The US military has released new aerial surveillance images purporting to show additional Russian military equipment in Libya in the latest sign the Kremlin may be gearing up to help Gen. Khalifa Hifter defend the strategic city of Sirte.
The US Africa Command published photos today purporting to show Russian military planes and anti-aircraft vehicles at eastern Libya’s Khadim air base. AFRICOM also published photos of what it said were Russian armored vehicles near Sirte, which faces a looming offensive by Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord.
The Turkish government, which backs the Government of National Accord, has said the Tripoli-based government will not agree to a cease-fire with Hifter’s eastern forces until they and their foreign backers withdraw from Sirte and the strategic central Libyan air base at Jufra.
“Russian IL-76 aircraft travel from Syria into Libya regularly. Those flights can carry personnel, equipment, and supplies,” Col. Christopher Karns, an AFRICOM spokesperson, told Al-Monitor via email earlier this month.
“Libya is a place where Russia will continue to act, seek access, and try to gain a strategic foothold in pursuit of oil or a geographic position on NATO’s southern flank,” Karns wrote.
"It is important that all sides fueling conflict stop to allow for a political solution.”
Why it matters: Former US national security adviser John Bolton green-lighted Hifter’s offensive against the Government of National Accord last year, and the Trump administration has been working to manage the fallout.
AFRICOM publicly raised the alarm in January, warning that Turkey’s escalation to repel Hifter’s offensive risked drawing in further Russian military involvement in the country. AFRICOM has since published a series of aerial photos of Russian military hardware in Libya, warning that the potential for Moscow to establish permanent bases with long-range air defenses in the North African country poses a strategic problem for NATO.
The United States has indirectly called out Hifter’s other foreign backers, which include the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France.
What’s next: Sirte and Jufra are key to the Government of National Accord regaining much of the country’s oil reserves, and Egypt has threatened to intervene if the Tripoli-based government continues to advance. If the Government of National Accord retakes Sirte, Hifter’s backers will likely be forced to recalculate about their client.
Turkey and Russia agreed to consider forming a joint committee to resolve the crisis earlier this week, though there is so far no clear sign the Government of National Accord intends to negotiate.