By Vasily Kuznetsov
The mid-August visit to Moscow by Gen. Khalifa Hifter of the Libyan National Army (LNA) did not stir a lot of interest.
It appeared to be just one among numerous visits by international guests to the Russian capital. Several articles on Russian policy in Libya and even a Kommersant interview with Lev Dengov, head of Russia’s Contact Group for Intra-Libyan Settlement and a man who seldom talks to journalists, failed to break through the overall monotony and routine.
Arguably the most significant event of the visit was that Hifter was met at the airport by Libya’s ambassador to Russia. Hifter, based in Tobruk, is vying for control of the country against the Tripoli-based so-called unity government, or Government of National Accord (GNA), which the ambassador represents.
The standard diplomatic routine of Hifter’s visit has clouded the major question about the aim of his visit earlier this month.
The general said he had traveled to Moscow to focus on lifting the UN-backed international arms embargo, to establish ties and to promote military cooperation. This explanation, albeit interesting, does not appear to be plausible.
Moscow has already voiced its view on these issues, and repeatedly affirmed its commitment to international obligations, and is therefore unlikely to change its position. Speaking off the record and on the condition of anonymity, some sources close to senior officials in Hifter’s LNA have said the purpose of the visit was to inform Moscow about matters addressed at the Paris peace talks in July.
Mohamed B. Almontaser, a London-based Libyan political analyst, thinks Hifter’s visit will undermine the peace process. “Hifter feels emboldened by the new wave of high-level contacts with Paris and Moscow, and he will certainly use that to further his sole ambition,” Almontaser said, referring to Hifter’s desire to become Libya’s version of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“His remarks after both meetings seem to indicate his disagreement with and dislike for [Libyan Prime Minister] Fayez al-Sarraj and his categorical refusal to work under a civilian political leadership,” Almontaser told Al-Monitor.
Almontaser’s sympathies lie with the Tripoli government, but still, his reasoning makes sense, as the Moscow trip allows Hifter to score political points back home. Hifter’s attempts to strengthen his position by parading Moscow’s support — though such backing has not always been apparent — have been central to the military commander’s strategy in the international arena.
In turn, Moscow had its own reasons for inviting the strongman for a visit. The Kremlin is looking to pave a way toward building a solid foundation for further interactions with French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration. As Moscow sees things, Macron’s pro-active stance in the Middle East along with his common sense and clear-headedness, which distinguish him from his predecessor, Francois Hollande, suggest a brighter outlook for future relations.
Meanwhile, the Libyan peace process is apparently deadlocked. If this were not the case, Tripoli and Tobruk would have jointly appealed for lifting the arms embargo. Instead, the parties directly or indirectly accuse each other of torpedoing the peace process.
Hifter told France 24, “Sarraj is a good man,” but added, “He cannot implement what he agreed to.” In eastern Libya, which Hifter controls, people often describe Sarraj as a weak politician. They cite his failure to eject the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda from the areas his government controls.
There is, of course, an opposing view. As Almontaser notes, “There are many obstacles to the peace process and even to a dialogue at the moment. The eastern bloc in [the legislature] was and still is strongly opposed to the [Libyan] Political Agreement,” the pact signed in 2015 that created the unity government.
Thus, supporters of one party, are in essence criticizing the other’s leader as weak and unable to consolidate power. Even Tripoli’s supporters, however, acknowledge that Libya’s western regions still pose a deadly threat to the peace process.
Almontaser said, “There are also a number of militias in the west of the country — who are afraid of losing their influence and of becoming targeted by the law for their crimes — who are taking a tough stance against any process or reconciliation that does not include them.” As it turns out, far more players would rather see the peace process derailed than move forward.
Another part of this picture that must be considered is the Misrata militias. Despite their absence at the peace talks in Abu Dhabi in May and Paris, the militias remain of crucial significance in the Libyan military and political arenas. Sarraj’s proponents have consented to a key role for the militias in any inter-Libyan dialogue, but Hifter does not welcome it.
The militias’ ties to Moscow are of particular interest, along with the positive assessment Dengov gave them in his Kommersant interview. A lot is riding on how Moscow approaches the militias, according to LNA-allied sources who spoke with Al-Monitor off the record.
An LNA-allied source told Al-Monitor, “Iit depends on who makes contact with Misrata from Moscow. If it’s the Foreign Ministry, it is normal, as [the ministry] usually stands in the middle and opens links with everyone. If it’s the Defense Ministry, or military agencies, it will be not accepted on LNA’s side, and it will cause a huge problem.
The Misrata forces have recently paid a visit to Qatar to announce their decision to amass their own army. Moreover, they have refused to make an apology to eastern Libya. This is aggravating the situation on the ground.”
Moscow seems cut out for the task of bringing about a rapprochement between Hifter and the Misrata militias. Its diplomatic role in sponsoring an inter-Libyan dialogue could emerge as an indispensable factor for success. Russia could also assist in accomplishing another mission.
Though the scenario seems inconceivable in Libya’s current poorly institutionalized and extremely pluralistic political system, Hifter may well be pursuing presidential ambitions, or at least some people from his inner circle think so.
It is questionable whether Tripoli, the Misrata militias and some of the other players would accept him as head of state. It is not just about the blood already shed, but also about anti-Islamism, which has become the ideological cornerstone of Hifter’s army and scares many (basically moderate) politicians from regions in western Libya.
Meanwhile, the negotiating process could allow the military commander to evolve into a political leader, if he’s able to present a more-or-less clear political platform. It could actually provide the basis for a dialogue with other stakeholders.
Considering all this, it appears Moscow’s support could positively contribute to the Libyan political process.
Vasily Kuznetsov, Ph.D. is the head of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also Associate Professor at the Faculty of World Politics of the Moscow State University.