‘We Haven’t Placed a Bet on One Player’: Russia Backs Both Warring Sides in Libya

Fighters from Libyan forces affiliated to the Tripoli government drove the Islamic State out of the town of Sirte in 2016
AFP/Fabio Bucciarelli

Russia is backing both major warring sides in Libya, the fighters loyal to the prominent warlord who controls most of the east and the United Nations-backed government in the western part of the African country, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported Thursday.

“We haven’t placed a bet on one player,” Lev Dengue, the 34-year-old businessman who has been on a quiet one-year-old mission on behalf of Moscow to bring the Serraj administration into the Kremlin’s fold, told the newspaper.

U.N.-backed Libyan government’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala reportedly welcomed the move, welcomed Russian interference in Libya, and opposed by the U.S., saying, “Anyhow we are happy now that Russia is giving the same footing of importance for all the Libyans and all the political players.”

The U.S.- and U.N.-backed Tripoli governments want Russia to take on a bigger role, Minister Siala declared, noting, “We want a balance between the external players.”

Despite various reports that Russia favored Libyan strongman former Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya. “Leaders of the [Haftar’s opposition] Tripoli government are now regular visitors to Russia, and Russian companies are exploring businesses opportunities in Libya,” WSJ points out.

“Moscow’s efforts have extended its reach from the Middle East to North Africa and made it a central player in the resource-rich country,” it adds.

The Kremlin is likely seeking to give the impression that it is a neutral party in resource-rich Libya.

Since the U.S.-backed capture and execution of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the African nation has descended into chaos, providing a fertile ground for jihadists like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). Last year, Russian state oil giant PAO Rosneft began purchasing crude from Libya.

The Soviet Union reportedly enjoyed a close relationship with Gaddafi, which Russian Vladimir Putin attempted to rekindle soon before his death, notes the Journal. 
Russia has publicly courted the two principal leaders in Libya, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a strong warlord who serves as the leader of the main opposition against the U.N-backed Tripoli administration led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the PM himself.

While Russia played the neutral party in Libya, it seemed to favor Haftar.

However, now the Journal notes that in the backdrop of the Kremlin’s support for Haftar, a Russian businessman has been on a quiet already one-year-old mission on behalf of Moscow to court the United Nations-backed Prime Minister Fayez Serraj Tripoli-based administration.

WSJ notes:

The businessman’s pursuits have confuted expectations that Moscow could give Khalifa Haftar, armed forces chief of the second of Libya’s two rival governments, the kind of decisive military clout that turned the tide in Syria in favor of leader Bashar al-Assad. Instead, Russia has staked a foothold in Libya’s future by cultivating allies on opposing sides of the conflict.

The businessman’s pursuits have confuted expectations that Moscow could give Khalifa Haftar, armed forces chief of the second of Libya’s two rival governments, the kind of decisive military clout that turned the tide in Syria in favor of leader Bashar al-Assad. Instead, Russia has staked a foothold in Libya’s future by cultivating allies on opposing sides of the conflict.

In March 2017, the U.S. military warned against Russia’s efforts to “exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes, and what entity becomes, in charge of the government inside Libya.”

That same month, Anna Borshchevskaya from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told lawmakers that Moscow’s foothold in Libya “is growing” as Russian President Vladimir Putin “increasingly” support Haftar.

Despite the warning against Russia’s presence in Libya U.S. President Donald Trump said in April 2017 that he saw no role for the U.S. in Libya beyond annihilating ISIS. Since then the U.S. has supported efforts and focused on counterterrorism, including airstrikes against militant groups in Libya.

The Tripoli administration and former Gen. Haftar have agreed on a path to presidential election.

 

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