Russia is gaining influence in Libya: How will Washington respond?

Russia is gaining influence in Libya: How will Washington respond?
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Late last month, former Virginia resident and now Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, along with Fayez al-Sarraj, Libya’s prime minister and chairman of the Presidential Council, held talks in Abu Dhabi to avert a civil war and find a solution to government stability.

From well-informed sources within the Libyan government, I learned that under this supposed agreement, Haftar would be granted a major seat at the table, placing him in charge of the military and security with veto powers under the to-be-formed National Security Council of Libya. It would remove him from actually overseeing the country in a Gadhafi-style authoritarian military rule. It is not clear if the veto powers would have any restrictions or if any guidelines would be set in place for them. Nevertheless, this would clearly give Haftar a major power in the country.

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Haftar has marched his well-armed militia to the outskirts of Tripoli intent on cleaning out supposed remaining terrorist groups. Though he is considered a secular leader opposed to Islamists, he maintains connections to radical Salafi clerics who call for jihad in Libya.

He enjoys the backing of France, Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It is Russian involvement, however, that should raise serious concerns in Washington. Russia recently blocked a U.N. Security Resolution calling on Haftar and his militia, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), to stop their advance on Tripoli.

In the absence of U.S. action, Russia continues to build influence in a country with strategic importance and the potential for record oil production. A recent report by The Telegraph said that the Russian private military company Wagner Group has been supporting Haftar with 300 personnel in Benghazi, and supplied his army with artillery, tanks, drones and ammunition. According to the Telegraph, his mercenaries are trying to secure the deep-water ports of Tobruk and Derna for the Russian Fleet.

The Russia veto over the U.N. Security Council statement should be a warning to the White House to engage more directly and decisively in Libya, especially now with an impending civil war. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Pompeo: 'No mistake' Trump warned Russian diplomat about election tampering MORE has called for Haftar to halt his military adventure, but that may be too little too late. Government forces are regrouping and preparing for war. Fighting has already killed dozens, and thousands have fled their homes.

Sarraj, who is also defense minister, likely saw the current situation unfolding, thus the reason for his meeting in Abu Dhabi with Haftar.

According to my sources in the government, the alleged plan called for a delicate sharing of the balance of power. The new office of the Prime Minister would be designated for Misrata, an important economic powerhouse and home to some powerful militias who were neither against nor supportive of Haftar but would be against another military-type rule reminiscent of Gadhafi. The supposed plan would grant Misrata a few ministerial positions in the new cabinet as well.

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There were tell-tale signs that a deal was being discussed when Haftar announced at the launch of his offensive toward Tripoli that “Libya will have a single cabinet this month.” It seems clear now that Haftar was not inclined toward peace and saw weakness in Sarraj. But when Haftar’s militias reached the suburbs of Tripoli, Sarraj accused him of betrayal, vowing resistance and launching the operation “Volcano of Anger” to repel his forces. The window for a deal closed fast, leaving Sarraj with no other option but to defend the city against Haftar.

As competing forces take up defensive positions and engage in fighting, we must ask: Where is the United States in all of this? Washington sits by idly as Moscow increases its influence.

To say the situation is getting out of control would be an understatement. Implications for the United States and the European Union could be substantial. If the conflict is not halted and political parties forced back to U.N.-led negotiations, a new massive wave of refugees will hit European shores. A protracted crisis could create unrest in the oil market and drive prices up substantially.

Russia looks to control Libya as it controls Syria and the Assad regime. The notion that Haftar can control Libya is simply wrong. Only a political solution and a fair share of resources to all Libyan factions will mend the country.

Secretary Pompeo’s latest statement is a step in the right direction, but a more forceful statement is needed. President Obama has said one of his greatest regrets in office was failing to prepare for the aftermath of the Gadhafi regime. The Trump administration would be wise to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and to increase U.S. involvement in efforts to stabilize the country, as the Russian zone of influence may have just become much bigger. Morally, we owe it to Libyans to help.

Sasha Toperich is senior executive vice president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network. From 2013 to 2018, he was a senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.