By Tom Rogan
Responding to Russia’s covert deployment of fighter aircraft to support Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army insurgent force, the Trump administration should provide Patriot air defense systems to the Libyan Government of National Accord.
What we’re seeing here is Russia’s escalated campaign to overthrow the U.S.- and U.N.-backed GNA and seize a stranglehold over Libyan foreign policy. An outcome that would serve only Vladimir Putin.
As the U.S. military’s Africa Command confirmed Tuesday, “Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate, and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia.”
The jets are going from the Russian Air Force to the Wagner Group, a mercenary cutout formation of the Russian GRU intelligence service.
Wagner is responsible for advancing Putin’s interests without state connection. And in that role, the Wagner Group takes risks that the Russian government otherwise might not.
Its forces attempted, for example, to kill U.S. military personnel in Syria in 2018 but were beaten back.
What military impact might the jets have?
Well, the Wagner Group will hope to break a slowdown in the LNA’s advance on the capital, Tripoli. Others disagree. Speaking to Middle East Eye, one military analyst suggested the fighters won’t provide any tangible support for Haftar’s offensive.
I disagree. Russia has used Su-24 aircraft in Syria effectively to destroy large areas of civilian infrastructure. The same intent will apply in Libya.
While the Su-24 won’t be much use at targeting mobile GNA ground formations, it will allow Haftar to smash GNA-held civilian areas and pressure the government into collapse — and the international community into dealing with Haftar.
Remember: Russia and Haftar have no concerned regard for civilian suffering — they see it as a tool with which to leverage political outcomes in their interests.
And those interests cannot be tolerated for two reasons:
First, because Haftar has proven himself a power-crazed dictator in waiting. A new Gaddafi without the pageantry. Haftar refuses to engage in serious negotiations or show concern for civilian suffering.
And by accepting various jihadists and war criminals such as the Sudanese janjaweed militia into his ranks, Haftar has shown he would be a wholly unreliable counterterrorism partner for the West.
Something that bears noting given the Islamic State’s significant footprint in Libya and its restored international attack planning.
Instead, as Russia’s support for him indicates, Haftar will be a Russian puppet in the vein of Syria’s Bashar Assad.
But Haftar’s success will also represent Russia’s means to establish a forward-projecting air defense stronghold in Libya.
These air defense strongholds are the centerpieces of Russian military strategy against the West and would complement Moscow’s efforts to degrade NATO air control over the Mediterranean.
And as AFRICOM’s senior Air Force commander notes, “If Russia seizes basing on Libya’s coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial capabilities. If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”
But as I say, there’s an obvious solution here.
The United States should provide Patriot air defense systems to the GNA. Even a minimal number of those platforms would allow the GNA to hold Wagner’s air force at risk and threaten its operational freedom of movement.
It will also send a much-needed signal of rebuke to Putin, matching his escalation here with America’s resolve to defend our interests.
It would further advance America’s standing with international allies, showing them our intent to stand up for the liberal international order and persuading them to stand with us rather than Beijing.
Ultimately, of course, it’s up to President Trump.
As in Syria, Trump must now decide whether he wants to set his Libya policy in America’s interest or allow Putin to bend America to Russian will.
Put another way, is Trump willing to put America first in Libya?
Tom Rogan is a foreign policy focused commentary writer for the Washington Examiner. He has previously written for National Review, The Telegraph, and The Guardian.