By Kirill Semenov
Russia’s Libyan strategy has been rather contradictory since the 2011 February revolution in the country.
Islamists in Moscow
In the post-Skhirat period, Russia was able to largely move away from unconditional support for the LNA and started to develop ties with the Fayez al-Sarraj-led GNA.
Soon after entrenching himself in Tripoli and gaining recognition from most groups within Libya Dawn, al-Sarraj came into conflict with the House of Representatives in Tobruk.
Having failed to obtain guarantees that he would be given a high-ranking office in the new government, Haftar pressured its deputies to not give their vote of confidence to the GNA.
Tellingly, Moscow was able to establish contacts at that time with various Islamist groups that had previously been parts of the Libya Dawn coalition and now supported al-Sarraj.
Their role in the counter-terrorist activities was conducive to such developments. In particular, Misrata brigades conducted a successful operation to eliminate the Libyan branch of IS, which chose the city of Sirte as its “capital,” which was captured in 2016.
In April 2017, the leaders of the Misrata’s Islamist command, Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos, who had led the operation in Sirte, visited Russia and met with Russian diplomats and deputies. In April, Special Presidential Envoy for the Middle East and North Africa Mikhail Bogdanov met with al-Sarraj in Tripoli.
While the GNA’s forces were distracted by fighting IS, Haftar, seized the opportunity and in October 2016 captured the ports of the so-called “oil crescent.” The lion’s share of Libya’s hydrocarbon exports went through those ports. Thus, Haftar once again established himself as the key figure on the Libyan field.
After capturing the ports, the House of Representatives conferred on him the rank of field marshal. His standing was further bolstered after the Battle of Benghazi (that had drawn out for years) finally ended. Haftar presented it as the decisive contribution to the defeat of radical Islamism in Libya.
Moscow had previously steered a very balanced course, maintaining equidistant relations with the authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk. But this course began to change, with Moscow working to accommodate Haftar’s interests.
The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation and the LNA leadership established good relations. RSB- Group was the first to go to Libya (at that stage, they carried out “classical” PMC missions such as clearing minefields).
Russian lobbyists probably began working with the field marshal, and consequently, the Russian media depicted him as “Gaddafi’s successor” (omitting his entire career in the opposition, starting from his surrender in Chad to his participation in the February revolution), which was supposed to create a positive image of him in the eyes of Russians.
Haftar was also positioned as a guarantor of the preservation of the secular state in Libya which, as we have already mentioned, did not exist before.
At the same time, the media purposefully omitted the field marshal’s ties to Libya’s radical Salafists, who constituted large parts of the LNA’s units and committed various crimes, including lynching their opponents and destroying Sufi mausoleums.
Salafi sheiks led all the religions institutions affiliated with Haftar: the fatwa committee proclaimed Ramadan the “month of Jihad” (against the GNA), while Ibadi Muslims (who had long lived in Libya) were labelled “ infidels without dignity”.
Moscow and the Field Marshal’s “Waterloo”
When the LNA launched its Tripoli offensive in April 2019, Moscow intensified its involvement in Libyan affairs, gradually increasing its support for Haftar. This step was taken because Moscow had become less interested in the Syrian settlement.
Moscow had succeeded in making a “comeback” in the Middle East and becoming a key player in the region. However, in order to confirm this status, Moscow needed to move beyond Syrian case, which had not brought Russia any significant economic dividends anyway.
Moscow continues to play a double role in the Syrian conflict (as both a participant in the conflict and a mediator in its settlement), but has largely exhausted itself in terms of new foreign political dividends.
Moscow’s interest in the Libyan settlement increased accordingly, and Libya began to eclipse Syria in Russia’s foreign policy. During the battle for Tripoli, Moscow did attempt to maintain relations with all the parties to the Libyan conflict, but it was particularly interested in ensuring that Haftar and forces loyal to him remained the leading players on the Libyan field.
