As Russia continues to set the agenda in Syria, the Wall Street Journal reports that Moscow is also playing the power broker in Libya, courting the U.S. to support the general who is fighting the UN-backed government:
The Kremlin’s growing embrace of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a rival of the United Nations-backed coalition government in Tripoli, signals Moscow’s desire to extend its influence in the Middle East and North Africa after intervening in Syria’s war. Now the Russian government is courting the Trump administration to get its support for the controversial general, people familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking said.
Russia sees its role in the fight against Islamist terrorism as a selling point, and President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have touted the idea of Washington and Moscow cooperating to fight Islamic State. […]
A person close to the Kremlin said Russian officials had spoken to officials at the U.S. National Security Council about Gen. Haftar, as well as efforts to combat Islamic State in Libya and Moscow’s desire to make oil deals in the crude-rich country.
Officially, Russia denies that it is picking favorites in Libya, but appearances suggest otherwise. Russia has reportedly sent military officers to train Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), is in talks to arm his forces, and recently hosted him aboard Russia’s sole aircraft carrier in a symbolic show of support. Meanwhile, other prominent Libyan leaders are scrambling to make inroads with the Russians. Fayez Seraj, the Prime Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accords, said he is planning his own trip to Moscow in the hopes that Russia can serve as an intermediary between him and Haftar. When it comes to resolving the Libyan crisis, it would seem, all roads lead to Moscow.
As always, Russia’s trump card is the incoherence of Western policy. Ever since the ill-advised Libyan intervention and the failure of President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy to restore order after Qaddafi’s ouster, the unhappy North African country has been one of the principal sources of instability in the Mediterranean world. Moscow, which had excellent commercial relations with Qaddafi and is still reeling from his removal, now sees an opening to re-establish itself in Libya and demonstrate that the West cannot solve its problems without Moscow’s assistance.
It is not clear how Trump will react to Putin’s kingmaker role in Libya and his overtures to back Haftar. Moscow may still believe that it can sell Trump on a joint effort to fight Islamic terrorism, but that calculation has yet to pay off, and Russian officials are frustrated that Trump’s early weeks have produced no new cooperation in Syria. In any case, Russia’s growing clout in Syria, Afghanistan, and now Libya is a dangerous consequence of the past administration’s failures, which Trump will need to reckon with in one way or another.