Russia’s role in helping President Bashar Assad secure victory in Syria’s civil war has emboldened Moscow to expand its operations into Libya with the goal of supplanting American and Western influence there, the top security official in Tripoli’s U.N.-backed government warned in an interview.
“The Russians succeeded in Syria, so they think they will be successful in Libya,” Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha told The Washington Times, asserting that “the time is right” for the U.S. to exert more diplomatic muscle to end the oil-rich North African nation’s civil war.
Without more robust U.S. pressure on regional powers backing Libya’s divided factions, Mr. Bashagha said, Moscow will exploit the situation and expand its presence in the Mediterranean beyond the sole naval base it now operates in the Syrian port of Tartus.
“This is a big concern for us now if the U.S. doesn’t act fast,” he said.
Mr. Bashagha is among the most influential security officials in Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which controls Tripoli but faces a militant rival dominating the eastern half of the country.
His comments Friday during a visit to Washington highlight a vexing new layer to the war in Libya, where officials say Qatar and Turkey are backing forces loyal to the GNA, while Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and — at least at times — the Trump administration have supported anti-jihadi rebel leader Khalifa Haftar.
With Russian mercenaries apparently now also backing Mr. Haftar, the conflict represents a mounting challenge for the U.S., which was already wary that jihadist terror groups, including potentially resurgent elements of Islamic State, could exploit the chaos in Libya.
Libya’s power vacuum has been exacerbated by a months-long assault that Mr. Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) has been waging against the GNA-controlled government in Tripoli.
Russia has angrily denied numerous reports it has dispatched mercenary forces to fight for Mr. Haftar, blaming the stories earlier this month on “malicious rumors and fabrications” spread by the American media.
“We support the appropriate efforts [to end the Libyan conflict], including through the U.N. We’re in dialogue with those who in one way or another influence the situation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the TASS news service Nov. 7.
The White House has sought to avoid getting pulled into the fight, although President Trump himself had an unexpected phone call with Mr. Haftar this spring, praising him at the time as a force against extremist militias in Libya.
Some in Washington have also regarded the GNA with suspicion amid claims that the Tripoli-based government, despite being backed by the United Nations, is too lenient toward Islamists — a characterization GNA officials sharply reject.
But there are signs now that the Trump administration is moving away from Mr. Haftar — a onetime Libyan army colonel under former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who is alleged to have CIA ties — and aligning more closely with the GNA. There are also signs of mounting concern among U.S. officials over Russia’s activities in Libya.
Following private talks between U.S. officials, Mr. Bashagha and GNA Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala on Friday, the State Department issued a statement “underscoring support Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s attempts to exploit the conflict against the will of the Libyan people.”
The U.S. government “calls on the ‘Libyan National Army’ to end its offensive on Tripoli,” the statement said, to “prevent undue foreign interference, reinforce legitimate state authority, and address the issues underlying the conflict.”
Expanding Russian presence
Mr. Bashagha said in the interview Friday that Moscow is taking “the same steps” in Libya that it initially used in Syria years ago, deploying mercenaries from a Kremlin-linked Russian firm known as the Wagner Group to gain a foothold in the nation — without having to commit official Russian forces.
While Russia has officially denied the presence of Wagner Group forces in Libya, sources in Moscow and Western diplomats told the Bloomberg news service that hundreds of the mercenaries have been sent to Libyan front lines since September — and that they are employed by the security firm headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Bashagha told The Times that “Russia’s Wagner mercenaries are now present in several air bases in Libya” Their apparent mission is to bring elements of the former Gadhafi regime back to power “because they know that if there is a dictatorship in Libya, they will have good relations with it.”
The long-term concern, he said, is that an expanding Russian mercenary operation will undercut other foreign powers attempting to influence the situation on the ground, and that “even Haftar will lose [his] control to the Russians.”
“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,” Mr. Bashagha said. “The Russians want to increase their influence in Africa going forward.”
Mr. Putin earlier this month hosted a large delegation of African leaders for a summit in Sochi, pitching at the time Russia’s potential value as a source of aid and weaponry. Mr. Bashagha said the Kremlin in exploiting the lack of a cohesive NATO response to the instability in Libya.
The U.S. and Turkey, which is backing the GNA in Tripoli and whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited with Mr. Trump at the White House last week, can find common cause in Libya limiting Russian influence, the minister said.
U.S.-Turkey ties have been strained by a range of developments in recent months, not least of which being Ankara’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military hardware against the wishes of Washington and other NATO allies.
Mr. Bashagha said he did not know whether the Libya situation was discussed during Mr. Erdogan’s visit to the White House last week, but said he and other GNA officials “hope that the U.S. and Turkey will work together in Libya.”
“We also hope that Egypt will work with us on a positive track. We hope they change their position toward the GNA to counter the Russians,” he said. “Egypt is very important for us. …We would like to send good, positive messages to Egypt that we care about their security. Their security is our security.”
“We want them to know that we see Egypt as a very important neighbor and we share their concerns,” he said. “The presence of Russia in Libya won’t serve Egypt or anyone else.”