Libya: Russia’s next Mediterranean military intervention?
MICHA’EL TANCHUM*Russia may be planning a military intervention in Libya. On March 13, press reports emerged that Russian special forces and drones had been sighted in Egypt’s coastal town of Sidi Barrani, located just 100 kilometers from the eastern Libyan territory controlled by the Russian-backed Libyan commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. If Russia acts to change the balance of power in Libya as it did in Syria, Turkey’s strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean could be severely undermined.
Russia’s deployment is, at a minimum, meant to help stabilize Egyptian President Abel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime by helping Egypt to stanch the chaos of its western neighbor from bleeding across the border. As the Soviet Union, Russia enjoyed a robust military alliance with Cairo from 1956 until 1972. In October 2016, Russia and Egypt held their first joint military exercises since the Soviet era. By assisting Egypt in protecting its western border, Moscow is re-forging the military links of its former alliance with Cairo. According to Egyptian sources, Russia also sent six military units to an Egyptian base further east in Marsa Matruh last month.
The current deployment has the hallmarks of a support mission for Gen. Hafter whose forces faced an attack on March 3 against the Ras Lanuf and Es Sider oil ports under their control. The attacks were conducted by the Benghazi Defense Brigades, a front of Islamist and jihadist militias in control of a coastal enclave within Haftar’s eastern Libya territory.
The 73-year-old Haftar, who retains the loyalty of the parliament in Tobruk, is a central actor in the Libyan civil war. A former ally of deposed Libyan strong man Moammar Gadhafi, Haftar received his military training in the Soviet Union and maintains deep ties with Russia. Haftar’s forces control most of Libya’s oil facilities, particular after they captured the ports along Libya’s “Oil Crescent” in September. Since then, oil production more than doubled from 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) to over 700,000 bpd in January. On Feb. 21, Russian oil giant Rosneft signed an investment and crude oil purchasing agreement with Libya’s National Oil Corporation, paving the way for a major Russian role in Libya’s oil industry.
The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin recently increased its level of support for Haftar. In late December 2016, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov rebuked the United Nations’ special representative for Libya, German Diplomat Martin Kobler, for his partiality to Haftar’s rivals, particularly the U.N.-backed administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli. Gatilov extoled Haftar as “doing a lot to fight Islamic State terrorists and help[ing] the government restore control of oil production.” In January 2017, Haftar was invited aboard Russia’s aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean in order to conduct a video conference with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Ankara has been struggling to restore its position in Libya since it backed the Muslim Brotherhood’s ill-fated attempt to create its own government based in Tripoli instead of supporting the new Libyan parliament, the Council of Deputies, housed in Tobruk. During Ahmet Davutoğlu’s tenure as Turkey’s prime minister, relations between Ankara and the Tobruk-based parliament deteriorated to the point where all Turkish firms were expelled from Libya.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s May 2016 Libya visit succeeded in securing an agreement with al-Sarraj’s administration for Turkey to complete 304 abandoned projects worth $18.5 billion. Now, members of the Tobruk-based Council of Deputies have accused Turkey of sponsoring Benghazi Defense Brigade attacks on oil terminals. During the time of the attacks, al-Sarraj himself was in Moscow for high-level talks – a sign of how much the Libyan game board has titled in Russia’s favor.
After Syria and Egypt, Moscow’s military may soon be in Libya, creating a Russian ring around the southern half of the eastern Mediterranean. With only 195 nautical miles (360 km) between Tobruk and Crete, Turkey may find itself encircled by Russia.
*Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a fellow at the Energy Policies Research Center at Bilkent University in Ankara.