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8/3/17

Middle East: Russia in Libya: War or Peace? - by Mattia Toaldo

Libya is increasingly a target for Russia’s growing ambitions to influence the Middle East and North Africa, but, judging by the Kremlin’s actions thus far, Putin is either hedging his bets or has not yet decided on his objectives for this file. European decisions – particularly those by the most active players, France, the UK, and Italy - could yet tip the scales in one direction of the other. Watching closely will be the new UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, who officially starts work this week after attending last Tuesday’s Paris summit between the internationally-recognised Libyan Prime Minister Faiez Serraj and his main rival, General Khalifa Haftar.

On the one hand, Russia is naturally drawn towards supporting General Haftar, who opposes the Western-backed Prime Minister Serraj and is considered by many in Moscow as ‘the strongman of eastern Libya’. Haftar’s anti-Islamist stance makes him an attractive counterterrorism partner, and support for the general also strengthens Russia’s relationship with his main sponsor, Egypt. Limited support for Haftar also drags the conflict out, enabling Russia to point to the folly of the West’s intervention in 2011 and make the case that regime change, in Libya as in Ukraine, only breeds chaos.

On the other hand, Putin wants to be seen both at home and abroad as more than a military actor and is seeking to burnish his diplomatic credentials. Having demonstrated his military strength in Syria, playing the role of peace-maker in Libya could be attractive for Putin, particularly with presidential elections on the horizon in March 2018. Moreover, a Russian-led diplomatic success would allow Putin to position himself as mending what the West has broken.

Putin is unlikely to let Russia be dragged in a new conflict or to upset Egypt by dealing directly with Haftar on weapons. What could change is the quality of Russian support for Haftar, with a higher level of technical assistance or more sophisticated weapons. This would greatly encourage Haftar to pursue war, however unrealistic a quick military victory by Haftar is.

Putin will probably continue with his current ambiguous policy: minimal but important military support to Haftar through arms deliveries via Egypt (thus keeping both Sisi and Haftar happy); showing Russia’s diplomatic clout by occasionally inviting some Libyan leader to Moscow; while continuing to use Libya as a cautionary tale against the evils of regime change.

If European actors like Italy, France and the UK want to avoid escalation, Russian diplomatic ambitions provide some leverage. Russian decision makers expect to be involved in international discussions on Libya just as they are in the Syria negotiations and in other regional formats such as the Middle East Peace Process Quartet. And while the UN and Salamé have little choice but to engage Russia, meaningful talks between EU member states and Moscow on Libya should not be granted for free. Russia’s inclusion in a new contact group should be made conditional on Russian support for de-escalation in Libya: reduce support for Haftar, or be left out in the cold.

Ultimately, Putin’s ambiguity on Libya so far is good reason to be suspicious of his true intentions. And Europe must use its diplomatic leverage to ensure that increased Russian involvement does not come at the cost of further destabilisation on Europe’s southern border.

Russia in Libya: War or Peace? | European Council on Foreign Relations

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