Copy of 2020-02-18T131746Z_138044168_RC213F98S5M7_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA-SECURITY-1582444562287
Smoke rises from a port of Tripoli after clashes between forces loyal to the Tripoli government and those led by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar. Image Credit: REUTERS

Tripoli: The security chief for Libya’s Tripoli-based administration called on the US to set up a base in the North African country to counter Russia’s expanding influence in Africa.

Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister for the Tripoli-based administration, said his government proposed hosting a base after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper laid out plans to scale back the US military presence on the continent and re-focus deployments globally on confronting Russia and China. Bashagha’s government has been engaged in a months-long battle with forces trying to seize the capital led by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, who’s backed by Russia.

“The redeployment is not clear to us,” Bashagha said, speaking in a phone interview with Bloomberg on Friday. “But we hope that the redeployment includes Libya so it doesn’t leave space that Russia can exploit.”

The oil-rich nation across the Mediterranean from Europe has been one of the main stages for Russia’s push for influence over the past year. More than a thousand mercenaries deployed by a confidant of President Vladimir Putin have backed Haftar’s offensive to capture the capital from the Tripoli government.

Bashagha warned that Russia’s backing of Haftar was part of a broader push for influence.

“The Russians aren’t in Libya just for Haftar,” he said. “They have a big strategy in Libya and Africa.”

Gate to Africa

Esper’s plan to pull troops from Africa provoked criticism in Congress, with 11 lawmakers led by House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Anthony Brown, a Democrat, noting in a letter last month that Russia and China were investing in the continent to strengthen their influence. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a top ally of President Donald Trump, was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who confronted Esper on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich and said they wouldn’t back the plan, NBC reported on Tuesday.

In late January, Esper said the US wouldn’t withdraw all of its troops from Africa, but acknowledged a review is under way to account for a new strategy that makes countering Russia and China the priority. The US has about 6,000 troops in Africa, including those guarding diplomatic facilities, according to a defence official.

“Libya is important in the Mediterranean: it has oil wealth and a 1,900km coast and ports which allow Russia to view it as the gate to Africa,” Bashagha said. “If the US asks for a base, as the Libyan government we wouldn’t mind - for fighting terrorism, organised crime and keeping foreign countries that intervene at a distance. An American base would lead to stability.”

Benghazi attack

The US hasn’t had forces in Libya since last April, when it withdrew them as Haftar’s forces marched toward the capital. The country has been in turmoil since a 2011 US-led and Nato-backed uprising ousted long-time autocrat Muammar Gaddafi. The following year, an extremist-led mob attacked the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, killing the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens. In a 2016 interview with Fox News, then-President Barack Obama said that failing to plan for the aftermath of Qaddafi’s ouster was the worst mistake of his presidency.

“We hope that the US can move on from this regretful incident,” Bashagha said of the attack on the embassy. “All Libyans regret it. It wasn’t the Libyan people but a small group of criminals that did it.”

Since April, control of the country has been divided between Haftar’s forces, who are also backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and the UN-recognised government, which gets military support from Turkey. The war prompted the US to withdraw a counter terrorism contingent from Tripoli that had been assisting in the fight against Islamic State militants in Africa.