Tripoli government to confront Moscow over forces’ deployment

mourners pray for fighters killed in airstrikes by warplanes of Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter's forces, in Tripoli, Libya. (AP)
Updated 06 December 2019

Tripoli government to confront Moscow over forces’ deployment

TRIPOLI: Officials in UN-supported government in Tripoli — Government of National Accord (GNA) — say they plan to confront Moscow over the alleged deployment of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside their opponents in the country’s civil war.

Libyan and US officials accuse Russia of deploying fighters through a private security contractor, the Wagner Group, to key battleground areas in Libya in the past months.

They say the Russian fighters are backing commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been trying for months to capture the capital Tripoli.

The GNA has documented between 600 to 800 Russian fighters in Libya and is collecting their names in a list to present to the Russian government, according to Khaled Al-Meshri, the head of the GNA’s Supreme Council of State.

“We are going to visit Russia after we collect all evidence and present to the authorities and see what they say,” Al-Meshri told The Associated Press last week. He did not say when that visit would take place.

Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya’s fighting.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army — made up of army units and tribesmen — launched its offensive on Tripoli in April after seizing much of eastern Libya from militants and other rivals in recent years. Haftar is backed by the UAE and Egypt, as well as France and Russia.

Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government in the east, allied with Haftar, and the GNA in Tripoli in the west. Both sides are bolstered by militias. Fighting has stalled in recent weeks, with both sides dug in and shelling one another along Tripoli’s southern reaches.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker told reporters last week that the State Department is working with European partners to impose sanctions on the Russian military contractor responsible for sending fighters to Tripoli.

“The way that this organization of Russians in particular has operated before raises the specter of large-scale casualties in civilian populations,” he said.

Schenker’s comments came shortly after US officials met with Haftar to press for a cease-fire and “expressed serious concern” over Russia’s intervention in the conflict.

But President Donald Trump has sent decidedly mixed messages to Haftar.

Trump voiced support of Haftar when he launched his attempt to take over Tripoli, praising the commanders “anti-terrorism” efforts in a phone conversation. The call was a sharp break with the US policy of supporting Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj.

Al-Meshri called for confidence-building measures and a push toward presidential and parliamentary elections.

“Since Qaddafi’s ouster, there have been no presidential elections. People are fed up,” he said.

The Russians’ presence has further mired an already complex conflict.

Al-Meshri maintains his administration has strong evidence that there are Russians fighters on the ground.

He says that government forces have found cell phones, intercepted communications and seized personal belongings left behind in the chaos of battle. He said flight data show dates and names of Russians moving from Syria to Egypt and then the Jordanian capital of Amman before flying to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, Haftar’s seat of power. He didn’t elaborate or present any of these documents or items to the AP.

Wagner Group is believed to have sent mercenaries to multiple conflicts, including Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, raising accusations that Moscow is using it to spread its influence. The firm is a military contractor run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin. Russian officials have refused in the past to comment on the firm’s activities.

By deploying fighters into Libya, Russia is embroiling itself in another conflict in the Middle East. Russia’s military is involved in Syria’s civil war, conducting airstrikes and deploying troops and military police. That operation successfully shored up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and — at a relatively modest cost — helped Moscow expand its clout in the region.

Analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to find leverage with Western powers in oil-rich Libya. They say he also recognizes that the country is a gateway for many migrants trying to reach European shores.

“Most of this is smoke and mirrors designed to induce fear,” said Anas Gamati, founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute. “Russian influence has done only two things: inflate their size and specter of their power in Libya. They’re not positively engaged or trying to play a constructive role with diplomatic or political value.”

Officially, Russia continues to maintain a dialogue with both sides. Haftar has visited Moscow several times the past years, and a delegation of the Tripoli-based government met with Putin during a Russia-Africa Economic Forum summit in Sochi in October.

The allegations of Russian interference come amid a renewed push for international players to reach a consensus on Libya.

Germany is working with the United Nations to host a conference on Libya by early 2020. Observers hope that international players could exert enough pressure to stop the fighting.

SPEEDREAD

The country is split between a government in the east, allied with Haftar, and the GNA in Tripoli in the west. Both sides are bolstered by militias.

But others worry that Haftar’s appetite for territory and power might prove too large. Former GNA defense minister Mahdi Al-Barghathi, who left in the government in July, says the only way toward peace is for Haftar to be left with no powerful friends, and no other options. Otherwise, Al-Barghathi said Haftar will be set to become another Qaddafi.

“We don’t want to go back to square one,” he said.

As long as international powers remain divided, Libya’s conflict risks continuing to play out as the world’s latest proxy war, some observers warn.

“Putin would like nothing more than to keep Europe busy and divided over Libya, scared of illegal immigration, paralyzed by right-wing populism that threatens the very idea of the EU,” said Mohammed Eljareh, an analyst who runs Libya Outlook, a consulting company on Libyan affairs.

“All of this is music to Putin’s ears,” he said.


Syrian pound plummets as new US sanctions loom

Updated 21 min 40 sec ago

Syrian pound plummets as new US sanctions loom

  • Syria is in the thick of an economic crisis compounded by a coronavirus lockdown and a dollar liquidity crunch in neighboring Lebanon
  • The UN food agency said any further depreciation risked increasing the cost of imported basic food items

BEIRUT: Syria’s pound hit record lows on the black market Saturday trading at over 2,300 to the dollar, less than a third of its official value, traders said, ahead of new US sanctions.
Three traders in Damascus told AFP by phone that the dollar bought more than 2,300 Syrian pounds for the first time, though the official exchange rate remained fixed at around 700 pounds to the greenback.
After nine years of war, Syria is in the thick of an economic crisis compounded by a coronavirus lockdown and a dollar liquidity crunch in neighboring Lebanon.
Last month, the central bank warned it would clamp down on currency “manipulators.”
Analysts said concerns over the June 17 implementation of the US Caesar Act, which aims to sanction foreign persons who assist the Syrian government or help in post-war reconstruction, also contributed to the de fact devaluation.
Zaki Mehchy, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, said foreign companies — including from regime ally Russia — were already opting not to take any risks.
With money transactions requiring two to three weeks to implement, “today’s transactions will be paid after June 17,” he said.
Heiko Wimmen, Syria project director at the conflict tracker Crisis Group, said that with the act coming into force, “doing business with Syria will become even more difficult and risky.”
Both analysts said the fall from grace of top business tycoon Rami Makhlouf despite being a cousin of the president was also affecting confidence.
“The Makhlouf saga is spooking the rich,” Wimmen said.
After the Damascus government froze assets of the head of the country’s largest mobile phone operator and slapped a travel ban on him, the wealthy feel “nobody is safe,” he said.
They are thinking “you better get your assets and perhaps yourself out preparing for further shakedowns,” he said.
Mehchy said the impact of the pound’s decline and ensuing price hikes on Syrians would be “catastrophic.”
Most of Syria’s population lives in poverty, according to the United Nations, and food prices have doubled over the past year.
The UN food agency’s Jessica Lawson said any further depreciation risked increasing the cost of imported basic food items such as rice, pasta and lentils.
“These price increases risk pushing even more people into hunger, poverty and food insecurity as Syrians’ purchasing power continues to erode,” the World Food Programme spokeswoman said.
“Families may be forced to cut the quality and quantity of food they buy.”