Russia is filling the vacuum left behind by the U.S. post-Arab Spring as criticism pours in against Washington for deserting its partners in the region.
Moscow’s expanding influence in Syria amid its civil war and its entrance into Libya’s ongoing conflict in favor of military commander Khalifa Haftar are undoubtedly significant regional developments.
Washington’s Libya policy after Benghazi attack
Following the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi in which three U.S. employees and 10 Libyan security officers died, Washington’s Libya policy turned passive and developments were followed from a distance.
The murder of an American diplomat was a major blow for the administration of Barack Obama, and the attack, which coincided with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, further increased its psychological impact.
The Benghazi attack and its aftermath led to enormous changes in the U.S.’ Libya policy. It fueled Republican criticism of the Obama administration, with Republicans accusing Obama and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton of deliberately misleading the public and obstructing congressional investigations.
The allegations weighed on Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Although Clinton said she accepted responsibility for the attack, in response to Republican criticism during 2015 testimony in the U.S. House of Representatives, she stood behind her policy and accused Republicans of using the deaths of American diplomats in Libya for political gain.
However, despite all her efforts, Clinton could not prevent the attack from being a major blow to her political career in the presidential elections, which Donald Trump won, albeit with a minority of the popular vote.
During her election campaign, Clinton’s emails were investigated over Benghazi, and most of them were made available to the public.
It was found that Clinton used her personal email address five times to share the exact location of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attack.
Additionally, Clinton’s rejection of repeated requests for additional security prior to the attack strengthened the accusations of omissions. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also accused Clinton of covering up her responsibility for the attack.
Appointing Gen. Carter Ham, who was head of the international coalition and operations in Libya in 2011, as head of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) and launching operations in neighboring countries against al-Qaeda reflected a shift in U.S. policy.
In this regard, Ham said there were strong indicators that some of the militants that carried out the Benghazi attack were linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and that AQIM, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria were trying to work together on the African continent.
As a result, the U.S. reduced its presence and activities in Libya to limited operations through AFRICOM.
On the other hand, it should be noted that U.S. foreign policy during this period was largely aligned with the UN's Libyan initiatives. For the U.S., which has supported efforts by the UN special representative in Libya to achieve a negotiated political solution since 2014, its position on the civil war in Libya has evolved into a “wait and see” strategy.
The U.S. followed developments from a distance and limited its activities to fighting terrorist groups such as Daesh/ISIS and AQIM in Libya, while regional actors such as France, Italy, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey shaped developments in the field through direct intervention.
With no threat perception in the possible balance of power with all stakeholders aligning with its policy, the U.S. reached a comfort zone in Libya.
But Russian interference in Libya was an important catalyst that prompted the U.S. to review its Libya policy
Even though eight years have passed since the 2011 revolution that ended the 42-year reign of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the country is still struggling with ghosts of the old regime and a democratic and stable order has not yet been built.
In the pre-Arab Spring period, Libya, which has a significant influence on North African and African politics, turned into an area where many actors compete.
Haftar has so far not made progress in the field in the ongoing operation to take Libya’s capital since April, raising some concerns over national and international alliances.
Haftar's failure to achieve success in Tripoli and losses of gains made in the field after 2014 raise the possibility of the Daesh/ISIS terror group regaining power in the Fezzan region.
Parallel with these developments, Russia beefed up its military and financial presence in the area.
The defeat of Haftar’s forces in April by forces of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in the Azizia area near Tripoli, which led to a setback in his plans for a direct assault on the capital, was also an important turning point in the course of the war as it revealed the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya.
GNA spokesman Col. Mohammed Kanunu announced that eight mercenaries from Russian private security company Wagner were neutralized during operations. On the other hand, claims that an airport was under the control of Russian troops had been reported in the media.
In addition to the allegations, it was claimed that 2 billion Libyan dinars ($1.42 billion) printed in Russia were delivered to the parallel Al-Bayda-based Central Bank of Libya in October.
Last year, it also surfaced that 10 billion Libyan dinars were printed in Russia and delivered to the Central Bank in Bayda, suggesting that Moscow is helping Haftar's forces break the deadlock in Tripoli.
Libya, which is very important for Russia as a military foothold in the Mediterranean, could open up areas that could expand the maneuvering space of the Russians in global politics.
The prospect of Moscow being a decisive actor in Libyan politics brings with it the risk of Russia's influence on issues such as Mediterranean energy supplies and becoming the oil supplier of Libya amid a wave of migration from North Africa and sub-Saharan countries which has recently shaped European politics.
Libya is a critical country in terms of strengthening ties with other regional actors who support Haftar, including Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, which Moscow is trying to push from the U.S.'s sphere of influence.
This close relationship that Haftar developed with Russia financially and militarily inevitably mobilized international actors who were waiting for Haftar to gain control of the country.
First, they have stepped up efforts to restart negotiations, calling for a political solution to balance the increasing Russian influence. Although UN Special Representative for Libya Ghassan Salame has made efforts to organize a Berlin conference to return to the political settlement process, the date for the conference has not yet been determined.
When Haftar began operations in April, U.S. President Donald Trump called him and said he expected success in a short time and expressed support for the operation. Although U.S. institutions have maintained their neutrality in conflicts during this period, Trump's support for Haftar pointed to increased U.S. interest in developments in Libya. However, Russia's involvement in the equation prompted the U.S. to reconsider its support for Haftar.
Libya was an important agenda item during a meeting between the U.S.’ Mike Pompeo and Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio on Sept 1. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, after a Libyan ministerial meeting in the U.S., stated that in the framework of issues agreed on at the Paris, Palermo, and Abu Dhabi summits, especially in the context of elections, a ceasefire and political solution should be adopted.
In addition, the Libya issue was one of the issues raised during a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Trump.
Amid all this diplomatic intensity, the overlooked development is that the U.S. revised its distant approach to its foreign policy regarding Libya. The visit of the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Mission in Libya, Joshua Harris, to Benghazi in year October requesting an end to the war in Tripoli can be seen as the return of U.S. foreign policy to square one after the Benghazi attack.
In the meeting between Pompeo and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan on Nov. 22, the presence of Russia in Libya was also discussed.
The U.S. is trying to reconcile with Libya on regional alliances that support Haftar. On the other hand, it is preparing to land in Libya.
It is possible to foresee a period where the U.S. is seeking an alternative leader in Libya after its close contacts with actors there and also where Russia is preparing to take more active steps in the name of establishing a new influence in Libya.
*Nebahat Tanriverdi Yasar, who works as a freelance researcher on Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, is pursuing her doctoral studies in the department of International Relations at Middle East Technical University.
© Copyright Andolu Ajansi