Understanding the Russian roulette in Libya

What does Russia want in Libya? While Moscow supports General Haftar’s LNA and Ankara the rival GNA, Russia and Turkey do have common ground, Saurabh Kumar Shahi explains

Understanding the Russian roulette in Libya

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

COVID-19 has assured that most of the flashpoints in the world are either inert or have at least shifted to low-key modes. Except for one that is, Libya. As the world battles the deadly pandemic, the civil war in Libya is raging more fiercely than it ever did in the last few years. In the heart of the conflict is the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), led by renegade General KhalifaHaftar. Supported by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, France and Russia, the LNA has laid a siege on capital Tripoli that is currently under the control of the Government of National Accord (GNA), recognised by the United Nations and pro-actively supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

After months of dithering, Haftar decided to push inside the capital. A panicked GNA asked help from Turkey and Qatar, both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who are a party to the accord. They promptly airlifted Jihadists from Idleb in Syria to prop up the failing GNA Forces. Russia, on the other hand, sent mercenaries and arms to prop up the LNA.

For the initial few weeks in April and May, the GNA found it hard to exert its will even after massive help from Turkish mercenaries and drones. Russian mercenaries and missiles managed to blow several Turkish drones out of the sky. As the tussle turned into a quagmire, President Putin tried to broker a deal, an armistice followed by a power-sharing agreement.However, Haftar had other ideas.

Haftar, in his naivety, believed that it was his leadership, and not the Russian help, that had the GNA cornered. He decided not only to reject the deal but also went on to unilaterally declare himself the “leader” of entire Libya.

Russia signalled its mercenaries to pull back. And within a week, the GNA had Haftar and his army on the run. Not only was the siege on Tripoli lifted, but the GNA Forces also became emboldened enough to lay siege to Sirte, an LNA bastion. When Putin realised that Haftarhas learnt his lessons, the mercenaries and missiles were back in action and the GNA soon found itself out of depth.

So, what is it that Russia wants in Libya and how is it planning to achieve those goals?

At this point, sources say, Russia appears to believe that there is no military solution in Libya and all the military posturing must have the end goal to achieve a political and diplomatic breakthrough. This is in some contrast to its strategy in Syria where, although still aspiring for the political solution, it has depended heavily on the military way. In Libya, while it wants the Haftar-led LNA to achieve some military victories, it does not want the GNA to collapse and disintegrate into dozens of smaller warring factions of militias. This mindset has till now driven Russian military calculations on the ground in Libya.

The military support provided by Russia to Haftar has a more short-term goal as well. Because Haftar is supported by Saudis, UAE, Egypt and Russia, sources say there is a sort of friendly competition between all these countries to increase their geopolitical influence inside the LNA. However, unlike UAE, Saudis and Egypt, Russia doesn’t want the LNA to secure decisive victory and the GNA to collapse. It wants the door to remain open for future reconstruction contracts that it will get once a diplomatic solution is reached between the GNA and the LNA.

Russia, on its part, also believes that General Haftarcannot unite entire Libya and therefore he can only be part of a future solution in Libya but not the solutionitself. Russian support, according to the sources, was under the belief that the LNA shall be strong enough for the GNA to take it seriously for diplomatic negotiations.

Sources also confirm that Russia has provided the Eastern and Southern Libyan government (Eastern-based Parliament) of which the LNA is a part with much-needed cash. There was a massive liquidity crunch because of the fall in oil prices. Russia stepped in to relieve the situation in lieu of a deal that will get Moscow pumping rights in some of the oil wells in the region as well as revival of the agreement that Colonel Gaddafi had with Russia where Russia had the right to a military base (naval) in Libya. The assurances in this regard havebeen provided by the government in the East and sources say that a formal deal has either been signed or will be signed in the weeks to come.

Russia has found Haftar frustrating to manage. By declaring himself the Head of entire Libya, Haftar has technically mounted a coup not only against the GNA but also against his own Eastern-based Parliament. This has made it further difficult for his benefactors such as Egypt and Russia to overtly help him militarily.

Sources have confirmed that under the circumstances, while still militarily supporting Haftar, Russia has started exploring the implementation of its Plan B and Plan C.

The Plan B and Plan C of Russia are unfolding intandem. Plan C is to feel out Saif al-Islam Gaddafi as a possible replacement to Haftar, or at least as a parallel force to Haftar. This is being done by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group himself. Sources say that contact has been established at this point with no further development.

However, Plan B is in full swing. Russia wants the Eastern-based Parliament in Tabrouk under Saleh Issaand Abdullah al-Thani, the head of the Interim Government in the East, to join ranks to sideline Haftar. This is a very interesting move. First of all, unlike Haftar, both Thani and Saleh are in Russia’s good books and exclusively under its influence. While Russia has to jostle with Saudi, UAE and Egypt for influence over Haftar, in the case of Saleh and Thani, it is miles ahead of the others. Russia wants these two individuals and the institution they represent to start a peace talk with the GNA bypassing Haftar. This will not only clip the wings of Haftar but will also give strength to the Eastern-based Parliament and the Interim Government in the East to exert its dominance over the military wing led by Haftar. This entire file is being overseen by a Russian interlocutor named Stanislav Kudryashov. This guy has excellent relationships with both Thani and Saleh and is the primary brain behind Plan B.

Despite supporting opposing sides in Libya, Turkey and Russia are cooperating behind the scene on several issues. Russia has a line of negotiation opened with the GNA as well, particularly Interior Minister FathiBashagha. This file is being overseen by a Russian individual named Lev Dengov. The Russian-Turkish cooperation in this theatre is to manage the situation where, while the LNA remains a force to reckon with, in the event of any future peace accord, the government must secure Turkish interest including the Demarcation Accord in the Mediterranean struck between Turkey and the GNA.

Sources say that negotiations are taking place between Turkey and Russia that ensures the Demarcation Accord in the Mediterranean holds and, in lieu, Russia is awarded the contract to build the Benghazi-Sirte railway route. The contract is expected to be to the tune of over $3 billion. While this quid-pro-quo deal is still very far from being a reality, it is being discussed. And once again, Turkey and Russia appear to have found some common ground to talk about.

Turkey is very keen that Russia is on board over stopping any division of Libya. While Egypt, UAE and Saudis have no qualms if Libya is divided, Russia and Turkey don’t want this situation. They have their separate motives, however. While for Russia, this will mean that its dream of a naval base is gone as that area will fall into the GNA’s area of operation, Turkey’s own Demarcation Accord in the Mediterranean will become invalid as that line of demarcation will fall under the LNA’s side. Therefore, it is in the interest of both Turkey and Russia to not let Libya get divided.

Whatever be the results of all these manoeuvrings, there’s at least one thing that has been made sure. This is probably the only global conflict in the last 100 years where western powers are not in the driving seat. And that is not due to a lack of will but because they have been muscled out.

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