Admiral Kuznetsov. Photo: Gaz Armes, British Ministry of Defense. Open Government Licence
The Russian government reveals that it is cooperating with General Haftar
On the long journey home from the Syrian coast to Severomorsk, Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov laid down a few days ago, on 11.January, made a remarkable stop off Libya’s coast (beyond territorial waters) to host a remarkable guest: Gen. Haftar, the strongman in eastern Libya, commander of the Libyan National Army-and possibly soon head of state?
In any case, the meeting on board inspires speculation. Haftar held a video conference on board with Russian Defense Minister Shoigu. He allegedly speaks good Russian. According to the Libya Observer "Fight against international terrorist groups in the Middle East". According to the report, Haftar, as well as two other of his political associates, had previously requested Russian air support similar to that provided in Syria.
Russia: Haftar should have a place in government
Haftar visited Moscow twice last year, in the summer and most recently in November. In late December, the No. 2 in Russia’s Auben Ministry, Gennady Gatilov, surprised everyone with the rearance that Haftar should have a place in the new government.
Surprising because Russia had long been very reticent when it came to Libya, the language of support for Haftar hinted at a change of course.
Haftar is, to briefly mention the circumstances, an opponent of the UN-assembled national unity government, whose head is Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj. However, this government still lacks real legitimacy in Libya, as it lacks the vote of the parliament in the east (the House of Representatives, often called the HoR).
The failure of this vote is due to Haftar, who has a strong position of power there. In the new government, Haftar had to vacate his post as commander of the national army. The unity government is a negotiated compromise between the parliament in the west, in Tripoli, the General National Congress (GNC) and the parliament in the east.
The GNC is dominated by Islamists. Haftar is on hostile fub with the GNC. He has been waging war against its allied militias for a long time. Therefore, through the political agreement process with the UN, this side tried to remove Haftar.
Power outages: The population is at its wits’ end
In the current mess, however, Haftar is better off than ever. The Libyan population is at its wits’ end due to a series of power outages, some of which have lasted very long, in wide-area areas, including the capital, and other supply nodes.
The strongman in Tripoli, the head of the non-recognized GNC government Khalifa Gwail had last week demonstrated the impotence of the unity government, from which he has always firmly distanced himself. He unceremoniously dumped the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Labor to show who has de facto power in Tripoli.
Italy had previously announced the establishment of an embassy in the capital and cooperation with the unity government (cf. Italy strikes migration control deal with Libyan government).
All this plays into the hands of Haftar, who is achieving military successes with his troops against jihadists and Islamists. He has gained some popularity, is supported by Egypt, France, the United Emirates (from there ex-Blackwater boss Erik Prince sends pilots for Haftar) and now obviously much more clearly by Russia.
The Russian mission
According to Radio France Inter, there is already a signed cooperation between the army leading Haftar and Russia. RFI cites a well-informed Libyan source as the source of this information.
It is a kind of training and advisory mission. There is no talk of military intervention by Russia. But as before, efforts by Haftar to get Russia to help lift the arms embargo. It is impossible to say at the moment whether this military cooperation actually exists or whether it is just speculation. There is little doubt about Russian support for Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Cooperation with Trump?
According to an article by Richard Galustian in Moon of Alabama, the speculation can be taken even further: He thinks it’s possible that Russia and the U.S. could cooperate with new President Trump to unify Libya. The common denominator was the fight against IS.
The U.S., however, has shown little interest in supporting Haftar. The question is whether this will change with Trump. After all, the fight against Islamist terror is one of his political cornerstones. Whether Libya is so important to him, however, no one knows for sure yet.
It is not necessary to emphasize that Libya is important to the EU. Italy clearly sided with the unity government, and so did Germany. France supports Haftar. Italy, however, is currently giving slight signals through aid deliveries to areas where Haftar is operating that understandings are possible. How to cope with Haftar’s Russian support in the future is yet to be determined.