Who Should Russia Rely on in Libya?

According to Bloomberg, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, murdered in 2011, asked the Russian authorities to support his presidential ambitions in Libya. Earlier, in December 2017 a representative of the Gaddafi family, Basem al-Hashimi, announced that the son of the late Libyan leader was planning to run for the presidency in his country and was seeking Russia’s financial aid and mediation in creating coalitions with other centers of power in Libya.

Proposals on behalf of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi should be treated with caution. There is no authentic information on his whereabouts, on whom he relies, and whether he is independent or continues being a hostage of some Libyan group that is trying to use him for its own purposes, specifically for attracting foreign funding. Moreover, his chances of becoming a presidential nominee are dubious. He is still sought by the International Criminal Court and his status in Libya has not been settled. Although the government in Tobruk (in point of fact, the government operates from al-Bayda) granted him amnesty, there are doubts regarding the legitimacy of this, something that has been pointed out by Libyan Acting Attorney General Ibrahim Masoud. Thus, Moscow’s attitude toward Saif al-Islam Gaddafi can only be viewed through the prism of its willingness to conduct a dialogue with all legal political forces in Libya, including certain specific groups (representatives of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous coalition and the Misrata Brigades were in Moscow in April 2017).

At present, many groups, and their commanders, that have acquired legal status hold much more influence and opportunities than Gaddafi Jr. The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar still remains Libya’s largest and most influential umbrella structure. It controls the country’s east and some of its major southern areas, and is formally subordinate to the interim government in Tobruk. At the same time, despite his ambition to establish order in the whole of Libya, Haftar is unable to exercise full control even over the territory he is in charge of. Thus, on December 22, the government in Tobruk had to announce special restrictions in Benghazi, the largest city in eastern Libya, and introduce additional security forces to fight local criminal groups and cartels that had seized power in the city.

Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Libyan Presidential Council and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which was recognized by the UN as an interim body, also enjoys broad support from clans and groups in western Libya, which have acquired legitimacy due to this. The largest and most influential of them include the Tripoli Brigades (the Big Four of Tripoli), the Misrata Brigades that form the Central Military Command and the Zintan Brigades that represent the GNA Western Military Command. The latter brigade, which held Gaddafi Jr captive, supported Haftar at a certain point but later the majority of them, led by Osama al-Juwaili, sided with the GNA. He also conducted a number of successful operations against groups outside GNA control in western Libya, which promoted his influence and popularity. Misrata representative Ahmed Omar Maiteeq is vice prime minister and de facto the second man in Libya and is also a fairly influential figure.

Under certain circumstances it is possible that the Zintan and Misrata Brigades can strike an alliance and create “a third force,” for example, if their interests on the results of potential national elections are ignored.

The conference on Libya in Palermo, that produced few results and was a failure by some analyses, revealed the continued absence of the points of contact between the GNA and Tobruk. Under these conditions, elections in Libya, even if held in 2019, would result in a reverse effect, if one side does not recognize them, as was the case in 2014. This could lead to a new stage of armed confrontation.

Libyan oil is the only factor of deterrence in relations between Tripoli and Tobruk. Proceeds from oil exports are being divided between the major players in Libya since none of them can extract and export oil on their own.

The external actors, who are interested in access to Libyan oil, are betting on different Libyan groups. France, Egypt and the UAE support Haftar and the government in Tobruk. Trying to develop relations with all participants in the conflict, Italy is still prone to cooperate with the GNA and groups in western Libya, with which it managed to resist illegal immigration. Qatar and Turkey support the GNA. For the time being, the US is distancing itself from Libyan affairs.

Until recently, Russia was trying to conduct a balanced policy in Libya and develop cooperation with the GNA, Haftar and Tobruk. However, Haftar’s visit to Moscow on the eve of the Palermo conference and the absence of simultaneous contacts with al-Sarraj lead observers to assume that Russia has changed its approach in favor of Tobruk. However, Moscow understands the risks of putting all its eggs in one basket in Libyan affairs considering the unstable balance of forces that could change in favor of one side or another at any time.

Russia hopes to take part in Libya’s oil-and-gas sector and resume the contracts signed under Gaddafi, in particular, on building a railway system. It is also interested in resuming military-technical cooperation and using Libyan ports for Russian warships with the construction of related infrastructure. However, the majority of these issues can only be resolved after the creation of Libyan government institutions that will be common for the entire country and that are recognized by the UN and the international community.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.