Although Russia was not pleased with the prospects of a military leader whom it could not entirely trust establishing a personal dictatorship, the Kremlin expected Haftar and his supporters to have the final say in the post-conflict Libya, even if a certain balance remained and the field marshal’s opponents kept their places as legal political forces.
Turkey stepping up its military aid to Tripoli prevented this scenario from materializing. Ankara’s limited support for the GNA (including small shipments of weapons and sending several drones to the battle ground starting in May 2019) helped Libya’s governmental forces take Gharyan, the LNA’s principal base in the vicinity of Tripoli.
Unlike Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, Russia boosted its standing in Libya, in spite of the field marshal’s failures. First, Haftar’s military weakness and defeats made the LNA more dependent on Russian support.
In January 2020, a phone call from Cairo or Abu Dhabi was enough to convince the field marshal to leave Moscow without signing the ceasefire agreement drafted by Russian and Turkish diplomats. But he could hardly afford such escapades four months later.
While President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is making threatening statements, PMCs (which the West believes to have arrived from Russia) remain the only buffer keeping the GNA’s forces from capturing Sirte and Jufra on the route to Tobruk and Benghazi.
Russia–Turkey consultations are preventing the GNA from launching an offensive against these key areas. Second, Moscow had never banked on the field marshal as the unconditional winner in the civil war.
Moreover, Haftar was not Russia’s only point of contact even within the East Libyan camp. In late April, Russia assisted Aguila Saleh, the Chairman of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, in drafting peace initiatives for resolving the conflict, as it simultaneously opposed Haftar’s attempts to usurp power and withdraw from the Skhirat Agreement in early May.
Libya was a main topic during the telephone conversation that took place between the presidents of Russia and Turkey on May 18. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan noted “the need to immediately resume the permanent truce and the intra-Libyan dialogue based on the resolutions of the Berlin International Conference on January 19, 2020.”
Soon afterwards, Russian-speaking mercenaries began to leave the frontlines in the vicinity of Tripoli. The PMCs were withdrawn from Tarhuna and Bani Walid and sent to Jufra and Sirte, where the GNA’s offensive was stopped.
By taking this step, Moscow could make Haftar more receptive to further peace initiatives, depriving him of support and showing the futility of further attempts to capture Tripoli. Without Russia’s support on the frontlines, the LNA was forced to retreat from many of its key positions near the Libyan capital.
The possibility of this being intended to partially satisfy the demands of the GNA’s leader Fayez al-Sarraj cannot be ruled out. At the talks in Moscow Back in January 2020, al-Sarraj made the withdrawal of the LNA’s forces to their original position a condition of agreeing to the ceasefire and engaging in talks with the opponents.
In the final analysis, Russia has succeeded in beating both Cairo and Abu Dhabi in the game they played on the Libyan field and pushing them out of their central positions.
The experience of working together that Moscow and Ankara gained during the Syrian settlement was rather successfully transferred into Libya and certainly played a positive role for Russia.
This is why experts even talked for a while about Russia and Turkey pushing for an “Astana format” for Libya. Today, all signs point to Russia and Turkey further strengthening their standing in Libya, while el-Sisi’s demarches will hardly be able to diminish their role. Egypt’s unsuccessful attempts to act as a guarantor of the so-called “Cairo Declaration” have forced it to switch to a policy of direct threats against Ankara and Tripoli.
Nevertheless, we should take into account the fact that the only thing holding up the frontlines in Sirte and Jufra is the mutual understanding between Russia and Turkey, and not the ultimatums made by Egypt after the GNA had suspended its offensive.
Consequently, no matter what moves Cairo makes from here on in, Russia and Turkey are most likely to hold the keys to resolving the Libyan problem, and their efforts will apparently result in freezing the conflict.
The political division of the country and the sluggish peace process will be preserved, while hydrocarbon resources will be managed jointly and the revenues distributed between Tripoli and Tobruk.
Kirill Semenov – Director of the Centre of Islamic Research at the Institute of Innovative Development.