Emboldened by Syria, is Putin trying to make Libya a Russian satellite?
No other party can claim to have gained as much from Syrian conflict as Putin has
The Syrian civil war is all but concluded. And the result must be described as a complete success for Vladimir Putin. No other party in the conflict can claim to have gained as much from the conflict as Putin has. Not even President Assad himself. And President Putin has every intention to capitalize on this success.
By all accounts, it seems he now intends to use the momentum gained in Syria to win the civil war in Libya as well. In many ways, Libya is a similar conflict to the one in Syria: there is an ongoing conflict between a faction feebly supported by the West, one intransigent faction that can rely on steadfast Russian backing, and ISIS in the middle, trying to expand into yet another failed state.
But there are also significant differences to Syria. While the Western-backed, West of the country is governed by the de jure government, the Russian backed East holds most of the advantages: a better organized “government” under Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a better equipped and better trained army, control over most of the country’s oil fields, and consequently, a much healthier fiscal position, in no small part due to Russian help in capitalizing the oil assets and assistance in organising a rival monetary system.
In Syria, Russia had to do all the heavy lifting to bring the Assad government back from the brink of collapse. They did that, and Assad is now all but unassailable. In Libya, however, a much smaller Russian contribution should be enough to resolve the conflict swiftly, as the Russian-backed side is already holding the upper hand.
Putin has benefited immensely from the way in which the wave of refugees from Syria into Europe has destabilized the political edifice of the European Union, and the internal politics of many EU member statesDr. Azeem Ibrahim
What is more, this will likely happen now because two other circumstances have aligned in Haftar’s favor. First, Putin now has leeway to redeploy forces from Syria as the conflict there winds down. And indeed, troops can be very conveniently deployed from Russia’s greatest prize in Syria, the port of Tartus.
And secondly, the main pillar of support for the government in the West, the support of our countries, has all but evaporated. In the United States, an extremely Russia-friendly Donald Trump is about to take over the Oval Office later this month.
In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron who was one of the leaders of the intervention which brought down Qaddafi, has since lost his office in the wake of the Brexit Referendum, while his successor, Theresa May, has little scope for any interventions in foreign affairs beyond the Brexit negotiations.
And in France, the other leader of the intervention, Francois Hollande, is due to leave the Presidency by May, as he is not standing in the presidential election this spring, while whoever succeeds him will also likely be too busy with Europe to have time to worry about Libya. All in all, it seems there is little in the way of Libya becoming a Russian satellite for the foreseeable future.
The oil fields
Indeed, the only ways in which the conflict in Libya might endure longer than this year is either if the Pentagon manages to wrest some operational independence from President Trump and decides that it is worth preventing Russia from claiming the prize of Libyan oil fields – a scenario that is really quite remote; or, if Putin decides that maintaining a state of instability in that region is more beneficial to Russian interests than a swift resolution of the conflict.
And this last scenario is the one to watch. Putin has benefited immensely from the way in which the wave of refugees from Syria into Europe has destabilized the political edifice of the European Union, and the internal politics of many European member states.
That flow of refugees has been, to a large degree, already stemmed. But the other major route of refugee flows into Europe has been through Libya, and if the conflict there is finally resolved, the new authorities will likely want to stop the movement through their country of so many migrants from countries farther to the south. The security of their own country will depend on it.
But Russia would likely not be too keen to see this refugee route also close down. Putin may calculate that the benefits of continued refugee pressures on Europe outweigh the benefits of a stable and reliable ally in the Maghreb.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.