It all changed on May 2. Fayez Al Sarraj, the Prime Minister of Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, and Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the country’s most powerful military leader and the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) representing the House of Representatives (HoR) located in Tobruk, met in Abu Dhabi.
The LNA is the most powerful military force in Libya, which has scored a number of battlefield successes against the Islamic State group and other militias in the eastern part of the country, pushing them mostly out of Benghazi, Derna and other areas.
According to the 2015 Libya Political Agreement, the HoR was supposed to merge with the Tripoli-based GNA and become the country’s legislative body. Until now the plan has not materialized due to many differences dividing the sides with armed clashes taking place off and on. The LNA gained considerable leverage over the negotiations process after seizing Libya’s main oil terminals last September.
The results of the Abu Dhabi talks were a breakthrough. After meeting for the first time in 16 months, the two leaders agreed to form a joint military under civilian control, and to unify state institutions. The UN-backed national accord government based in Tripoli agreed to put Field Marshall Haftar in charge of the national armed forces. It was encouraging enough for the UAE Foreign Ministry to comment that the meeting brought «optimism towards guaranteeing a political solution» and was an «important step to push forward the political process in Libya».
The very fact that the dialogue has finally started in Libya is a success attributable to the broker states – the UAE, Egypt, Italy and Russia – an actor which has a special role to play. In late 2016, the team of Libyan MPs headed by Aguila Saleh Issa, President of Libyan House of Representatives (HoR), visited Moscow.
Last November, Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of Libya’s UN-backed unity government, expressed his government’s willingness to step up security and military cooperation with Russia. He urged Moscow to use its international clout to help lift the ongoing arms embargo on Libya and secure the release of frozen Libyan funds to enable the country to overcome its current financial crisis. Al-Sarraj stressed the importance of Russia’s role in establishing «global equilibrium», while also welcoming the return of Russian companies to the troubled North African country.
In its turn, the Russian government reiterated its desire to reactivate a host of cooperation agreements signed with Libya and the willingness of Russian companies to return to the Libyan market.
The Russian delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov visited Tripoli in April to hold talks with Fayez Al-Sirraj. The Libyan PM expressed his government’s willingness to regain the bilateral relations with Russia and to activate the cooperation agreements in different fields, including weapons purchases and military aid.
Haftar has also asked Russia for help, including arms supplies. He has visited Russia on a number of occasions. In January, the military leader was welcomed aboard Russia aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on a mission in the Mediterranean.
In the 1970s, he received military training in the Soviet Union. Haftar speaks Russian language. No wonder, he approached Moscow on the subject. Libyans remember well the NATO intervention of 2011 and don’t trust the West, especially in view of its failure to achieve any positive results in Syria. Russia’s operation in that country has changed the political landscape and strengthened Moscow’s standing among the region’s powers.
A country with a significant Muslim minority, about 10% of its population, it fought jihadists in the Caucasus for a number of years. Moscow understands the problem and has vast experience to share. Unlike the US and other Western powers, Russia does not accompany its aid with lectures about human rights or political demands pushing for «democratic reforms». As Russian armaments have proven themselves on the Syrian battlefield, it seems likely that Maghreb governments under terrorist threat will increasingly turn towards Moscow.
According to Foreign Policy, «Across the eastern Mediterranean and Levant, through Turkey, Iran, and the broader Gulf region, the trend line is obvious to anyone with eyes to see it: Russia’s star is waxing while America’s wanes».
Russia has close military cooperation with the states of the region. It enjoys a good relationship with Egypt and the UAE – the major powerbrokers in Libya. Resurgent Russia is asserting itself in the Middle East as a big and important international player and it is only natural that the Libyan leaders have approached Moscow to save their country mired in turmoil.
The May 2 meeting in Abu Dhabi opens up prospects for Russia’s military aid to Libya. The UN imposed an arms embargo on the in 2011. In August 2014, after violence had flared up, Security Council Resolution 2174 required that any supplies of arms to Libya must be approved in advance by the Sanctions Committee. If Libya has an internationally recognized government in place, the sanctions will be lifted to pave the way for all kinds of aid, including the so much needed military supplies. Moscow has stated it would be ready to supply the legitimate Libyan government with weapons as soon as the UN embargo is effective no more.
Libya needs help. It is estimated that there are 6,000 Islamic State fighters in Libya. The country’s proximity to Europe is a security concern for the Old Continent. The country is an ideal launching pad for terrorist attacks. Libyan insecurity could affect Europe’s oil and natural gas interests. Instability threatens the whole Maghreb. Greater conflict could produce even more refugees. Russia and the West face a common threat. The need to normalize the situation in Libya unites rather than divides them.