Is Russia Extending its Syria Strategy to Libya?

3 min read
Photo credit: rm /
Recent developments in Libya show how quickly a national crisis can get upgraded to a power game between Russia and the West, said Tarek Megerisi.

Recent developments in Libya show how quickly a national crisis can get upgraded to a power game between Russia and the West, said Tarek Megerisi. An independent Libyan analyst based in the U.K., Megerisi spoke on April 26 during the first meeting of GMF’s Mediterranean Mornings, a new series of Brussels-based debates dedicated to geopolitics in the Mediterranean region. While President Trump made clear that the United States has no role in Libya beyond combating self-proclaimed Islamic State group, the European Union has proven unable to perform more than a marginal role due to internal divisions, as well as the pressure to stop migratory movements coming from Libya.

In the meantime Russia — which has displayed its military capabilities in Syria — is using Libya to prove what it is able to achieve diplomatically, said Megerisi. Since mid-2016 Russia has intensified support to Khalifa Haftar, despite formally backing the UN-led political process headed by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and keeping an open dialogue with Fayez al-Sarraj. Putin's “diplomatic blitzkrieg[i]” serves a fluid, multifaceted strategy: raising Russia's profile in the Middle East, playing the countering game with the West, and reaffirming Russia's counterrevolution stand all at very moderate cost, according to Pavel Baev, a Russian analyst also speaking at the event. While keeping an open dialogue with all sides involved in the Libyan conflict, Russia is providing support to Haftar, thus investing in a strong ally that the Kremlin could influence to guarantee a favorable outcome of any future renegotiation of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA).

However, according to Baev, Russia is playing out internal fractures in the European Union, and is therefore interested in keeping the conflict going. The EU, by contrast, has a keen incentive to invest in a peaceful resolution to the conflict, also in the interest of a functional cooperation with Libya in the fields of migration, security, and energy. It is important to continue pushing for a reunification of the international portfolio around the Libyan crisis, and providing support to a UN diplomatic mission with the right toolkit to engage with all stakeholders in the country, beyond political actors: a future dialogue should also involve key military and economic forces that share control over the territory. If Russia is playing the champion of counterrevolution, Western institutions should continue to invest their political capital to ensure that the renegotiation of the LPA is as inclusive as possible.

Italy brokered last month’s meeting between the Libyan presidents of the House of Representatives, Ageela Saleh, and the State Council, Abdulrahman Sewehl. This was a first step toward the renegotiation of the LPA, under which the GNA was formed in 2015. Moreover, Haftar and Sarraj met last week in a United Arab Emirates-brokered encounter in Dubai, suggesting that a renegotiation is becoming more likely. Efforts by the Italian government to push for a united front inside the European Union, including by garnering support from the European members of the UN Security Council in the appointment of the new UN envoy in Libya, gain particular importance now that the United States has signalled that it is stepping back from an active role in any stabilization effort in the country.