Russia Urges Libya Leadership Role for UN-Defying Military Chief

  • Top Russian diplomat says Haftar is ‘leading political figure’
  • UN envoy ignoring influential players in Libya, Gatilov says

General Khalifa Haftar, center, commander of the armed forces loyal to the internationally recognised Libyan government, is greeted upon his arrival at Al-Kharouba airport south of the town of al-Marj on Dec. 3, 2016.

Photographer: Abdullah Doma/AFP via Getty Images

Russia threw its weight behind a powerful Libyan army commander, Khalifa Haftar, who’s in conflict with the UN-backed government there, saying he must have a role in the leadership of the crisis-wracked state.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov criticized the United Nations’ envoy to Libya for favoring other political forces in the North African country. His comments marked Russia’s strongest endorsement yet of Haftar, which may complicate Western-led efforts to shore up the weak, internationally-recognized government in the capital, Tripoli. Russia says the UN-mandated body is ineffective.

“We believe that the Libyans have to find a compromise on his participation in the new Libyan leadership,” Gatilov said of Haftar, who controls more territory than any other faction in the divided country, in written answers to questions from Bloomberg News.

Russia’s growing role in Libya comes after it turned the tide in Syria’s war through military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad against mostly Islamist rebels, as it seeks to restore some of its Soviet-era influence in the Middle East and wider region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin angrily condemned a NATO-led military campaign that overthrew Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 as a “crusade.” With Donald Trump promising closer ties with Russia in fighting terrorism, there could be an alignment of interests in Libya and Syria between Putin and the incoming U.S. president.

Eastern Stronghold

Haftar, 73, a one-time Qaddafi ally whose stronghold is in eastern Libya, is fighting against radical Islamist groups. He seized control in September of most oil installations in Libya, though he’s continued to allow revenues to flow to the central bank in Tripoli.

The army chief, who received military training in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, is “doing a lot to fight Islamic State terrorists and help the government restore control of oil production,” Gatilov said. “Haftar is of course a leading political and military figure.”

The Russian diplomat said UN envoy Martin Kobler’s policy of backing the Tripoli government in its stand-off with Haftar means the political settlement remains stalled. The internationally-recognized Libyan parliament based in the eastern city of Tobruk is loyal to Haftar and is refusing to endorse Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Cabinet in Tripoli.

Kobler should refrain from “efforts to strike separate deals with part of the Libyan political establishment behind the back of other influential players,” Gatilov said. “Hence the lack of interest by representatives of the eastern regions in talking to him -- it’s obvious that such a situation doesn’t help to advance the political process in Libya.”

Moscow Visits

In addition to Russia, Haftar’s also backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. under the outgoing Obama administration and the European Union support the UN-recognized government, calling on Haftar to submit to its civilian authority.

Haftar visited Moscow twice in the past six months, meeting with the Russian foreign and defense ministers as well as the national security chief to seek support. Russia is printing money for a branch of the central bank in the Haftar-loyal east. It’s also supplying military experts, according to his Libyan National Army.

Russia will strictly observe the arms embargo that prevents supplies other than to the UN-mandated government, Gatilov said.

Russia lost at least $4 billion in arms contracts and billions more in energy and transport deals following the air campaign led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that ousted Qaddafi after 42 years in power. He was killed by a mob during a battle for his hometown of Sirte.

‘Very Limited’

A Government of National Accord set up in December 2015 under a UN-brokered process doesn’t control much of the country outside of Tripoli, although it’s backed by powerful western armed groups that are opposed to Haftar.

The Tripoli administration led by Sarraj, “despite its international recognition, hasn’t become a truly national government body,” Gatilov said. “It can’t start to work properly because its control extends to only very limited territory.”

Russia is maintaining contacts with all sides in Libya, including Sarraj and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq, who’s from the anti-Haftar Misrata region in the west, Gatilov said.

Kobler, the UN envoy, has called on Russia to help support the Tripoli government by using its influence with forces in the east of Libya. “The consensus of the international community is important,” he said in an interview in Tunis earlier this month.

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