Libya’s civil war has reached its climax in the battle for the oil terminals, and it is a battle Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), is winning. This reality has profound implications for the future of the country, partly because of a dramatic new development — the entry of Russia into the diplomatic mix.
The battle began last week when militias based in central Libya drove 100 miles across the desert to attack Libya’s hub oil ports, Sidra and nearby Ras Lanuf. Those terminals link to the massive Oil Crescent, home to the bulk of Libya’s oil. Quite simply, who controls this Crescent controls Libya.
For public consumption, the militias brand themselves the Benghazi Defence Brigades, Extremists kicked out of Benghazi when most of the city was liberated by the Libya National Army (LNA) last year. In fact, they comprise various Al Qaida elements, units from the Petroleum Facilities guard kicked out of the oil ports last year by the LNA, fighters from Misrata, and, according to the LNA, mercenaries from Chad.
But the attack did not go as planned. Yes, the militias got to the ports, but no, they did not get inside them. Both ports are defended by the LNA and rather than stage a full-on assault, the militias contented themselves with occupying residential areas and deserted workers’ accommodation outside the ports.
That will prove a major strategic weakness, because the LNA is averse to bombing port infrastructure, but less worried about bombing empty accommodation blocks.
An LNA counter attack is now going in, and it will crush the militias in the coming days, leaving the balance of power as it was — which is to say, with Haftar.
At which point, enter Russia. Moscow understands where the power lies, recognising it by inviting Haftar on board its aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, cruising off Libya in January. Aboard, Haftar, promoted to Field Marshall for capturing the oil ports last September, was treated to bands, a guard of honour, and a teleconference with defence minister Sergei Soigu to discuss military cooperation.
Having stayed aloof from a messy civil war now into its third year, Russia has decided to effectively replace the void left by America following the election of Donald Trump as president. Under Barack Obama, America was the chief backer of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, the opponent of Haftar, and that government’s Muslim Brotherhood component. Trump’s administration is averse to the Brotherhood, and that support has now vanished. The US Libya special envoy, Jonathan Winer, has not been replaced.
Russia has picked up the mantle of chief power broker. Last week it invited the chief of the UN-created Government of National Accord Fayez Sarraj for talks in Moscow. “Summoned” would be a better word, because Russia, along with Britain and Italy, has cautioned that Haftar must have a prominent role in a Libyan unity government.
Haftar has become the key figure in Libya thanks to his success both in capturing the key oil ports, and in ridding Benghazi, Libya’s second city, of terrorist militias that terrorised the population. His uncompromising stance on opposing terrorists has gained him respect across Libya.
France has deployed special forces to assist Haftar, and Egypt has emerged as a primary ally. Britain’s own ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, has begun a round of shuttle diplomacy, visiting Tripoli and Misrata, and soon eastern Libya also, designed to ensure Haftar’s opponents understand the strategic reality.
That is not to say Russia wants to give Haftar a blank cheque, nor that this is what the field marshal wants. “We are carrying out consistent work with both key centres of power in Libya,” said the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova.
What Haftar does want, according to his media statements, is that the rule of law return to Libya with the militias, gun-toting gangsters, banished.
The GNA has failed to win control of its own capital and has failed to win support of ordinary Libyans.
Russia senses an opportunity. Already it has helped President Bashar Al Assad seize the advantage in Syria. Now it is poised to do the same in Libya.
But talk of a super-power rift is premature and sources in both Moscow and Washington say they recognise it. Russia has offered to work with the Trump administration in Libya and the US is likely to come around to the same view. If Haftar can banish terrorists, and bring stability, that is something both super powers will cheer.
Richard Galustian is a business and security analyst who has lived in Libya since 2011.