How does Russia expand its influence in MENA through Libya?

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Since the emergence of ‘failed states’ in the Middle East and North Africa region driven by the so-called “Arab Spring” events, Russia has actively endeavoured to expand its influence across the region. In Libya - the country, which has suffered from bloody sectarian wars since 2011 and thus, became a terrorist haven, seemingly is a new target of Russian expansion. This expansion is driven by its economic interests as a major oil producer and supplier of arms, and by history.

Today Libya is a failed state. Western military intervention has caused all of the worst scenarios: nearly all embassies have closed, the south of the country has become a training camp for ISIS terrorists, and the northern coast a centre for migrant trafficking. Amid all these tensions and political instability, general-lieutenant Khalifa Haftar pretends to be the long-awaited strongman, who is able to end six-year long anarchy and chaos in Libya. General Haftar, who once was fighting alongside Muammar Qaddafi but then opposed his regime, now enjoys the full support of Russia in his fight against radical terrorist groups.

The Kremlin is determined to establish itself as a mediator in the Libyan conflict and regain its former influence on the Arab country, in a bid to contain both the Western ambitions and ISIS' threat in the north African region. Relying on sponsors such as Russia, Egypt, the UAE and France, Haftar has succeeded in creating a stalemate that has gradually eroded Sarraj's chances of governing the country under the label of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in 2015.

The geostrategic interest of Russia in Libya is the non-arguable phenomenon, as it is one more suitable opportunity for it (a part of Syria) to engage closely with regional affairs. No doubt the balance of power in Libya will likely change soon, even though regional countries such as Egypt are seemed to be incapable of halting the radical Islamism from spreading over the North African and Middle East region. In this respect, according to sources, Russia’s Special Forces had been deployed in western Egypt towards the border with Libya to support Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar who has been under pressure from rival groups in his fiefdom around Benghazi.

Obviously, Egypt’s president Al-Fattah el Sissi has always been keen in preventing his country from radical Islamism factor along Libyan border, which threatens the national security of Egypt for several years. Thus, unofficial deployment of Russian Special Forces in Egypt-Libya borderline might be seen as a rational decision. Surprisingly or not, Russian newspaper “Izvestia” claimed that Russia is in talks with Egypt to lease military air base in this country, which will be ready for use by 2019. Egyptian officials did not confirm this option.

Russia also denies all accusations that its special forces are carrying on a mission in Libya in order to assist general Haftar to oust the UN backed government. According to Oleg Krinitsyn, owner of private Russian firm RSB group, he sent the contractors to eastern Libya last year and they were pulled out in February 2017 having completed their mission.

Moreover, there are no Russian troops or any military base stationed in Egyptian borderline with Libya, said press secretary of the Ministry of Defence of Egypt Tamar al-Rifai.

It should not come as a surprise that there is no any evidence of the presence of Russian soldiers in Libya or Egypt, as it prefer to mainly use contractors recruited by private military/security firms. What’s more, considering the current military activities of Russian armed forces in Syria, it seemed non-profitable to launch another large-scale operation in a different country due to economic and political reasons. Therefore, most probably the main task of Russian contractors in Libya is the removal of mines near oil and industrial facilities in Benghazi, which had been re-captured by general Haftar from Islamist forces.

However, it is still unclear whether the UN-backed government in Libya had approved the option of hiring foreign contractors. Russian security firms prefer to keep silence in this regard. But Russia has been expressing its wide support to military units loyal to Khalifa Haftar, in the last few months it took a mainly passive position in Libyan affairs. Some argue that the reason behind Russia’s passive position on Libyan affairs is a deep split between various political groups inside the Kremlin.

Despite financial and technical (military trainings) support of rebel general Khalifa Haftar in his war against opposition forces, and Islamist groups, Russia will likely refrain from active intervention in the Libyan crisis. In order to be able to intervene militarily in Libya, the official Moscow seeks for the so-called “green light” of Libyan authorities. The Russian support for general Haftar has been dictated by its concern about the spread of ISIS in the region. In addition to that, Russia intends to set up a bigger anti-terrorist coalition, in which it will take a leading role. In the case of a new intervention in Libya, the situation might change radically, since Libyan crisis is quite different compared to Syrian crisis. A new war may lead to further tensions in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and the whole North Africa region.

Fuad Shahbazov (@fuadshahbazov) is an independent researcher on regional security, and Middle Eastern affairs. He is author of ‘Syria 1946-2012’ and ‘Tunisian model of Democracy in Arab world’ books.

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