Russia doubles the ante in Libya

Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan civil war definitely tipped the scales in favor of the UN recognized al Sarraj’s  Government of National Acord against Gen Khalifa Haftar.  Yet, at least one the warlords backers, Russia is not willing to concede defeat.  Kremlin may have sent a squadron of jet fighters to Libya to defend his assets against further advances by Sarraj’ forces.  Experts argue Russia’s goal is not to confront Turkey in Libya, but to secure a modus operandi a la Idlib.

Turkey changes the course of Libyan war

“The Turks saved us just in time,” the GNA Interior Minister, Fathi Bushagha, said last year in reference to the Turkish drones that have come to Tripoli’s aid.

Like Bakkoush, other experts have been sharing their thoughts on how crucial air superiority will ultimately prove in determining the outcome of the Libyan civil war.

“The GNA has built its recent military victories, which have reclaimed nearly all of western Libya from Haftar’s forces, around the support of Turkish air defence systems and a drone campaign targeting Haftar’s bases and supply lines,” wrote Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent article.

Since April, GNA forces have recaptured a number of cities between Tripoli and the Tunisian border, putting the LNA in a precarious position in terms of its western operations.

This week has seen Haftar’s militants expelled from al-Watiya airbase, the headquarters of the LNA’s western operations, and the largest airbase across Western Libya, writes TRT World.

Russia plays the spoiler

A mix of at least 14 MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 fighter-bombers, appear to have taken off from a base in Russia sometime in the middle of May and flown to Hmeimeem, Russia’s airbase on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, reports LA Times. There they were repainted, their Russian Federation Air Force markings obscured, before flying more than 1,200 miles and landing in eastern Libya, in territories controlled by Russia’s ally, strongman-in-waiting Khalifa Haftar.

The deployment, which the Pentagon revealed this week and Moscow denied, is the latest in a series of escalations that have seen all types of weapons — Turkish and Emirati drones, Russian anti-aircraft systems, Jordanian-made armored vehicles — enter Libya’s Mad Max-like battlefields, in often-blatant disregard of a nine-year-old arms embargo.

But it has rattled the U.S. and other Western powers that have largely ignored the conflict. They fear a new phase opening in the Middle East’s biggest proxy war, with Russia encroaching on Europe’s southern flank. Many see Moscow applying much of the same playbook it used in Syria, another war-ravaged Middle Eastern country where it has established a regional foothold.

“The crisis is deepening. … I won’t mince words: We are facing a ‘Syrianization’ of Libya,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a hearing in his country’s senate Wednesday.

“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, in a statement Tuesday. He added that the warplanes had been deployed to support the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed military contracting company that has done work for the Russian government in both Libya and Syria.

“There is no denying it now,” Townsend said. “We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya every step of the way.”

Russian officials rejected the accusation.

“If there are any airplanes in Libya, they are Soviet, not Russian,” Viktor Bondarev, Russia’s former air force chief, who now heads the defense and security council in the upper house of parliament, said in a statement Wednesday. “The statement of the AFRICOM commander about Russia’s shipping MiG-29 fighter jets is more like crazy talk.”

That same day, the Libyan National Army spokesman, Ahmad Mesmari insisted, at a news conference that the planes were older models that had been put back into service by local technicians.

“We categorically deny the arrival of any modern planes. … These need contracts and massive budgets and also the approval of the international community, which imposes an arms embargo on Libya since 2011,” Mesmari said.

Yet that embargo, critics say, would hardly form a deterrent to Moscow or any of the other outside actors embroiled in Libya’s internecine civil war.

Last year, Haftar, who controls Libya’s east, launched an assault — with support from the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt and France, and at least the tacit blessing of the U.S. — on the capital, Tripoli, the seat of the U.N.-backed government, whose main backer is Turkey.

It was a campaign he pursued using plenty of foreign hardware, much of it gifted by his sponsors. Libyan National Army forces, including mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and elsewhere, advanced on Tripoli atop Emirati-supplied mine-resistant vehicles, while Chinese Wing-loong drones flew above them to pound the capital. Haftar’s militias patrolled the coast off Libya using a repurposed Irish navy frigate.

