While everyone has been preoccupied with whether and how Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential election, Russia has been continuing its bid to regain power and influence in the Middle East, this time in Libya.
This month, Russia made its largest display of support for a Libyan general who stands in opposition to the western-backed government in Libya. Gen. Khalifa Haftar boarded a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean to video-conference with Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu. They discussed the arming and training of Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Russia reportedly agreed to press the United Nations to drop an arms embargo put in place in 2011, while Haftar gave the Russians a list of equipment his army needs.
Haftar and the Russians have been courting one another for months now. In November, Haftar made a trip to Russia, meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. At the time, Russia was noncommittal, although an exchange of arms for Russian military access in Libya was allegedly discussed. In December, Russian officials said Haftar should have a national leadership role in the country.
Russia’s increased involvement in Libya is another sign that President Vladimir Putin seeks a resurgent Russia that holds sway with allies throughout the Middle East.
Obviously, We’re Fighting ISIS
In the years since the Arab Spring came to Libya and strongman Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, Libya has devolved into chaos and civil war. Today, two rival governments vie for power. The Government of National Accord (GNA), the unity government based in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, is backed by the UN, United States, and European Union. Haftar backs and essentially controls the government in the eastern city of Tobruk. The Tobruk government is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and now, apparently, by Russia.
So how does Russia justify its support for the eastern government? Easy: they claim they’re fighting ISIS, although the GNA has also been fighting ISIS in the west of the country, mostly notably in Sirte. One of Haftar’s aides used this now-familiar pretext for why Russia is aiding Haftar’s rogue regime.
Fighting ISIS is the same justification Russia has been using for its involvement in the Syrian civil war and its backing of the Assad regime, despite the manifest evidence that Russia has primarily been using its air power and arms to attack Syrian rebels and civilians. This thin excuse provides Russia with cover, however unconvincing, for its meddling in war-torn Syria.
Haftar’s army has also been fighting Islamists in Libya, as well its other rivals in the region. His forces largely defeated ISIS in Benghazi, besieging them in their stronghold in the city. But then earlier this month, a massive convoy of ISIS fighters managed to escape and get past several of the general’s check points unimpeded. Something similar happened in early 2015 in the city of Derna. This raises questions about Haftar’s ultimate aims regarding the Islamist group.
There are a number of reasons he might want to fight but not defeat ISIS. One is to keep his opponents in the west busy. Another is to give Russia a legitimate cause for aiding his military rule. Both would help him gain national power, something he is widely thought to be seeking.
What This Scheme Gets Russia
If Haftar does eventually rise to power with Russia’s help, Russia would have a strategic alliance in the region and increased sway there. Russia, of course, wants to reclaim the influence it held in the Middle East and North Africa throughout much of the Cold War. This would be a major step toward its goal to take America’s place as the primary power broker in the region.
President Obama laid the groundwork for Russia’ growing power and belligerence abroad. Obama’s foreign policy has been one of appeasement and withdrawal. He pulled the United States back from the international stage in an effort to see a realignment of the international order, coupled with a theory that showing kindness to our enemies would bring about authentic détentes. This thinking guided his concessions to Iran, his weak reaction to Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and his passivity in Syria.
Russia has taken advantage of the outgoing administration’s penchant for leaving behind power vacuums. Obama’s withdrawal of troops in Iraq allowed ISIS to gain territory there and across the border in Syria. Similarly, Obama’s refusal to follow through after his chemical weapons red line in Syria made it clear that the United States wouldn’t act to prevent Assad from slaughtering his people in a brutal civil war. Russia stepped easily in to become the primary outside influencer in that war.
Libya is just more of the same. The United States supported the NATO intervention in 2011 that led to Gaddafi’s ouster (and eventual execution), but had no plan for what a post-dictatorship Libya should look like. With no leadership, the country descended into a civil war that continues today, despite the establishment of the so-called unity government in Tripoli. We’ve taken no interest in rebuilding that country or in following through on a mess we helped create. But Russia won’t be so timid. They will step into yet another U.S.-created power vacuum and strengthen their position in the region.
Obama’s action (or inaction) in Syria has also allowed Russia to test its military equipment and practice tactics and maneuvering there, a rehearsal that it can now take on the road, both in eastern Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. This brings to mind German and Italian aid to the fascists in the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. Their support ensured them a fascist ally with French borders during World War II and gave them the opportunity to test their newly rearmed militaries and air forces.
Will the Trump Administration Improve Things?
Donald Trump seems poised to continue Obama’s mistakes when it comes to Russia, namely in his belief that they aren’t a threat to us, our interests abroad, or the sovereignty of other nations. So far, he has shown little to indicate that he would oppose Russia in any meaningful way in foreign conflicts. This includes his stance on NATO, which just last week he reiterated by calling the organization “obsolete.”
Trump appears unnaturally open to Russia, and Moscow is getting the message loud and clear. Earlier this week, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Russia is ready to talk to the new administration about both Syria and nuclear weapons, something they were resistant to in the waning months of Obama’s second term.
Trump’s remarks since announcing his run for presidency have also smacked of an isolationism reminiscent of Obama’s foreign policy. Trump’s call for an “America first” policy hearkens back to American isolationism of the 1920s and ‘30s, when there was a general feeling that we shouldn’t have anything to do with troubles abroad. This emboldened belligerent countries, who took this as a sign that the United States wanted nothing to do with Europe’s problems and wouldn’t intervene in any renewed conflicts.
One sign of hope is that Trump’s cabinet picks have shown a willingness to diverge from his pro-Russia stance. His prospective ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called Russia’s actions in Syria war crimes and said she doesn’t trust the Kremlin. What’s unclear is whether Trump will allow his cabinet members to act on their own, or whether, like Obama, he will centralize foreign policy decision-making in the Oval Office.
Russia’s implicit support of Haftar is yet another example of the former Soviet power’s irredentist posture in defiance of international norms. It would be a mistake for the United States to continue its policy of appeasement toward aggressive foreign powers. The incoming Trump administration would do well to remember what happens when you try to pacify a hostile country: You get played.