The US military provided evidence of Russian military support for rogue Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his assault on Tripoli. Moscow has often denied allegations that it is supporting the rebel force in the Libyan civil war, but satellite photographs released on May 26 revealed Russian MiG-29 fighter jets on an airstrip Libya.
US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said the planes were repainted during a layover in Syria in order to mask their origin, according to a New York Times report. Now that firm evidence implicates Russia as supporting Haftar in his battle against the UN-recognized government in Libya, the question looms whether Washington will finally dip its toes into the water.
“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict,” said AFRICOM Commander, Gen. Stephen Townsend. “Well, there is no denying it now.”
The photographic evidence is crucial as it represents a significant turn in the Libyan conflict. Prior to the confirmation of Russian fighter jets, Russia’s participation in the conflict was largely based on mercenaries. The half-effort to support Haftar has been faltering, however, as the Government of National Accord (GNA) has been supported by Turkey, and they’ve been successfully repelling Haftar’s advances on the capital.
Evidence of Escalation
With Moscow putting more of its weight into the war, the conflict is likely to escalate, experts warned.
“Not only could Russian air power change the military balance in Libya itself, but this could be the first step in a gradual escalation to what eventually becomes a permanent Russian military deployment in the country,” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia program at the Center for Naval Analysis.
The victor in the Libyan war may not even matter to Moscow. Experts speculated Russia may use the opportunity to build out its military presence in the state, as Voice of America reported.
“Russia is executing the same playbook as successfully employed in Crimea, Ukraine and to a lesser extent in Syria. Russia has proved its willingness to violate sovereign nations, and appears willing to do the same in Africa,” said Brigadier General Gregory Hadfield, AFRICOM deputy director for intelligence.
In taking a greater interest in Libya, Russia could be playing the long game by creating bases and areas of Russian control. In this way, Moscow could establish a threatening presence in an area beyond its normal scope of interests and NATO’s southern edge. This prospect has the US Pentagon concerned about Russia’s newfound willingness to take a greater stake in the game.
To that end, Gen. Jeff Harrigian, head of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, said Russia could setup antiaircraft defenses that would both limit American flight operations and threaten the broader security of Europe.
The American military leadership “is essentially talking red line here,” Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, in a Foreign Policy interview. “This is really the Pentagon trying to scare the White House into taking some kind of action.”
Washington, however, has been extremely reluctant to become involved in another military incursion into Libya following the 2011 civil war and attack on the US mission in Benghazi. In 2014, former President Barack Obama essentially gave up on the situation as the US recommended all its citizens evacuate the state.
President Donald Trump, who campaigned in 2016 on bringing American troops home from the Middle East, has similarly taken a highly cautious approach to Tripoli. While Trump was willing to roll the dice on a number of global hotspots — Iran, Syria, and North Korea, for example — the US military and government has largely refrained from intervening.
President vs. Pentagon
The problem with a possible American intervention is that the president and his officials in the Departments of State and Defense disagree on who to support. In April 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Congress, “We oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.”
However, Trump turned around and called Haftar, and then affirmed his support for the renegade commander. Afterward, he warned Turkey, which supports the GNA, not to get involved.
Then a US official told the Washington Post that the Pentagon was on side against Haftar and urging him to stop his attacks.
“The message to Haftar was very clear, that we feel a military incursion into Tripoli would be disastrous right now, or ever.”
Different President, Different Goals
Although American military leadership is warning of long-term consequences of Russian involvement, Trump is unlikely to take action, even if he should. Firstly, the Benghazi attack remains a major conservative attack angle against Democrats, particularly Trump’s 2016 opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
If the White House could put aside fears of a Benghazi repeat, it would have to overcome the issue that is Trump’s continued defiance of traditional US geopolitical goals. Since he came to office, the American leader has rolled back a number of international agreements designed to make the world more peaceful, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.
On a larger scale, Trump has targeted allies by not only attacking NATO, but questioning the very need for its existence. Trump also hurriedly pulled US troops from Syria, letting Russia and Turkey swoop in, sacrificing nearly a decade of gains against the Islamic State.
The American leader has even pushed for foreign allied states to pay for the pleasure of hosting US military bases. These are not that actions of a commander-in-chief who would make the right call in a new military intervention.
America stepping into Libya a year ago might not have made sense, and from some perspectives it still might not. Concerns of Russia establishing a long-term hold in the state may be overblown, but Moscow has certainly established a precedent and willingness to extend its reach across the Middle East, and now possibly North Africa.
Obama has cited Libya as one of his greatest failures for mishandling the Arab Spring fallout. Trump may be set up to make his own mistake, this time for not stopping Moscow soon enough.