under the UN’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine—was about settling old scores and pursuing raw geopolitical interests. By not using its veto authority and abstaining in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which formed the legal foundation for military intervention in Libya, Moscow made what it now sees as a mistake, which it did not repeat in Syria. Given Trump’s quest to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism,” he may come to view the raging Libyan Civil War as an area where Washington and Moscow should cooperate to combat actors such as the Islamic State and other nihilistic forces that have worsened the country’s chaos.
The turmoil that has spread across post-Gaddafi Libya has undermined Russian interests. Prior to the 2011 revolution, Moscow had signed contracts worth up to $10 billion in the country’s oil and gas industries. Since the Libyan Civil War erupted in mid-2014, Russia has been pursuing a carefully nuanced strategy. On one hand, Moscow has backed Libya’s secular-leaning Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), led by General Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Since May, Russia has printed billions of Libyan dinars for the Tobruk administration, and the “renegade general” has made two trips to Moscow to meet with top Russian officials. The Russians have also treated wounded LNA soldiers.
Last month, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, stopped in Libya to host Haftar. Additionally, Moscow and the Tobruk-based government have signed an agreement permitting Russia to build two new military bases in eastern Libya. On the other hand, Russia has also engaged with officials from Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). By maintaining open relations with the Tripoli-based GNA, Russia has attempted to enhance its leverage in the standoff between the opposing governing forces in Libya.
However, if the fragile GNA implodes this year and if Haftar’s forces continue usurping control of more strategically prized sections of Libya, Russia may aggressively back the LNA against forces loyal to the GNA. Also, given the LNA’s capture of oil facilities and more terrain in recent months with military assistance from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Moscow appears to view Haftar—not the weak UN/Western-backed government—as the only realistic bulwark against extremism in post-Gaddafi Libya.
From Obama to Trump
The Obama administration perceived Islamist movements that denounced violent extremism as having a legitimate role to play in post-Arab Spring political transitions. In essence this was about giving moderate Islamists a stake in the survival of democratic institutions in an effort to promote democracy and stability. Considering Trump’s own political orientation and that of his anti-Islamist inner circle, which views the Muslim Brotherhood as a security threat, the new administration is likely to embark on a new approach to addressing political Islam.
Assuming that the GNA will continue to face major governance challenges this year, the Trump administration may decide to reduce support for the Tripoli-based government, which includes pro-Muslim Brotherhood members.
The White House has vowed to work more closely with Egypt, a key foreign backer of Haftar. Washington may therefore join Moscow, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi in supporting forces loyal to Tobruk as a buffer against Islamist militias operating within close proximity to Egypt. Within this context, the “renegade general” himself and other officials in Tobruk are optimistic that the Trump administration will shift course and support Haftar.
Despite enjoying strong support in the east and parts of the west, Haftar is highly divisive on a national scale. True, his army has proven capable of holding its ground and capturing more territory from Tripoli-backed forces and jihadist militias in Benghazi, such as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and Ansar al-Sharia. But it’s questionable whether the LNA could seize control of Libya entirely. His adversaries, mainly Misratans who are loyal to the GNA and have deep ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, suspect that he has no intention of compromising or laying down his arms.
If Haftar’s forces continue to conduct military operations to take more territory, with or without Trump’s blessing, Libya’s armed Islamists will likely maintain this suspicion and fight for what they see as the objectives of Libya’s Arab Spring revolution.
Testing U.S.-Russian Relations
If Trump is to make good on his promise to improve US-Russia relations, Libya may prove to be an important testing ground. Whether Trump’s administration ultimately comes to view the Kremlin’s moves in Libya as a geopolitical threat to the West or an opportunity to enhance international cooperation against global security threats, it must decide how and when it will accommodate Russia’s interests and actions in Libya, work separately from them, or work against them.
If Russia steps up its support for Tobruk, the Trump administration will need to determine how much it seeks to invest in the GNA, and how to react to Haftar’s moves, especially if the GNA implodes later this year.
Some of Washington’s important traditional allies, especially Turkey and Italy, have opposed Haftar and warned against Libya becoming a military dictatorship led by a former Gaddafi regime official. Therefore, growing cooperation between the US and Russia in support of the HoR could create tension within the NATO alliance at a time when its members are highly uneasy about Trump.
A growing Russian military footprint in another Mediterranean country may unsettle officials in Western capitals who do not share Trump’s view of the Kremlin as a natural ally in the battle against the Islamic State and other jihadist forces.
A number of Western states which support the GNA believe that Russia and Egypt are attempting to create a secular military dictatorship in Libya, which they would oppose in favor of a “Tunisian model” based on Libyan secularists and Islamists sharing power in a civilian-led government.
Italy, which is the lead European country on Libya, has been seeking to persuade the Russians to see the empowerment of Haftar as an unviable solution to resolving the Libyan Civil War. On February 16, Angelino Alfano, the Italian foreign minister, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, will meet for the second time to discuss the terms for negotiations that could lead to a resolution of the ongoing crisis in Libya via a political compromise between the Tripoli- and Tobruk-based governments.
If Haftar receives the blessing of both Trump and Putin, and if the HoR and LNA obtain Washington and Moscow’s support, it is doubtful that his forces and loyalists will see much of an incentive to negotiate with the GNA.
Joining forces with Russia in Libya to advance mutual interests across North Africa could become a blueprint for joint action in other conflict zones in the greater Middle East, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. Nonetheless, it is too early to determine if the Trump administration will make the required compromises to forge such a partnership, particularly given that America’s foreign policy elite views Russia’s global ambitions as the number one geopolitical threat to the US. Despite the new president’s rhetoric about a US-Russia partnership, Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent comments at the UN about Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis raise questions regarding the extent to which Trump could or would seek to warm Washington-Moscow relations.
Furthermore, the administration’s increasingly muscular and heated posture vis-à-vis China and Iran, which have partnered closely with the Kremlin, could dim the prospects for any substantial alteration of US-Russia ties. That said, regardless of how they address their shared and conflicting interests, if the US decides to pursue a leading role in Libya, the Trump administration must consider the interests of all influential actors, including Russia, and how they will factor into any strategy for victory against the Islamic State and other forces wreaking havoc in the Maghreb.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC.
Daniel Wagner is Managing Director of Risk Cooperative and co-author of the new book Global Risk Agility and Decision Making.