Libya: Russia Departs

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March 2, 2022: The price of flour in Libya went up 31 percent the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began ten days ago. These two countries account for 30 percent of world wheat exports and Libya gets all of its annual 1.35 million tons of wheat and barley imports from Russia and Ukraine. Other sources, mainly in the Americas and Australia, are available but they are much farther away, meaning higher shipping costs in addition to the shortage-related price increases. Before the civil war Libya produced most of the grains it needed but economic and transportation disruptions have halted most of that.

Russia has been providing military and economic assistance to Libya for decades, mainly because of the good relation with Libyan dictator Kaddafi. That relationship ended when Kaddafi was killed during the 2011 uprising. There was no unified government to replace the dictatorship then and there still isn’t. Russia tried to maintain its embassy in Tripoli but finally closed it in October 2013. Russia kept tabs on Libyan developments via its embassies in other Arab nations, particularly Egypt.

The Libyans could not agree on a new government and by 2015 there were two major factions, one in the capital Tripoli and backed by the UN and the other in the east, based in Tobruk. The primary dispute between the two factions was support of Islamic political parties and some Islamic terrorist groups. In Most of Libya, especially the east, that attitude was not acceptable and the growing number of Islamic terror groups in Libya had become a major threat to most Libyans. The most effective opponent of the Islamic terrorists was a former Libyan army officer, Khalifa Haftar, who fled Libya in the 1980s after incurring the wrath of dictator Kaddafi. Now an American citizen, he returned to eastern Libya in 2013, revived some of the units of the Kaddafi-era military and began taking control of military bases from militias and Islamic terrorists. Eastern tribes rallied to Haftar, who had organized the most effective counterterrorism effort in the country. Haftar had the support of most Arab states, especially Egypt and the UAE. Egypt has a vulnerable border with Libya that was being used by Islamic terror groups to move people in and out as well as smuggle weapons into Egypt.

Egypt provided a land route to Libya for supplies and weapons for the LNA, largely paid for by the UAE and other Arab oil states. Russia also backed Haftar and by 2016 Haftar was making regular visits to Russia to discuss cooperation against the Islamic terrorists in Libya. In January 2017 the Russian government visited Haftar when the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov and its escorts arrived off the coast of eastern Libya. The carrier sent a helicopter to nearby Tobruk and picked up Khalifa Haftar and two other senior officers, all in uniform, and took them to the carrier. The visit to the Kuznetsov was captured on video and broadcast. The video showed the event treated as an official visit with sailors in dress uniforms lined up and a band playing the Libyan national anthem. What impressed the Russians was Haftar’s long-range plan for uniting Libya, holding elections and allowing the Libyan economy to thrive once more. Russia began providing military assistance, in the form of advisors and technicians to repair and restore a lot of Russian tanks, artillery and aircraft that were still intact but out of action because of a lack of repairs and new parts. Russia and Arab allies also helped Haftar with logistics.

Haftar forces were effective and loyal because Haftar took care of them and minimized friendly casualties. The Russian and Arab support enabled the LNA to pacify 90 percent of Libya and by early 2019 Haftar was closing in on Tripoli, where the UN-backed GNA (Government of National Accord) was barely able to maintain order in Tripoli and two other eastern cities dominated by Islamic militias who openly feuded with each other and barely tolerated the GNA. By mid-2019 the LNA offensive was working its way towards taking Tripoli when Turkey showed up with an offer the GNA couldn’t refuse; military intervention against the LNA. In return the GNA would sign a treaty with Turkey granting some offshore rights Libya didn’t have. The GNA did not have the authority to sign such deals but its patron the UN did little more than protest as Turkey began moving in weapons and troops, especially 10,000 Syrian Arab mercenaries, to halt the LNA advance. By February 2020 the LNA agreed to a ceasefire. This held and led to a peace deal in which the GNA and eastern HoR (House of representatives) governments agreed to merge and carry out national elections. Part of the deal was Russia and Turkey withdrawing their troops. Russia began doing so but the Turks did not. The Russian force was much smaller (about 1,200 Wagner Group military contractors and Russian technicians for maintaining equipment) that the 12,000 Turkish troops and Arab mercenaries. Russia had another reason for pulling out most its personnel, it could no longer afford it. That was the result of economic sanctions imposed after the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine. That operation escalated into a larger operation recently and Russia is now burdened with even heavier sanctions. This will probably lead to the departure of all Russian military personnel. The Turks are now the major obstacle to Libyan unity and elections. Russia also has forces in Syria, where it is an ally of Turkey.

March 1, 2022: The GNU (Government of National Unity) officially refused to recognize a vote taken today by the HoR (House of Representatives). The HoR represents more Libyans than the Tripoly based GNA (Government of National Accord). The GNA and HoR are in the process of merging but that process, and the long-sought national elections, are currently blocked by a dispute within the GNU between the newly elected president, former interior minister Fathi Bashagha and the original Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, whose term of office ended in December. This dispute has been going on since January and the UN has not taken sides so far.

Dbeibah turned out to be corrupt and willing to accept the Turkish presence in Libya. Dbeibah and members of his cabinet refuse to cede power to Bashagha, who is backed by the eastern HoR faction and its military forces (the LNA), which still control most of Libya. Bashagha believes he can organize national elections in 14 months, unless the UN backs Dbeibah or does nothing to block interference from Dbeibah. Bashagha had backed Turkish intervention in 2019 and 2020, but turned against the Turks when the Turks indicated they were not leaving Libya.

The December 24 elections did not happen and there are disagreements in Libya and the UN over a new date for national elections. The UN also wants to replace many of the local officials in the GNU. In late 2020 the UN brokered the creation of the GNU, yet another temporary government to unite Libya. The Turks, Russians, GNA , HoR and LNA (Libyan National Army) agreed to withdraw their forces as part of a late 2020 ceasefire/national unification plan. This agreement called for national elections to be held by the end of 2021. That did not happen, mainly because of the continued presence of Turkish forces and disagreements over the new constitution and who can run for office. The Turks realize they don’t have to fight to remain in Libya, just disrupt and delay any efforts, like elections or a UN condemnation, to force them to leave or fight to stay.

February 28, 2022: The United States, France, Germany, Italy and Britain are pressuring all factions in Libya to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most Libyans prefer to remain neutral, because Russia has been helpful to Libya and the only foreign power that tried to use force to block the Turkish 2020 intervention. The UN-backed GNU (Government of National Unity) government refused to recognize the Russian sponsored independence of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and condemned the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine.

February 27, 2022: There are hundreds of Libyans living in Ukraine and all of them have been advised to leave. The Libyan embassies in Ukraine and Slovakia are organizing the evacuation, which includes all embassy personnel and 200 Libyans have already reached the Slovak border, which is south of the Polish border and easier to get to because there is Russian military activity along the Polish border.

 

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