Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jan. 26, 2017, 2:52pm

After being heavily invested in Syria over the past few years, Russia seems ready to play a bold hand in Libya. Earlier this month, General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), was invited to visit Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov  for discussions with Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. While Haftar’s inner circle has issued no statements regarding details of the talks, many reports speculated that the hushed meeting is a precursor of Russian advocacy for Haftar seeking national power. Although Vladimir Putin has been expanding his presence in the Mediterranean for some time now, his most recent actions are becoming noticeably more assertive. Recently, Moscow has purportedly offered the general as much as $2.9 billion in funding to prime his military forces. By capitalizing on Haftar’s leadership, Russia may be able to establish a foothold in the south of the Mediterranean and to further advance its grand geopolitical ambitions in the region.

Libya is certainly in a vulnerable position for Russian expansion, as it has been in a state of disarray since previous leader Muammar Gaddafi’s ousting in March 2011. Four years after Gaddafi’s deposition, amid rival political militia infighting between east and west factions, the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) was established in Tripoli in December 2015 and has feuded with General Haftar’s eastern Libyan National Army ever since. Haftar’s branch has also focused efforts on battling adversaries and Islamic extremists throughout the east. While GNA has debatably provided Libya a stable and unified government – one which Western parties argue is the only saving grace from “Libya’s slide into anarchy and warfare” – it has recently lost public support through political and governance shortcomings, subsequently yielding more support for Haftar’s army and his pro-Gaddafi loyalists. Additionally, Libya’s post-Gaddafi instability and weak security infrastructure has been capitalized upon by ISIS, and U.S. intelligence authorities estimated its stronghold of fighters had doubled to nearly 4,000-6,000 militants as of early 2016. However, Haftar has pushed many Islamic militants out of east Libya and subsequently controls many of its oil facilities – another crucial strategic advantage for Russia to expand into the fragile country.

Russia has shown signs of cozying up to Libya in the past- Vladimir Putin was a historical ally of Muammar Gaddafi, prior to his NATO-backed ousting in March 2011. Putin himself publicly denounced the overthrow, claiming Western forces “neither had a right nor a mandate” to go after the leader, with whom he had a dynamic relationship since the early 1970’s. More recently, in 2016, General Haftar made two public visits to Russia, sparking rumors of a revived Libya-Russia relationship and a potential arms support discussion, since Haftar is currently hamstrung by a 2011 UN arms embargo on Libya that only allows for its government in Tripoli to acquire weapons.

Just as it has in Syria over the past few years, Russia is now touting its alleged anti-ISIS intentions in Libya. Following Haftar’s visit to the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, Russian media conveniently reported of Haftar and Shoigu’s discussions surrounding the fight against “terrorist groups”. Throughout the Syrian crisis, Russia has similarly schemed with President Bashar al-Assad under the guise of fighting ISIS, while in actuality was launching airstrikes on Syrian rebels and civilian targets to perpetuate the regime’s agenda and maintain its presence in the country. Russia’s strategic positioning by Bashar al-Assad’s side just earned the country a long-desired naval base in the harbor of Tartus, on the Syrian coast. It is unsurprising that Moscow is now utilizing similar tactics in Libya of aligning with a leadership authority to strategically advance its multifaceted political agenda.

While Libyan officials deny any recent alliances with the Putin regime, Russia has alluded to a forthcoming “foothold in the south of the Mediterranean”, and different media outlets have reported the signing of an agreement for Russia to construct military bases near Libyan cities Benghazi and Tobruk. Furthermore, Karim Mezran at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East alleges that Haftar is poised to talk to new U.S. President Donald Trump about his anti-terror efforts, and holds the notion that the West will ultimately recognize that the “only solution will be a military takeover” in Libya. With Putin’s unconditional support and the blessing of the Trump administration, Haftar would be well positioned to disregard negotiations towards a political solution of the country’s crisis. As the UN brokered government in Libya frails and the U.S. dominance wanes, Russia’s clout in the Mediterranean grows, unrivaled. Haftar’s Libya may offer Russia an unprecedented opportunity to project power across the Mediterranean way beyond its Soviet-era cache.

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