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Russia wary to take sides in Libya as Hifter offers lucrative deals

The Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hifter directly called on the Russian president to interfere into the Libyan conflict militarily to sway victory into Hifter's favor; Moscow, however, is more comfortable with balancing the warring parties by different branches of the Russian government.

The spokesman of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who heads the Libyan National Army (LNA), called on Moscow Aug. 8 to intervene into Libya "to get rid of foreign players in the country.” Ahmed al-Mismari told Russia’s state-owned media Sputnik that the situation in Libya requires a Russian presence similar to that in Syria, and urged President Vladimir Putin’s personal intervention “to directly eliminate foreign players in Libya such as Qatar, Turkey and Italy.”

He added, "We are very confident that Russia is a superpower and its words will be heard if it holds talks with Italy, Turkey and Qatar or other countries such as Sudan, regarding the smuggling of terrorists into Libya."

Mismari also argued that Russia’s intervention in Syria was successful, noting that its role in eliminating foreign players there was "prominent."

“What’s happening in Syria is happening in Libya. The Libyan people are looking for a strong ally like Russia," he concluded.

The words of one of the top man in the LNA hierarchy demonstrate that Russia’s influence in the Middle East continues to increase. In late July, members of the Ansar Allah movement from Yemen also asked Moscow to intervene to stop the war in their country. Moreover, every side of both Libyan and Yemeni conflicts wants Russia to take a more active stance in the peace settlement process.

At the same time such statements made by the LNA show that the positions of Hifter and his allies have substantially diminished and their situation has become worse. The army’s leaders are trying once again to seek Russia’s attention and persuade it to become their new patron, particularly after Hifter’s closest partners — the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France and Egypt — refused to support him and the Tobruk government in their decision to place the oil export ports in the so-called Libyan Crescent under the administration of the National Oil Corporation in Benghazi, a company controlled by groups close to Hifter. As a result, on July 10 the Tobruk government was compelled to return these ports under the authority of the legitimate National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Tripoli. Basically, such hasty, irrational decisions were made by Hifter too as a reaction to his own failures.

For instance, the operation conducted by a small independent unit made up of former Petroleum Facilities Guard militants, led by Ibrahim Jadran, as a result of which the LNA had lost control over strategically important Sidr and Ras Lanuf ports for several days in mid-June substantially damaged the reputation of Hifter’s forces. This was the second time that the LNA failed to provide security for these crucial energy industry objects and lost control over the “oil crescent” ports. In March 2017, the Benghazi Defense Brigades managed to take over Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad ports. Naturally, all this raises uncertainty among foreign players about the LNA’s ability not only to provide constant oil supplies, but also to keep order on the territories they control.

Moreover, the politicians in Tobruk are concerned that the presidential and parliamentary elections planned for late 2018 may fail or be rejected due to the positions of numerous leading nations, particularly Italy, which suggest conducting elections only after national peace is reached. Many Libyan factions, which have refused to acknowledge the Paris agreements between Tripoli and Tobruk on national elections, also support this opinion. This may deal a serious blow to positions of the Tobruk government as a whole and Hifter in particular, as they risk losing a chance to restore their legitimacy. In this context, Hifter will most likely continue to seek Moscow’s support to bring the Paris agreements into life. This is why Mismari mentioned Italy among the countries from which Russia should protect Libya.

At the same time, it is not the first time that Hifter makes populist statements about Russian support. A source in Russian diplomatic circles told Al-Monitor that Moscow repeatedly had to explain its position to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli about certain statements the LNA representatives had made in regard to receiving aid from Russia or Russia’s willingness to provide military support to them, which had nothing to do with the real state of affairs and had only been used for Hifter’s own political objectives. Nevertheless, those words and actions have partly reached their goal, as on a few occasions they have been able to hinder cooperation between Moscow and Tripoli.

Despite the rumors spread by the Tobruk government, Moscow essentially plays a much less substantial role in supporting Hifter than, for instance, France, Egypt or the UAE. Unlike Russia, these countries provide the leaders in Tobruk with direct military aid. In particular, Egyptian and French special forces have repeatedly taken part in the LNA’s assaults against Libyan militant groups affiliated with al-Qaeda; while the UAE and Egypt have been providing the LNA with aviation backups and weapons supplies.

Russia’s own record of direct military aid for the LNA is murky: injured LNA soldiers received medical treatment in Russian hospitals and the Russian government authorized Belarus to supply the UAE with Russian-made weapons such as Mi-24/35 helicopters that were later handed over to the LNA. Besides, some Russian private military contractors such as the RSB Group have worked in LNA-controlled areas; however, their activities reportedly included only demining of civilian industry objects in Benghazi — in particular, a factory that had belonged to the Libyan Cement Company.

At the same time, Russia has also been developing a dynamic relationship with the GNA in Tripoli. The parties have been establishing cooperation in the security field, while bilateral interagency contacts between them are actually more intensive than those between Moscow and Tobruk.

Moscow is also rather wary of Hifter. First, the Russians never forgot that the self-proclaimed field marshal lived in the United States for about 20 years after he had left former President Moammar Gadhafi in the early 1990s. This fact may refer to his possible ties to the CIA. Moreover, the Russians are concerned with the UAE’s extensive influence on the Tobruk government, supposing that Abu Dhabi strives to use Moscow as a tool to facilitate the maintenance of its own creation. Also, Russia cannot ignore Hifter’s overtures to local Salafists who make up a major part of his forces. The Salafi religious institutions held in authority by the Tobruk government openly make direct proclamations where they push other Islamic groups of Libya (i.e., Ibadhi Berbers) out of the country’s Muslim community.

At the same time, appeals by Hifter’s supporters to Moscow should not be seen merely as populism or propaganda as they are aimed at a certain part of the Russian government. For instance, although the Kremlin includes a prominent faction requesting to avoid providing Hifter with excessive support and expecting great benefits from the cooperation with Tripoli, mostly in economic aspects, there are groups in the government, particularly in power and military industry structures, that lobby for Hifter.

Their interest in supporting the LNA is reinforced by Hifter’s proclaimed willingness to buy Russian weapons in bulk if it is legalized and freed from the sanctions, as well as by his capability to provide in Eastern Libyan ports such as Tobruk and Benghazi, which Russian military leaders have already visited, for military bases. Moreover, Hifter’s image as a resilient fighter against political Islam is quite appealing for many Russian politicians, so that they are ready to overlook his relationships with the Salafists.

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