Libya has continued to descend into what can only be described as a state of complete anarchy since the killing of the country’s strongman, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi was killed in 2011, as a result of a an uprising heavily supported by Western powers, spearheaded by Britain and France and ultimately backed by NATO. Arguably the strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the so-called Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army. Things are not looking good now that Russia has made an appearance with possible ambitions to regain a toe-hold with its former ally.
The Guardian reports that “Russia appears to have deployed special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, in a move that adds to US concerns about Moscow’s deepening role in Libya.”
Reuters news agency also reported that Russian special forces troops had been seen on the border between Libya and Egypt.
IntelNews confirms the same with its report stating that Russia may have become the latest country to deploy special forces soldiers in Libya, according to news reports citing anonymous United States officials.
“Information came from “two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity”. Unnamed “Egyptian security forces”, who said a 22-member Russian paramilitary team had set up an operations base in the Egyptian town of Sidi Barrani, which is located 60 miles from Libyan territory.
The commander of the Libyan National Army is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the US under Washington’s protection for many decades returned to Libya in 2011 to participate in the war.
The Tobruk-led Government is ostensibly supported by the US. However, its military wing, led by Haftar, operates semi-autonomously, and some believe that Haftar has aspirations to lead his own armed faction in Libya.
Last November, Haftar visited Moscow, where he met with senior government officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There are reports that the Russian special forces troops alleged seen in Egypt are operating in support of Haftar.
Last week, a spokesman for the Tobruk-led government told Russian media that Moscow had promised to provide it with funding and military aid. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that a number of Russian private security contractors were in Libya and were providing services to Haftar’s militias. On Tuesday, Moscow denied the Reuters report and accused “certain Western mass media” of “spreading false information from anonymous sources” in order to “smear Russia”.
A few months ago British and Jordanian special forces were confirmed on the ground in Libya and had been since January 2016 according to a leaked memo from a confidential briefing delivered to US lawmakers by the king of Jordan.
Last year US forces were also confirmed operating in western Libya, while French special forces had established themselves in the east around Benghazi.
British special forces, were again confirmed as fully operational in June last year where it was reported they were caught up in a gun-battle near Serte where three British citizens who had travelled to join ISIS were killed.
The arrival of Russian forces in Libya presents a new problem just like it does in Syria. Egyptian security sources have actually offered more confirmed detail, describing the Russian special forces unit, but declined to discuss its mission. They added that Russia also used another Egyptian base further east in Marsa Matrouh in early February this year. Egypt is straddled by Iraq and Syria to the east and Libya to the west and has a strong interest in arresting any terrorist activity given its own fragile leadership.
Like Syria, Russia appears to have been asked to assist in the battle against what looks like a new level of upcoming instability in Libya. Whilst ISIS and other terrorist groups have poured into the country during the last year, a proxy war between Russia and the West, just like the Syrian conflict could easily flare up.
The Libyan president of the house of representatives, confirmed that Russia was assisting Haftar’s forces.
“We asked the Russian government to help us with training the soldiers in our armed forces and the repair of military equipment by Russian specialists because the majority of our officers studied in Russia and many speak the Russian language and know how to use Russian equipment,” Aguila Saleh Issa said. “They promised to help us in the fight against terrorism.”
The U.S. military declined to comment. U.S. intelligence on Russian military activities is often complicated by its use of contractors or forces without uniforms, officials say.
Questions about Russia’s role in north Africa coincide with growing concerns in Washington about Moscow’s intentions in oil-rich Libya. One U.S. intelligence official said Russia’s aim in Libya appeared to be an effort to “regain a toe-hold where the Soviet Union once had an ally in Gaddafi.”
“At the same time, as in Syria, they appear to be trying to limit their military involvement and apply enough to force some resolution but not enough to leave them owning the problem,” the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Asked by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham whether Russia was trying to do in Libya what it did in Syria, the top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser said:
“Yes, that’s a good way to characterise it.”