Europe courts Libyan strongman as Russia closes in

EU officials fear growing Russian influence in Libya, as general Khalifa Haftar increasingly looks like the viable alternative to failed UN-backed government in Tripoli

Libyan general Khalifa Haftar claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to “revoke” the UN arms embargo
Libyan general Khalifa Haftar claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to “revoke” the UN arms embargo

Europe and Russia are vying with each other to court Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is increasingly being seen as the key player to achieve lasting stability in the troubled North African country. 

There are growing fears that Russia’s real intentions are to expand its sphere of influence to Libya to destabilise Europe by unleashing a flood of asylum seekers if it sets foot in the country. 

On Monday, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the EU should look into ways how to integrate Haftar into the UN-backed government based in Tripoli as the general is gaining international support. 

Haftar, who has been so far supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is now being heavily courted by Russia, which has said it will lobby to revoke the UN arms embargo which would allow it to provide his army based in the east of the country with weapons. 

The EU is also fearing that new US President Donald Trump might withdraw his support for the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and back the powerful Libyan general. 

Haftar – a US citizen – is hoping Trump joins Russian President Vladimir Putin in supporting his army in the fight against terrorists and his quest to topple the GNA. 

“If Russia and the United States come together in order to stamp out terrorism that can help us. We are going to shake their hands. We will align with them,” Haftar said in an interview on Sunday.

Last week, Italy signed a €200 million memorandum of understanding with the GNA before EU leaders signed an agreement which seeks to stop asylum seekers reaching Europe by stopping them at sea and sending them back to detention centres in Libya. 

The EU’s urgency to strike deals with Libya and use its soft power could be fuelled by fears of Russian attempts to set foot in Libya by arming Haftar.  

The general made several trips to Moscow last year and last month he visited a Russian aircraft carrier off the coast of Tobruk from where he held a video conference with Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu. In the wake of the visit, Italian State TV reported that Haftar signed an agreement which would see Moscow building two military bases near Tobruk and Benghazi. 

Russian state media did not mention the agreement, but confirmed that Russia would get a foothold in the south of the Mediterranean. The move would also step up the foreign presence in the Eastern part of Libya, where Emirati and French air forces have been reportedly operating since March from the Al-Khadim Airport in the city of Marj, Haftar’s headquarters.

Speaking to MaltaToday last month, foreign minister George Vella expressed his hope that Russia abides by the UN embargo on the sale of weapons to Libya but Russian news reports said Haftar may have submitted a “wish list” of weapons if the arms embargo applying to all parties in Libya except the GNA government was lifted.

Rival factions wrestling for territorial control in the oil-rich country are plunging the country into further chaos, as the Tripoli-based GNA led by Fayez Al-Serraj struggles to bring stability to its people.

Haftar refuses to acknowledge the political authority of the GNA and has engaged in a power struggle with Tripoli that has strongly weakened prospects for a unification of the country. The future of the GNA hangs in the balance and the success of the UN-brokered deal depends on Haftar’s next moves and the extent of Russia’s involvement in Libya.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson this week said that the GNA has been in power for a year “but the situation has not changed for the better.” 

The spokesperson said that the priority goals of the transitional period, stipulated by the UN-deal, “have not been reached: the work on the draft constitution has not been completed, and general elections, following which permanent bodies of state authority should have been formed, have not been held.”

While pointing out that Libyans “should decide the fate of their country,” and criticising the imposition of the GNA, Russia looks at Haftar as a political heavyweight “who exercises a dominant influence on the alignment of political forces in modern-day Libya.”

The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson said that Haftar’s forces have played a significant role in defeating Islamists and “terrorists” which has led to the resumption of oil exports.

 “We believe that the Libyan National Army could be the backbone of the united Libyan armed forces,” the spokesperson said.