The U.N.-recognized government has called on its backers, too, with Turkey shipping squadrons of drones and its own armor to pro-government militiamen facing Haftar.

“We’ve been very blunt on the failure to uphold the arms embargo,” Williams said, adding that countries had continued to violate it even during and right after an international conference in January on Libya in Berlin, where world leaders had pledged to respect the injunctions on arms.

“The more these countries violate the arms embargo, the more Libyan people suffer. This has to stop now,” she said.

The alarming entry of Russian air power into Libya comes with the U.S. “absent from any effort to enforce international norms,” Jonathan Winer, a special envoy to Libya under President Obama, said in an interview Thursday.

“Let’s pretend that Donald Trump wasn’t president. I can tell you, as a former State Department official, the U.S. wouldn’t be sitting by saying, ‘Oh, my! People must be violating the arms embargo, but we’re not going to say who, or do anything about it,’” he said. “That has been the approach of the Trump administration. The Russians have moved into territory the U.S. has left open.”

A senior Western aid official working on Libya, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be able to speak freely, agreed.

“The U.S. has a very indistinct policy on Libya. But they’re also not willing to directly engage some of the primary backers like the UAE,” the official said. “They’re really not willing to have that conversation on the most senior level where it needs to be had.”

The same applies to European countries.

“The sad thing is that the whole Libya file was an opportunity for the Europeans to coalesce. Frankly, it’s Europe’s national security which is directly threatened,” the aid official said. “Whether it’s a matter of terrorism and weapons and trafficking of human beings; this directly affects Europe.”

That lack of engagement may change with the Russian planes’ arrival. Haftar and his backers are currently on the back foot. Earlier this month, government-aligned fighters backed by swarms of Turkish drones drove Haftar’s forces out of Tripoli’s periphery; those included Wagner Group mercenaries, who were reported to have been evacuated to Libya’s eastern regions.

U.S. Africa Command believes the Russian jets will be used to provide “close air support” to further Wagner Group offensives in Libya. But with Haftar’s ranks in disarray, they’re more likely meant to defend areas still under his control from a possible Turkish-backed government offensive, said Frederic Wehrey, a former U.S. military attaché who served in Libya.

“So what’s the Russian game with these jets? It’s to improve their negotiating position to stave off further Turkish encroachment to the east, but you can’t say that this is the cavalry coming to the rescue,” Wehrey said.

That would echo a similar understanding Russia and Turkey have forged in Syria, where they have crossed swords but also cooperated in a detente that has excluded Western powers as well as the U.N.

A Russian-Turkish detente in Libya, the richest nation in Africa and home to the world’s 10th-largest oil reserves, would have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. and Europe, said Maj. Karl Wiest, an Africa Command spokesman.

“It is possible that when the smoke clears in Libya, Russia has basing access on Europe’s southern flank, and potentially long-range missile systems as well,” Wiest said. He added that over the last seven years, Russia has sold almost $9 billion in arms to its African partners, making it the top arms dealers for the continent.

Towards  a Russia-Turkey power sharing agreement?

Speaking at a Chatham House seminar, Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert, said the Russian deployment to al-Jufra airbase may be a Russian attempt to prevent Turkish-backed GNA advances beyond Tripolitania. If the Russian ploy worked, Turkey and Russia may reach an understanding, giving Turkey a sphere of influence in the west and Russia in the east, so marginalising Europe and the UN.

He questioned the solution’s stability since the anti-Haftar alliance in the west may disintegrate and political actors in the east may see Haftar’s failure to capture Tripoli as a political opportunity.

Tarek Megerisi, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Libya was probably witnessing the death throes of Haftar’s ambition to enter Tripoli as a conquering hero, writes the Guardian.

Even if Kremlin’s objective is only to ensure its fair stake in the Libyan loot, Ankara must be asking how long it can sustain a “strategic alliance” with its Northern neighbor which throws monkey wrenches in its plans everywhere it turns to advance its diplomatic goals.

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