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What’s  the meaning of Moscow’s murky moves in Libya?

There has been much press attention to Moscow moving eight fighter aircraft to Libya earlier this week. This is clearly a signal of support to the eastern Libya-based warlord, Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) has been beaten back from western Libya by the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. But prior to this, tension between Moscow and Haftar was evident. Moscow was even said to consider dropping him in favor of other figures in eastern Libya. What is going on here?

The story is complicated. After the Western/Arab-backed downfall of Moscow’s longtime friend, Muammar Qaddafi, during the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 and the rise of chaotic conditions in Libya afterward, Moscow — along with much of the rest of the world — approved a U.N.-backed effort to create the GNA. The GNA, though, proved unable to rule effectively due to the presence of numerous armed groups in Libya. One of these — the Haftar-led LNA — managed to gain influence first in eastern Libya, then in southern Libya, and most recently pushed into western Libya toward Tripoli, the GNA capital.

Russia, though, is not the only external power that has been supporting Haftar and the LNA. It also receives support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. France has also been supportive of him. While the U.S. supports the U.N.-backed GNA (which had to receive some degree of Russian acquiescence in order to be U.N.-backed), it has not always been hostile toward Haftar — who lived for many years in the U.S. and is said to have collaborated with the CIA.

In fact, external powers have supported Haftar not so much out of any particular objection to the GNA, but due to the assessment that since the GNA proved weak and Haftar had a good chance of both retaining control over eastern Libya and taking control of the west as well, it made sense to support to work with him. Indeed, there has been fear that without Haftar, there would be a resurgence of jihadist forces in Libya.

In early January 2020, Haftar seemed poised to capture Tripoli and defeat the GNA when Turkish forces intervened to protect the GNA. Russia and Turkey, then, were supporting opposing sides in Libya as well as in Syria. Wanting good relations with Turkey (as well as to encourage its growing animosity toward the West), Moscow-sponsored peace efforts for Syria and Libya this past January seemed to offer of trade-off of Russian concession to Turkey in western Libya in exchange for Turkish concession to Russia in northwestern Syria. Seeing himself as the loser in any such arrangement, Haftar pulled out of the talks — thus showing that Moscow was not in a position to force him to back down.

Not surprisingly, relations between Moscow and Haftar subsequently deteriorated. Moscow was recently said to be downplaying Haftar by holding talks with Aqila Saleh, the leader of the House of Representatives based in Tobruk. It was doubtful, though, that this individual would be as strong as Haftar or be able to get rid of him. These talks with Saleh may have been more a Russian effort to get Haftar to be more amenable to Moscow’s direction rather than a serious effort to sideline him.

But the dispute between Haftar and Moscow was sidelined when the Turkish-backed GNA pushed both his forces and the Russian military contractors supporting them away from Tripoli and into eastern Libya, where they even recaptured the al-Watiya airbase. It was at this point that the Russian fighter aircraft were sent to another base, Al Jufrah, apparently to signal that Moscow was unwilling to countenance its loss to Haftar.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticized the Russian move while some of America’s Arab allies may have been relieved by it. Haftar’s main Arab supporters — Egypt and the UAE — are also increasingly at odds with Turkey over what they see as its regional ambitions as well as support for Qatar (which Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain are all in a bitter dispute with).

So what do Russia’s actions signal about its intentions toward Libya? Moscow sending fighters to Libya suggests that it supports Haftar remaining the strongman in eastern Libya and that it doesn’t want to see the GNA extend its sway there.

On the other hand, its lukewarm support for Haftar’s actions in western Libya indicates that Moscow is not willing to see him eliminate the GNA and take control of the entire country.  Indeed, Moscow may fear that if Haftar ever did take control of all Libya, he would no longer be dependent on Russia and would turn to the West for support.  Haftar’s past work for the CIA and praise from President Trump raise this possibility. Of course, if the GNA defeated Haftar and took over all Libya itself, it might do the same. Meanwhile, Egypt and the UAE are more concerned about extending their own influence, not Russia’s, into Libya.

From the Russian perspective, then, a divided Libya in which forces in both east and west remain opposed to each other may be the most desirable solution as it would tend to maximize both sides’ willingness to court Moscow despite working with each other’s opponent. But since neither the GNA nor the LNA seems willing to accept a permanently divided Libya, Moscow may find it increasingly difficult to maintain balance between GNA and LNA forces, as well as good relations both with them, and the regional rivals supporting them.

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