Russian special operators have arrived at a base in Egypt ahead of possible operations in neighboring Libya. The deployment is the latest part of an apparent Kremlin strategy to reassert its influence in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as challenge United States power in those regions.
Reuters was first to report on the contingent of just over 20 individuals, who brought unspecified drones with them to the Egyptian military base at Sidi Barrani. The facility is less than 50 miles from the Libyan border and less than 350 miles from the country’s eastern hub, Benghazi.
"There is no foreign soldier from any foreign country on Egyptian soil," Egyptian Army spokesman Tamer al-Rifai declared in response to the news. “Certain western mass media have been stirring up the public for years with such false information from anonymous sources,” Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russia’s state-run outlet RIA Novosti, also known internationally as Sputnik.
It bears mentioning that foreign troops with the Multinational Force and Observers, including American forces, are based in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as part of the terms of the 1978 Egypt-Israel peace agreement. In September 2015, the Pentagon expanded the size of its contingent in response to growing threats from Islamic State-inspired terrorists.
Russia may have hired private military contractors or labeled the troops in Egypt “volunteers” to deny having an official mission in the region, tactics the country’s government has previously employed in Syria and Ukraine. Regardless, Moscow’s involvement in Libya’s multi-faceted civil conflict has been growing steadily since at least 2015.
The North African nation has stumbled from one political crisis to another since a loose coalition of rebels ousted and executed long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi with the help of a NATO-led, United Nations-authorized coalition in 2011. Afterwards, numerous factions vied for political control, often fighting each other and terrorizing local civilians.
After wrapping up operations against Gaddafi in 2011, the Pentagon largely pulled back from the country, successfully securing and helping destroy Libya’s chemical weapon stockpile, but having much less success training local forces and hunting for specific terrorists. Notably, in June 2014, American special operations forces captured Abu Khattala, linked to the infamous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and whisked him off to the United States to stand trial.
As of August 2014, two competing governments had set up shop, one in the capital Tripoli and the other further east in the city of Tobruk. The following year, the U.N. backed a new unity government. Known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), this internationally recognized authority only began formally taking over ministries and other offices in March 2016.
The Kremlin was a major critic of the Western-sponsored revolution and its aftermath. Moscow’s forces in Egypt look to be part of a larger plan to back a third party, the Libyan National Army (LNA), and its leader Khalifa Haftar, which controls Benghazi. The renewed engagement in Libya fits with Russia’s general narrative that the United States and its allies have failed in their promises to help the country.
And while the Kremlin’s official line is that this and other partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa are all about fighting terrorism, these developments seem aimed more at challenging American dominance. The Soviet Union was a major support of Gaddafi and Russia continued that relationship after the Cold War ended.
Nearly six years after Gaddafi’s ouster, Libyans had become “allergic to the West,” Veniamin Popov, a former Russian ambassador to the country, told Sputnik earlier in March 2017. “Even the Islamists say that Russia should take part in the settlement of the conflict in their country.”
Haftar himself has had a complicated political history. He served as a military officer in Gaddafi’s army before running afoul of the enigmatic leader and ending up in prison. In 1990, he moved to the United States after officials in Washington helped secure his release.
Though Haftar styles himself head of Libya’s national armed forces, fighting terrorists on behalf of the country’s central government, he has disputed the GNA’s authority and seems intent on becoming president. His spokespersons have declared taking over Tripoli is key to the group’s supposed counter-terrorism mission, implying that government officials are in league with dangerous Islamist extremists.
“Tripoli is [the LNA'] strategic objective in its operation to combat terrorism," LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said in a December 2016 interview with Sputnik. “The main forces of [Islamist] militants are concentrated in the city, hidden under other names."
This created tensions between Haftar and his former U.S. benefactors, pushing him closer to Russia. The United States along with its own allies, such as the United Arab Emirates publicly supports the GNA and its fight against Islamic State’s franchise in Libya.
After Islamic State began to exploit Libya’s chaos, the Pentagon did return to the country. Between August and December 2016, the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force pounded terrorist targets in and around the city of Sirte, approximately 350 miles by road from Benghazi. In January 2017, B-2 stealth bombers flew a marathon mission to attack camps the fleeing militants had set up further south.
But Hafter and his staff downplayed the sincerity and impact of U.S. military activities in Sirte on behalf of the GNA. “Not the U.S. and not any other party can free Sirte from [Islamic State], only our forces can,” al-Mismari said at one press conference. On top of that, he labeled the whole affair pre-election propaganda for the government in Tripoli.
In June and November 2016, the Libyan warlord also made trips to Moscow to meet with Russian foreign and defense ministry officials rather than reach out to the Americans. Also in November 2016, he spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu via satellite from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean Sea.
The exact details of these discussions are unclear, but they reportedly included arranging arms shipments and training courses for LNA forces. The group already has a significant number of armored vehicles and its own air force. Getting information from surveillance drones flying out of Egypt would give Haftar’s troops another edge over their opponents.
More firepower and intelligence would be especially important in light of recent events. On March 3, 2017, the Islamist Benghazi Defense Brigades launched a spectacular series of attacks on oil facilities the LNA controls in the country’s so-called “Oil Crescent.”
But as Russia is no doubt aware, its support for Haftar and his independent objectives, which threaten to spark a deeper civil war, runs counter to American priorities in the region. For years now, Washington's goal has been a stable, unified, pro-U.S. Libya focused on defeating multi-national terrorists. The new reality of Moscow's presence hasn’t been lost on officials in Washington.
During a hearing before members of the Senate Armed services Committee on March 9, 2017, U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command agreed that the Russians were attempting to gain sway over whomever ultimately gained the most power in Libya and that this was not in America’s best interests. In addition, he agreed with Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) assessment that Moscow’s push in North Africa mirrored its policy in Syria, where Russian troops have been critical to the survival Assad’s regime.
And the Russians did not arbitrarily decide to stage the latest iteration of this policy in Egypt, either. Cairo’s relationship with Washington was strained after the Egyptian military took control in a coup in 2013. Shortly afterwards, general-turned-politician Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his administration began a major crackdown on political opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, sentencing dozens to death and prompting international outrage.
As American diplomats worried over worsening human rights abuses, Russia was quick to present itself as a substitute for American military aid. In 2014, Moscow and Cairo reportedly signed weapons contracts worth approximately $3.5 billion. This included orders for MiG-35 fighter jets, Ka-52 gunship helicopters and at least one Project 12421 Molniya-class corvette armed with long-range anti-ship missiles.
In August 2015, Sisi and Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin talked about forming a coalition to fight Islamic State in Syria, with both countries implicitly offering support for the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. A little over a year later, Russian and Egyptian paratroopers held their first ever combined training session in the African country, as part of an exercise dubbed “Defenders of Friendship 2016.” The two countries are looking to increase economic cooperation, as well.
Republicans soundly criticized President Barack Obama for failing to counter the Kremlin's revanchist foreign policy around the world in general. However, during the 2016 presidential election and after his victory, in spite of criticism from members of his own party, President Donald Trump suggested he would be willing to work with Putin to fight terrorism.
But despite those overtures, officials in Moscow clearly show no intention of slowing their push into the Middle East and North Africa. It remains to be seen how the United States will ultimately respond to Russia’s growing involvement in the region.
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