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Moscow welcomes Libya’s fighting factions

Russia continues to boost its image as a peacemaker in the Middle East by engaging both of Libya’s warring parties.
A tank belonging to Libyan National Army fires towards Islamist militants during clashes in the militants' last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori - RC1C60869AF0

As the United Nations is looking to rally broad international support for a new peace plan for Libya, outside actors that came to play a bigger role in breaking the Libyan stalemate are making their own moves. 

By chance or providence, representatives of the two opposing parties in Libya both visited Moscow the week of Sept. 10: Ahmed Maiteeq, the deputy prime minister of the so-called unity government — the Government of National Accord (GNA) — and Ahmed al-Mismari, the spokesman for the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the head of the “eastern” government in Tobruk.

Later in the week, new UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame also visited the Russian capital. His visit did not receive much coverage in the press; it was merely announced that Salame had met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and that the men agreed to cooperate with Russian authorities on Libya.

It was a different matter with the high-profile visits of the two Libyan representatives.

Maiteeq came to Russia upon the invitation of Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose interest in Libya has recently been vocal and open. Maiteeq began his Russia visit in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, where he gave an extended interview to Russia’s leading business newspaper, Kommersant. He then moved on to Moscow to meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov for a panel talk at the Valdai Discussion Club. The head of the Russian contact group on Libya, Lev Dengov, was also at the Valdai event. Dengov, a young diplomat who previously did not get into the spotlight much, has been receiving more publicity in recent weeks.

Mismari had a busy schedule in Moscow. On the first day of his visit alone he discussed counterterrorism issues with fellows from the Institute of Oriental Studies, met with Bogdanov and had a meeting at the Russian International Affairs Council. The next few days of his visit were filled with contacts with journalists and experts, culminating in a press conference at the Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) media group. 

The visits of Maiteeq and Mismari to Russia are important in several ways.

The media hype surrounding their visits does not make the substance of their visits any clearer. Was it a coincidence that representatives of the two opposing camps found themselves in Moscow at the same time? Was this concurrence initiated by the Kremlin or was it rather a manifestation of the “competitive character” of their relationship and each was trying to prevent the other from monopolizing the “Russian influence” factor? Have Maiteeq and Mismari had their own meeting in Moscow? Does Mismari coming to Moscow speak of his recently added role as head of the LNA’s moral guidance department? Is the Russian leadership setting the stage for a direct meeting between Hifter and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj?

None of these questions can be answered with precise clarity. However, here are a few thoughts on the issues.

Given the high degree of centralized power in the Russian political system, it is hard to imagine that synchronized invitations to both representatives was a mere coincidence, even though the visits were organized through different channels. 

During their presence in Moscow, neither Maiteeq nor Mismari mentioned one another in their public speeches. Mismari said at the press conference that he had not even heard about Maiteeq’s visit until they were already in the city.

Such demonstrative indifference was broken up occasionally by Maiteeq and Mismari each publicly emphasizing the successes of his own side and pointing to his opponent’s weaknesses.

Mismari underscored that the LNA now controls 90% of Libya and stressed its key role in the fight against terrorism. He also lamented a shortage of armaments and reproached the other party for not fulfilling the cease-fire agreement reached in Paris in July.

Maiteeq spoke of how the GNA has secured Tripoli, restored the once-crippled infrastructure, found solutions to economic problems as a means to eradicate terrorism and extremism and worked to unite the country’s armed forces.

Both representatives, aware of how significant the “state-building and fighting terrorism” discourse is to the Russian public and authorities, underlined these themes in their public statements. The obvious discrepancies and inaccuracies in some of the arguments have never caused the Libyan statesmen to shy away from their rhetoric.

Given the number of meetings with Russian journalists, experts and policymakers that both Maiteeq and Mismari attended, it can be presumed that their main goals were broadening their contact networks and conveying their own positions to Russian opinion leaders, who may circumstantially influence the ultimate decision-makers. 

In this respect there is another interesting element in the visits: Never before have they been made so open to the public. Multiple trips of Hifter, Sarraj and other Libyan figures to Russia have always received rather poor press coverage. This time, however, Maiteeq and Mismari made some big noise in the big city. Russian officials might or might not have initiated the level of publicity the event received, but they clearly endorsed it.

By attracting media attention to the simultaneous visits, Moscow sought to send a message: “We are working with all the parties, whether you like it or not.” The message was intended not just for the West, where some wonder if Hifter will become Moscow’s new Moammar Gadhafi; the dictator toppled in 2011 gave Russia major infrastructure contracts. The message also goes out to Libyans who are jealous of Moscow’s coddling of both sides, as well as the Russian public, which frequently does not understand the logic of Russia’s policies in Libya. 

The revival of Russian contacts with Libya, and move of the contact group's Dengov into the spotlight, are likely part of Moscow’s pursuit of a more proactive role in Libya. This is logical. Now that the de-escalation zones in Syria are, by and large, functioning — showcasing Russia’s efficiency in conflict settlement — and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has declared that the civil war in Syria is over, Moscow has freed some of its resources for Libya. Moreover, it may have an equal desire to back up its Syria success with one in Libya, albeit without using military force.

Should it be successful, the Russian leadership would not only strengthen its ties with European countries but would approach the 2018 presidential election in Russia in an unusual way: by making foreign policy a central piece of the campaign. Also, the Libyan political process offers new opportunities for Russia to expand its activities there.

Libyan reconciliation meetings in Paris and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates have demonstrated a dialogue can be established between the conflicting parties. But the meetings also exposed the fragility of the process. Meanwhile, the 2015 UN-brokered agreement on the national unity government that was deemed a “basis and framework” for a political process in Libya expires at the end of this year, raising concerns over the fate of the entire peace process. Under these circumstances, Russian mediation may be timely. However, to be fully effective, mediation should be supplemented with additional ways of leveraging the warring parties. Whether Moscow can handle this task remains to be seen.

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