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NATO returns to Libya to challenge Russia

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The great game in Libya has begun surging with the United States shedding its strategic ambivalence and resorting to a proactive role. At the end of May, the Pentagon marked a dramatic escalation by accusing Moscow of bolstering “Kremlin-linked mercenaries” who are allegedly helping Khalifa Haftar, the eastern warlord in Libya.

In an extraordinary statement on May 29, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said that jets were flown earlier that week from Russia to eastern Libya to a base controlled by Haftar, in the wake of his offensive to capture power in Tripoli, after suffering a major reverse recently due to Turkey’s military help to the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord.

AFRICOM claimed that the Russian jets are “likely to provide close air support and offensive fires” for Russian mercenaries working for Haftar—the Wagner Group, a shadowy private army that Western experts link to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend in the statement. “Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner.” He added, “For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now.”

AFRICOM has since published additional details and satellite images across its social network channels. A Twitter post by AFRICOM on May 27 states:

Over multiple days in May, Russian MiG 29s and SU-24 fighters departed Russia. At that time, all the aircraft had Russian Federation Air Force markings. After they land at Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, the MiG 29s are repainted and emerge with no national markings. They are flown by Russian military members & escorted by Russian fighters based in Syria to Libya, landing in Eastern Libya near Tobruk for fuel. At least 14 newly unmarked Russian aircraft are then delivered to Al Jufra Air Base in Libya.

Oil-rich Libya is in the grip of its worst bloodshed since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi during the 2011 NATO intervention. The war that followed is being fueled by regional and European powers, which have backed the warring sides for a variety of interests. But Washington has pointedly singled out Russia for its verbal fusillade.

Indeed, there has been a steady buildup leading to this point. On May 7, U.S. State Department officials raised the ante by holding a special “Briefing on Russian Engagement in the Middle East” with a focus on accusing Russia of worsening the situation in Libya by funneling Syrian mercenaries.

This briefing came a day after a confidential UN report on Libya sanctions said the Wagner Group has “‘acted as an effective force multiplier’ for Haftar’s command,” which,

has led to a significant escalation of the conflict and a worsening of the humanitarian situation in Libya,’ … [according to] Chris Robinson, a State Department official who focuses on Russia.

Seizing upon the UN report, Robinson told reporters that the Wagner Group is “often misleadingly referred to as a Russian private security company, but in fact it’s an instrument of the Russian government which the Kremlin uses as a low-cost and low-risk instrument to advance its goals.” He claimed that the,

‘very heavy and advanced weapons’ the [W]agner Group wields in Libya indicate… it is not a private company.

James F. Jeffrey, special representative for Syria engagement, who also took part in the briefing, said that Washington believes Russia is working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer militia fighters and equipment to Libya. He said,

We know that certainly the Russians are working with Assad to transfer militia fighters, possibly [a] third country, possibly Syrian, to Libya, as well as equipment.

In essence, the senior U.S. diplomats kick-started a new U.S. policy trajectory. This became clear on May 14, when in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg disclosed that the alliance is ready to support the official Tripoli government.

As he put it,

In Libya there is an arms embargo that needs to be respected by all sides. However, this doesn’t mean to put on the same level the forces led by [Khalifa] Haftar and the government of Fayez al-Sarraj, the only one recognized by the UN. For this reason, NATO is ready to give its support to the government of Tripoli.

Soon after Stoltenberg’s interview appeared, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned him to discuss Libya on May 14. According to NATO, Stoltenberg told Erdogan:

NATO is prepared to help Libya in the area of defence and security institution building, in response to the request by the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord to assist the GNA to strengthen its security institutions. Any NATO assistance to Libya would take account of political and security conditions, and would be provided in full complementarity and in close coordination with other international efforts, including those of the UN and the EU.

Two days later, on May 16, Stoltenberg held a phone conversation with the Prime Minister of Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj. Stoltenberg is not a free agent. NATO takes its cue from Washington. Clearly, Washington is inserting NATO into the Libyan conflict as a new strategy. Of course, any such NATO intervention in Libya also implies that the Western alliance is moving into Africa.

In the Western assessment, any Russian consolidation in Libya would weaken NATO’s dominance of the Mediterranean. On May 26, the Al-Monitor reports,

the commander of U.S. air forces in Europe and Africa said that if Russia obtains permanent coastal bases in Libya, its ‘next logical step’ will be to introduce long-range air defense systems, which… [could pose] a threat to NATO’s access to its southern flank.

There are incipient signs that the United Arab Emirates, which has been a key provider of weaponry and funds to Haftar, is having a rethink, presumably due to pressure from Washington, whose game plan is to isolate Russia. But this can be a tactical shift, considering the acuteness of the UAE-Turkey rivalries currently.

Egypt, another supporter of Haftar, continues to support him politically, diplomatically, logistically and security-wise against terrorist groups in Libya. While Egypt will not intervene militarily in Libya, strong coordination continues between the Egyptian leadership and Haftar on one side and between Cairo and Moscow on the other.

Cairo appears to estimate that Haftar’s recent withdrawals from the frontline are a tactical move to protect the remaining military equipment and weapons that were not destroyed in Turkey’s airstrikes.

To be sure, the NATO intervention in Libya cannot be to Russia’s liking. Russia has strong political and economic interests in Libya. The Pentagon accusation regarding Russia providing jets to Libya suggests that Moscow is stepping up too.

The U.S. (and NATO) strategy will be to evict Russia from the eastern Mediterranean, including from its bases in Syria. Unsurprisingly, Washington and Ankara are cozying up to each other lately. NATO’s intervention in Libya is heartily welcomed by Turkey.

Suffice it to say, the U.S. and Turkey find themselves today on the same side over Libya. Russia, therefore, has reasons to be anxious about the future of its relations with Turkey and its overall standing in Syria. Interestingly, Russia and Syria held a joint exercise at the end of May to strengthen the security of the naval base in Tartus on the eastern Mediterranean.

All in all, the U.S. moves over Syria only underscore that Washington’s containment strategy against Moscow continues to be in full cry, notwithstanding the rising U.S.-China tensions. Russia’s introduction of fourth-generation fighter aircraft in Libya suggests that Moscow will push back against NATO’s intervention.

The gathering storms over Libya prompted the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to raise the warning on May 27 while addressing a French Senate panel:

The crisis is deepening. We are facing a ‘Syrianization’ of Libya.

One major objective of NATO in Libya will be to curb the refugee flow into Europe. Put differently, the European Union becomes a stakeholder in the U.S. strategy to insert NATO into Libya. This will significantly dampen the prospects for any rapprochement between Moscow and the West in the conceivable future.

On the other hand, the transatlantic partnership that has been showing wear and tear lately gets a much-needed fillip, which of course will be to the U.S.’s advantage and would have wider ramifications. The Trump administration has mooted the idea of hosting a G-7 summit in the U.S., which has been postponed from June to September, to pick all the low-hanging fruit. Libya will be one of them.