Following the catastrophic flooding in Libya in early September, which primarily affected the eastern regions of the country, some hoped and anticipated that the country’s long-standing political divisions could be set aside.
However, one month on from the disaster, which is believed to have claimed the lives of up to 20,000 people in Derna, rival political factions are continuing to exploit the calamity for personal gain.
Khalifa Haftar, the warlord that controls most of eastern Libya, has leveraged the crisis to attempt to strengthen his control amidst the country’s ongoing political deadlock between the House of Representatives (HoR) in the east and the internationally-recognised Government of National Unity (GNU) in the west.
In late September, Haftar visited Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has had close relations with Haftar for years, and the Russian deputy minister of defence had visited Haftar in the immediate aftermath of the floods.
Moscow has also exerted growing influence over Haftar and Libya via the Wagner mercenary group.
Just a week before Haftar’s trip to Russia, the Libyan National Army (LNA) leader had met with the Commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) Michael Langley in Benghazi during his visit to Libya to coordinate humanitarian aid.
In light of Haftar’s growing ties with Moscow over the past few years, questions remain as to why communications have also continued with the US.
Sami Hamdi, the editor-in-chief of the International Interest, stated in an interview with The New Arab that the meetings demonstrate the persistent international consensus that Haftar is the de facto authority in the east.
“Haftar continues to be perceived as a pragmatic agent. The United States implicitly endorsed his plan to seize the capital in 2019, and despite his ties to Russia, there is a sense that he can be won over,” Hamdi explained.
Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, asserts that Haftar’s deliberate efforts to strengthen his ties with Moscow, whether through the continued covert presence of the Wagner Group or official engagement with Russia’s defence ministry, demonstrate his conviction that the potential benefits outweigh the potential disadvantages.
According to Harchaoui, Haftar has intensified these efforts since August.
“It’s important to emphasise that Russia’s assistance to Haftar rarely comes without financial demands. Haftar is always required to cover the expenses incurred by the Russians active on Libyan soil – in military and other domains,” he explained.
“Haftar’s motivation for cultivating a closer relationship with Russia is rooted in concerns about the long-term prospects of his family rule and the durability of its entrenchment in power beyond his own lifetime, given his age of 80 and deteriorating health,” he added.
On the other hand, Hamdi said that Haftar’s visit to Moscow could be a power play.
“Haftar is notoriously stubborn as a political actor and is considered a source of frustration among his international allies. He is dissatisfied at being seen as part of a Russia camp and ideally seeks to leverage the US and Russia against each other to secure individual gains that help him disrupt domestic attempts to sideline him politically,” Hamdi said.
Commenting on Haftar’s international relationships, Harchaoui argued that for Haftar, “relying on NATO nations, especially the US, comes with acute uncertainties, particularly in the context of persistent discussions about credible elections”.
“Haftar likely assesses a limited chance for himself or one of his sons to secure the presidency through democratic means,” Harchaoui told The New Arab. “In light of these considerations, deepening his reliance on authoritarian Russia appears to be a rational choice.”
The sequence of events, marked by four pivotal meetings, mirrors this evolving dynamic since August.
During the first meeting on 22 August, the Russian Defence Ministry assured the Haftars of its commitment to maintaining firm control over its clandestine presence in Libya, irrespective of the disputes between the Russian state and the Wagner Group, whose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed on 23 August following a failed mutiny attempt in June .
“Moreover, the Russian Defence Ministry extended offers of weaponry, equipment, and ammunition as well as new training programmes, including for Haftar’s navy. The Russian armed forces seized that opportunity to reiterate its long-dated interest in establishing a permanent naval base in Libya,” Harchaoui explained.
A subsequent visit in September by the same deputy defence minister, accompanied this time by a senior Russian official, following the catastrophic events in Derna, demonstrated Russia’s determination to secure increased commitments from the Haftar family.
“It is probable that [US officials] privately cautioned Haftar against intensifying his ties with Russia,” Harchaoui said.
“However, Haftar’s approval of an official visit to Moscow shortly thereafter consolidated the growing proximity between the Libyan leader and Russia. This will almost certainly result in an expansion of Russia’s military presence in Libya, disregarding Washington’s objections,” he added.
“One could argue that Russia is taking advantage of the US’s perceived leniency by wagering that the Biden administration will not respond firmly to its actions in Libya, especially in the context of the ongoing US presidential campaign, which is expected to continue until November 2024.”