The United States used to be the dominant power in the Middle East. From Morocco to the Persian Gulf, American muscle and alliances shaped the region’s political and economic landscape. That is no longer the case. The vacuum created by a failure of U.S. leadership has created opportunities that our adversaries have exploited to their advantage and at our expense.
America’s withdrawal from Iraq paved the way for an even more disruptive Iranian presence. Our unwillingness to confront Bashar Assad and abandonment of the Syrian opposition allowed Iran, Russia and Turkey to seize control of that strategically significant territory. And the Trump administration’s ambivalence toward Libyan warlord Khalifa al Haftar has now opened North Africa to Russian meddling.
Last April, the self-styled Generalissimo and former CIA asset Khalifa al Haftar launched a military campaign to overthrow Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). His forces now control 80 percent of the country and 1 million of Libya’s 1.3 million barrels per day of oil production. His offensive has thrown into disarray the U.N.-led peace process that offers the best prospect for a politically sustainable resolution of Libya’s long-running civil war.
Until recently, the United States not only refused to sanction Khalifa Haftar’s offensive, but it went so far as to offer the warlord tacit support when President Trump praised his “significant role in fighting terrorism.” Little wonder then that in the absence of decisive U.S. action, Russia has seized yet another opportunity to challenge U.S. primacy by inserting itself as a regional power-broker.
While America dithers, Russia has quietly but persistently employed the hybrid warfare tactics used in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere to tip the balance in Khalifa Haftar’s favor and to extend its influence in yet another conflict zone. According to knowledgeable sources, approximately 1,400 Russian private military contractors are fighting in Libya on behalf of Khalifa Haftar.
British intelligence reports that Russia has established bases in Benghazi and Tobruk, with dozens of Russian GRU officers and Spetsnaz special forces troops performing “training and liaison roles.” Russia has printed and supplied to Khalifa Haftar billions of Libyan dinars. It has further gamed the system by reaching out to and advising a host of would-be Libyan leaders, including Saif al Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s erstwhile dictator.
What all this means for U.S. interests is clear: Russia is supplanting American influence and establishing a beachhead in North Africa. The stakes could not be higher. According to Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, “Gaining a foothold in Libya and ultimately a say in any future settlement in that country could serve as a springboard to build up Russian influence in North Africa and the Mediterranean and position Russia as even more of a thorn in the side of the United States and its postCold War near monopoly on naval activities in the Mediterranean.”
It would appear that the Trump administration is belatedly waking up to the danger brought on by its fecklessness and Russia’s opportunism. On Nov. 25, representatives of the White House, State Department and Pentagon met with Khalifa Haftar to deliver a pointed message. They “underscored the United States’ full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya and expressed serious concern over Russia’s exploitation of the conflict at the expense of the Libyan people.”
While welcome and necessary, this statement is not sufficient. If the Trump administration is truly determined to support the legitimate government of Libya and roll back Russian adventurism, it must match words with deeds and take meaningful action. We should publicize Russia’s involvement in Libya and the disastrous toll it has taken on the country’s civilian population.
We should get serious about enforcing the U.N. embargo on supplying arms to Libya, which is being violated with impunity, by sanctioning all groups involved in providing arms to Libya, including Russia. Failing that, we should supply the GNA with defensive weapons to protect itself and prevent further advances by Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
Despite our multiple and repeated failures to get it right in Libya, we can learn from our mistakes in Syria and Iraq by returning to the fray and exercising power in defense of our national interests. A Haftar victory on the battlefield will gift Russia — a hostile power — a problematic presence on NATO’S Mediterranean southern flank and Africa’s largest oil producer.
The time has come to heed Libya’s interior minister, who warned U.S. policymakers in a visit to Washington last month: “For the Russians, Libya is very important geopolitically, because Libya has a big reserve in oil and gas and we have a very big coastline, close to Europe, across from NATO bases in Europe, and because Libya is the gateway to Africa. The Russians want to increase their influence in Africa going forward.”
• Adam Ereli served as U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain and deputy State Department spokesman.