Report

Pentagon Escalates Rhetoric in Libya as Russian Planes Arrive

U.S. Africa Command calls out Moscow for tipping the scales in a conflict the Trump administration has mostly sought to avoid.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a peace summit on Libya
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov listen during a peace summit on Libya at the Chancellery in Berlin on Jan. 19. Hannibal Hanschke/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Defense said on Tuesday that Russia had deployed fighter aircraft to Libya in an effort to back up state-sponsored military contractors, a move that defense officials say could be aimed at tilting the scales in the war-torn country toward a Moscow-backed warlord.

In a rare publicly released assessment, U.S. Africa Command said that Russian MiG-29 fighter jets had arrived in Libya from Syria and had been repainted to hide their Russian markings.   

“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, the Germany-based chief of U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement. 

Townsend referred to a recent declaration from the eastern Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, who is receiving Russian military backing for his offensive to take over the nation’s capital of Tripoli, which is held by the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord.

“The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Townsend said. 

Experts said the Pentagon’s decision to publicly confront Russia over the deployment of the MiG fighter jets, which appears to be Moscow’s response to the large surge of Turkish-supported militia fighters who have entered the conflict, could be a major policy shift for the Trump administration. 

Until now, the administration has been reluctant to intervene in a conflict that U.S. President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, has called one of his biggest policy errors and that has been largely ignored since the departure of hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton last year. 

The Pentagon “is essentially talking red line here,” Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, told Foreign Policy. “This is really the Pentagon trying to scare the White House into taking some kind of action.”

Gen. Jeff Harrigian, the head of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, warned in a Monday statement that Russia could seize bases on Libya’s coast, allowing them to deploy air defense batteries that could prevent American overflights. “If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank,” Harrigian said.

But any military response could come under a NATO flag, Harchaoui said, by mobilizing Navy assets or bulking up on efforts to deter Russian landings.

The rare release of detailed imagery of Russian fighter jets that reportedly flew into the country from Syria comes after months of speculation about a new Trump administration strategy for Libya that has yet to see the light of day. 

While Trump signaled support for the eastern warlord Haftar’s advance on the capital of Tripoli last year after a White House visit from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who pushed for the intervention, the U.S. administration later snubbed the strongman and former CIA asset as it charted a policy shift. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are also backing Haftar. A U.N. report released in December 2019 accused Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates of violating a weakly enforced arms embargo.

Last year, the introduction of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries into Libya led top U.S. officials to denounce Moscow’s support of Haftar after months of attempts from the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord to get clarity on the administration’s position. 

But Trump himself has said little apart from declaring, while appearing alongside then-Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni at a White House news conference in 2017, that he did not see a U.S. “role in Libya.” The U.S. president, who campaigned on and has sought to implement a scale-down of the U.S. military presence in many parts of the world, is especially preoccupied these days with the coronavirus pandemic and his campaign for reelection in November.

“This is not a high priority for the administration, and certainly not [Trump],” Andrew Miller, a National Security Council director for Egypt and Israel military issues during the Obama administration, told Foreign Policy. “The intervention and the statements were driven by some degree by Bolton who is no longer there.”

But even Trump’s predecessor, Obama, conceded that policy failures in Libya were one of his greatest regrets from eight years in the White House. In his final months in office, Obama told Fox News that his worst mistake was failing to plan for the repercussions of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall in Libya amid the 2011 Arab Spring protests, after a NATO-endorsed coalition set up a no-fly zone to prevent the killing of anti-government rebels.

Ever since, Libya has fallen into a complex web of warring factions. The United States has made an effort to salvage a counterterrorism policy based on fighting the Islamic State, but it has been challenged by Haftar’s bloody offensive. U.S. Marines left the country amid the general’s advance on the capital of Tripoli that began in April 2019.

Though the U.N. Security Council endorsed the recommendations of a conference in Berlin that called for a political solution to Libya’s war in February over Russian objections, the long-running peace process was dealt another blow in March when U.N. envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame resigned, citing health concerns. 

The war-torn country has also struggled to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Though Libya has reported just 75 cases and three deaths related to the coronavirus, humanitarian groups expect the true infection numbers are much higher, given the difficulty of accessing testing kits in an active war zone.

We’ve seen increased crackdowns on public criticism of the health response in the east, including statements from authorities threatening detention and calling critics traitors, said Megan Doherty, the senior director for policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps. NGOs are struggling to get permissions and access to reach people in need. More than 150,000 Libyans have been displaced by the fighting, Doherty said, and many of them live in shared homes, which has made it difficult or impossible to self-isolate.

The U.N. has also said that humanitarian access remains challenging: Aid groups reported 851 constraints to access in March, 70 percent of those relating to bureaucratic delays such as visa processing for international workers, while another 19 percent of barriers were caused by stringent COVID-19 curfews and movement prohibitions put in place by Libyan authorities.  

The introduction of Russian warplanes into the conflict could further frustrate efforts to salvage U.S. policy and the humanitarian situation, former U.S. officials say.

“This is profoundly disruptive to efforts to save lives,” a former U.S. official told Foreign Policy. “This is a time when hospitals need to prepare to treat COVID patients and they’re being hit by rockets.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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