The Donald Trump administration stepped up its criticism of Russia’s role in Libya’s civil war on Thursday.
“Libya has become the next venue for Russia’s malign efforts to exploit regional conflicts for its own narrow political and economic gain,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Robinson told reporters. “Russia continues its military support for the Libyan National Army of Gen. [Khalifa Hifter]. Russia has provided material and logistical support to the Wagner Group, a US-sanctioned entity led by [President Vladimir Putin] crony Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also sanctioned by the United States.”
Robinson also took aim at Russia’s ongoing support for President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.
Why it matters: The State Department opted to host a press briefing lambasting Russia’s role in the region one day after the United Nations confirmed that Moscow has recruited anywhere between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries to support Hifter’s ongoing offensive against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. That includes mercenaries from the Wagner Group as well as Syrian fighters loyal to Damascus who have been deployed to Libya to fight alongside Hifter’s forces.
“There is a very troubling other element here, and that is … the Libyan National Army’s – or Khalifa [Hifter’s] – establishment of so-called diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, which is very much part of the piece of the question of Syrian mercenaries, at least on his side of the equation,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Henry Wooster.
Turkey has also deployed Syrian rebel fighters alongside its own forces to bolster Tripoli against Hifter’s offensive.
What’s next: Democrats are pushing the Trump administration to sanction Hifter under a 2017 Russia sanctions law because of the support he receives from the Wagner Group. However, the State Department has yet to show any indication that it will do so.
Know more: Bryant Harris has the full story on the Democratic push to sanction Hifter.