Libya: enter Russia (By Richard Galustian)

Since the Libyan civil war began, the question hovering over everything was – will Russia get involved? The answer to that question came when the chief of Libya’s UN-created Government of National Accord (GNA), the so-called Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.

Having stayed aloof from a messy civil war now into its third year, Russia has decided to effectively replace the void left by the US and become the chief ‘powerbroker’ not only in Libya but the entire Middle East and North African region. The bad news for Serraj is that the beneficiary as far as Libya is concerned is likely to be his big rival, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, commander of the powerful Libyan National Army (LNA). The imagined role in Libya of the EU and the UK is just that: imaginary and delusional.

The admirable efforts of British Ambassador to Libya Peter Millett in trying shuttle diplomacy between stakeholders in Tripoli, Misrata and Haftar and his LNA in the east have achieved nothing but to underline that it’s Moscow and Washington that is calling the shots. Sadly London has become as irrelevant as Brussels.

It was Haftar that Moscow turned to in January, inviting him for military talks aboard its aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, cruising off Libya. And equally Haftar was happy to be courted by Moscow. The talks included a full dress military parade and band playing the Libyan national anthem on the deck, underlining for all to see who Russia wants to do business with.

There is no doubt that Russia’s policy on Libya is growing stronger and in a positive way for all involved. Moscow is not only talking with all parties but also trying to find a way for the Tripoli government to acquiesce to Haftar and vice-versa. “We are carrying out consistent work with both key centres of power in Libya,” said the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova.

Moscow is not wrong. Haftar’s battle against extremists in Libya has made him a national hero among the vast majority of the population and brought big victories. Haftar’s army has almost crushed a galaxy of fanatical militants who had terrorised Benghazi, and killed the US ambassador there in 2012. Most significantly perhaps, last September Haftar captured the country’s main oil ports, giving him control of the eastern oil fields – the ones that matter representing at least two-thirds of all the oil in the country.

Already Egypt has given Haftar strong support, as has France, which provided special forces to work with his army in the east of the country.Russia also senses an opportunity. It has all but won the Syrian civil war, cementing an alliance with Syria’s president Bashir Assad and outflanking American efforts to support the rebels. With the oil ticket in his pocket, and rising popular support in a country weary of endless militia skirmishes, rather than decisive battles, Haftar now clearly holds the keys to power.

That much was made even clearer last month when Egypt tried to become peace broker, inviting Haftar to meet with Sarraj in Cairo. Both men showed up, but Haftar said no to a meeting, leaving Serraj stuck in a hotel room with a phone that refused to ring.
There is a reason why Haftar saw no reason to talk to Sarraj: for just as Haftar’s power is rising, so Serraj’s is falling.

His Government of National Accord (GNA), created by the United Nations, is a joke. It is not a government, having failed to win control of key institutions like the Central Bank (CBL) and National Oil Corporation (NOC). It most certainly has failed to win any of the key Libyan tribes. And there is no ‘accord’ – in fact, Serraj is marooned with his presidency in a Tripoli naval base, because militias are the law in the Libyan capital. The rest of his time he spends in Tunis.

Worse, for Sarraj, those militias are fighting with each other, with many backing yet another government in Tripoli, the Salvation Government, in furious street battles recently with tanks and heavy artillery that have turned parts of the capital into a real war zone. Little wonder Haftar refused to meet a man incapable of controlling even his own city.

Officially, Russia takes the side of all Libyans, not one faction, with Lavrov saying: “We would like to see Libya a united and prosperous nation relying on stable government institutions and a viable army.” But Russia also senses an opportunity. Already it has all but won the Syrian civil war, cementing an alliance with Syria’s president Bashir Assad and outflanking American efforts to support the rebels. Now it is poised to do the same in Libya, in contrast to the US, Britain and Italy who have been relentlessly backing the GNA.

But talk of a super-power rift between Moscow and Washington may be premature: the Trump administration’s key policy advisor Steve Bannon has long campaigned against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the main supporter of the GNA, and the White House is expected, like the Kremlin, to get behind Haftar, a move that would help also in its objective of doing business with Russia.

Even Britain, arch supporter of Serraj, is having to rethink. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson now says a place must be found for Haftar in Libya’s government.
Meanwhile, on March 2, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee published a report on the UK’s relations with Russia, urging the foreign office to conduct meaningful dialogue with the Kremlin. The committee’s chairman, Crispin Blunt, said: “Refusal to engage with Russia is not a viable, long-term policy option.”
He’s right: Moscow is spreading its wings in the Middle East and North Africa. Its desire to move into Libya was emphasised in another way last week, when Rosneft, the state oil giant, signed a deal to invest heavily with Libya’s state oil corporation (East NOC). After years in the wings, Russia has finally ‘arrived’ in Libya (and the region), and western powers are slowly becoming aware of that fact.

MENA countries are more and more looking for the power broking role to be taken up by Moscow rather than the US or UN and certainly not by the UK or EU. A new 21st century reality.

* Richard Galustian is a British political and security advisor based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years. He wrote this piece for The Times of Malta, dated 03/07/17