Leaving Moscow, Libya’s Haftar weighs Russia deal in Libya

Hafter is concerned that the deal will allow Turkey to entrench itself, in much the same way as it has in Syria.

Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before talks in Moscow, Russia January 13, 2020. (photo credit: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before talks in Moscow, Russia January 13, 2020.
Russia is trying to seal a deal in Libya, where Turkey has deployed forces to bolster Ankara’s claim to gas fields off the coast. The complex bargain was hit upon by Moscow in the wake of Turkey signing a controversial deal with the embattled government in Tripoli.
But Libya’s most powerful leader, Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control most of the country, flew to Moscow and left without signing a ceasefire deal. Haftar is worried that Turkey is trying to muscle into Libya in the same way that it has taken over parts of northern Syria. Turkey even sent Syrian rebel mercenaries to Libya to fight its war there, angering Libyans.
The initiative is being pushed by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, who hopes Russia can gain prestige and show off its dealmaking prowess in North Africa. Russia says that European powers, including Germany, France and Italy, as well as Algeria, Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar and Moscow are all working together on a deal for Libya.
The war in Libya has lasted eight years. Russia wants the parties to stop fighting and rely on Russia. This would see the frontlines stabilize and likely legitimize Turkish involvement as the backer of the Government of the National Accord in Tripoli, while other countries such as Egypt continue to support Haftar’s alternative government.
Powerful players are at hand. The GNA has sent lobbyists to Washington and paid public relations firms to support it as the “UN-backed” government, portraying Haftar as a “warlord” or “strongman.” Meanwhile Haftar and his allies in Egypt, the UAE and other Arab states portray the GNA as a “terrorist” government. This is the kind of rhetoric that is common to the Syrian conflict as well, where the government in Damascus calls the rebels “terrorists.”
Turkey has sought to play a role in both Syria and Libya. In Libya, Turkey wants access to economic rights off the coast and used Tripoli’s weakness to get a deal for rights in exchange for sending militias from northern Syria to fight.
Russia understands the calculations here. Russia and Turkey are increasingly allies over an S-400 deal and TurkStream pipeline deal. Unsurprisingly, the deal Turkey signed with Tripoli has harmed the interests of Egypt, Greece, Israel and Cyprus, which all want a pipeline stretching across the Mediterranean.
Oil and gas politics are thus afoot in Libya. Much larger regional politics are at work as well. Turkey and Qatar support the Tripoli government partly because it has a history of religious extremism and alleged links to a Muslim Brotherhood worldview, whereas Egypt and the other Gulf monarchies like Haftar’s version of leadership, a general and a strongman. The Libya conflict is thus also a proxy conflict between Turkey and Egypt, the Brotherhood and Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
That doesn’t help Libyans much, but it does enable Moscow to swoop in and play broker as it has done in Syria. Moscow plays the role of responsible actor, even though Moscow gains benefits from a Libya deal as well. It can leverage Libya against Turkey in Idlib, or create a grand bargain with Turkey.
Turkey has threatened to teach Haftar “a lesson” if he doesn’t sign the deal and continues his push to take Tripoli. But Turkey also asserts its ambitions are not “imperial.” Turkey says it is protecting its “brothers” in Libya. This could be a rhetoric flourish to indicate support for the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Turkey’s ruling party has roots in but it’s also a way to indicate the fantasies of Turkey’s ruler that posits there are “descendants of 1 million Turks” in Libya.
Turkey claims Turks are being “ethnically cleansed” in Libya. This is a new ethno-nationalist populist policy of Turkey’s leaders wrapped up in religious devotion, that see Turkey playing a role across the Middle East, conjuring up reasons to expand Ankara’s role.
By contrast, the role of Egypt and the Gulf is also cynical. They want “stability” which means a regime similar to Egypt’s. This is the same choice that plays out in Syria, either “stability” of dictatorship, or religious extremism in Idlib.
So far, Haftar has decided he can’t sign Moscow’s deal. He left and flew to Jordan. He must now consult his backers in the Gulf, Egypt and other countries.
Haftar has support, but he is in a precarious position because Turkey has shown in the past that it will follow through on threats. Turkey’s leaders also need populist causes to keep Turkey distracted by constant crises. They used Syria as a crises pot, stirring it every three months to create the cause for a new military offensive. Now Libya is the new populists cause as Ankara invents stories of “Turkish minorities” in Libya that need “protecting.”
Last month it was oil deals, now it is ethnic populism. Next month it will be something else. For Haftar, he must weigh whether his backers in Cairo and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have enough political capital in Moscow to buy him time. Alone in Libya he is isolated, even if he has been successful.
Haftar’s forces have claimed they will take Tripoli for six months. So far they have failed. Turkey knows this. Russia knows this. A deal would make everyone pleased with themselves. And Haftar’s backers won’t send the military support necessary to overrun the GNA.