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Can Libya be turned around and become Russia's 'second Syria'?

Russia took an opportunity to mediate between the warring parties in Libya only to see Khalifa Hifter turn his back on Moscow's initiative — perhaps, just for now.
Libyan National Army (LNA) members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, head out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 7, 2019. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori - RC1A261C5320

Russia has failed to broker a compromise between Libya’s two warring parties, the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj and the Libyan National Army headed by Khalifa Hifter. The military commander left Moscow without signing a cease-fire agreement initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Hifter’s rejection of the deal means, above all, that this is just the beginning of a long journey. Despite its preference for a low-profile approach until recently, Russia has officially entered the playing field to resolve the Libyan conflict and the first setback will hardly make it leave the game. This is all the more so because Hifter’s departure from Moscow with no deal signed is a personal challenge for Putin.

Russia’s Defense Ministry, however, claims that the field marshal did not say “no” to Moscow. “He [Hifter] had a positive view of the final statement, but requested two days to discuss the document with the tribal leaders before signing it,” the statement from the Defense Ministry reads.

“The warring sides agreed in principle that the cease-fire should be supported and extended indefinitely,” the ministry added, stressing this as the main outcome of Jan. 13 talks in Moscow.

Immediately after the talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Hifter had asked to wait until the next morning to decide.

Lavrov drew a parallel between the conflicts in Syria and Libya, arguing the situation in the latter “is not as clear as” in the former.

 Still, he indicated that things could improve in Libya, just as they have over time in Syria, whose civil war began in 2011. “If Libya could become 'a second Syria,' I believe the Libyan people will benefit from this,” Lavrov said at a press conference following his Jan. 14 visit to Sri Lanka shortly after the difficult negotiations on Libya. He said Libya's statehood was destroyed by 2011 NATO bombings.

The top Russian diplomat pointed out that the political process in Syria had become possible “thanks to the responsible attitude of all Syrian parties with the support of external players.” 

“These days, we are working to ensure that all Libyan parties show the same responsibility for the fate of their country,” he said. 

Reports that numerous Wagner Group mercenaries are fighting alongside Hifter are numerous. Officially, Russia has never confirmed the presence of the Russian paramilitary organization. However, Putin told journalists after Jan. 11 talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “If there are Russian citizens there, then they are not representing the interests of the Russian state and they are not receiving money from the Russian state.”

Although few believed his words, the reality is that until the last minute the Russian government seemed to have no idea of what it wanted in Libya and, just to be on the safe side, it maintained contacts with all the parties involved. In other words, the president actually allowed different Russian groups with opposing interests to do business in Libya. At the same time, one has to pay attention to the smaller number of contacts, at least public ones, that have taken place between Moscow and Hifter recently. This indicated Russian uncertainty about its policy as opposed to a strong desire to go to Libya.

Turkey can’t be considered as an unbiased mediator in Libya, especially after its military cooperation agreement with Tripoli and the November memorandum of understanding between Turkey and Libya on maritime borders. Moscow’s support in a sense has legitimized Ankara’s efforts to help the Sarraj government survive.

However, Russia’s leverage has not yet been strong enough to persuade Hifter. The field marshal studied in the Soviet Union, but while he has been called a Russian puppet in the West, many people in Moscow view him as a Western agent of influence. Today those who have actively advocated Russia’s support for Tripoli over recent years smugly state that Hifter showed his true colors.

In Moscow, Hifter pushed for his troops’ entry to Tripoli and a national unity government and demanded the unconditional pullout of “mercenaries brought from Syria and Turkey.” In turn, Sarraj demanded the retreat of the Libyan National Army to positions it had occupied before April 4. According to sources privy to the talks who spoke with Al-Monitor not for attribution, Moscow put both a moratorium on the deployment of the Turkish military in Libya and a pullback of Hifter’s forces on the agenda.

Apparently, the field marshal did not find the Russian arguments persuasive enough and turned a completely deaf ear to Turkish ones. Or, as the sources reckoned, he took a respite to discuss the matter with his consultative group.

Lavrov said, “All the efforts that Europeans are now making, including Germans, French, Italians, the efforts that are being made by the Libyan neighbors — Algeria, Egypt, as well as the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar, the Russian Federation — we want to put them all together, and that’s it: We are acting in the same direction.” 

The United States is the only actor in Libya that has not aired an opinion in recent days and that was not mentioned in Lavrov’s statement.

Another question is about further steps Moscow and other mediators in the conflict resolution might take. The EU, especially Germany, placed high hopes on the Russia-led negotiations. Berlin considers the Russian-Turkish cease-fire initiative to be the first step toward the success of the Berlin conference on Libya scheduled for Jan. 19.

An expert closely connected with the UN work on a Libyan settlement told Al-Monitor that some Europeans regard Moscow and Ankara’s activities as undermining the efforts of the UN and the EU. However, the failed Moscow talks, primarily problems with the implementation of the cease-fire agreement, are a precursor to the possible success of the UN and EU mission. Lavrov’s words show that Moscow is fully aware of the need for joint efforts of all the mediators to secure a settlement.

There also was skepticism about Russia’s efforts on the Syrian file, and many in the West still do not welcome the fact that the parties are gradually moving toward a resolution for Syria under the auspices of Moscow, Ankara and Tehran. But the situation in Libya is a very different story. Now the mediators have a chance to consolidate efforts and make a difference in Libya. In Syria, there was a political deadlock, and the resolution of the conflict became possible only after Damascus kept winning militarily with the help of external forces — Russia and Iran.

Moscow currently lacks the resources, means and willingness to assume full responsibility for addressing Libya's problems. Recent events have demonstrated Moscow’s reluctance to stand by Hifter through thick and thin. Russia needs Turkey far more. However, Moscow will not disengage from the Libyan venture. It's a matter of principle.

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