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New Russian Order in the Middle East?
March 7, 2017 10:10AM
By Dr.Cyril Widdershoven, EGF Affiliated Expert, Military geopolitics
The West has been keeping a wary eye on Russia’s involvement in Syria, supporting by all means the Alawite regime of President Bashir Al Assad, Moscow’s military links with Tehran and increasingly Iraq. However, other developments have been largely overlooked. Moscow’s new friendship and strategic military-economic cooperation with Ankara, full-fledged military cooperation with Cairo, is now expanded by an active involvement in Libya’s ongoing civil war. The latter could not only threaten the very fragile power balance inside of Libya, partly supported by the UN and EU, but also result in a new Russian-Arab power equilibrium on the soft belly of the European Union.
Russia’s current redeployment efforts in the MENA region are impressive. Media have been covering Russia’s full scale involvement in Syria to the fullest, while the deployment by the Russian Navy on November 15 of its only aircraft carrier,the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Eastern Mediterranean, put NATO forces on the edge. The carrier was accompanied by the battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy, large anti-submarine ships Severomorsk and Vice Admiral Kulakov, and support vessels. Putin’s show of force should be seen not as a direct military threat to NATO Southern Area or its interests in North Africa or the Levant, but as a direct statement of Putin that Russia has been able to regain access to the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.
Full impact of the “Syria strategy” of Russia is still not fully documented or assessed. One of the main issues, that also US president Trump will need to deal with, is the situation that there is an extra-regional competitor again that can complicate US/NATO/EU freedom of maneuver in the area to a degree not seen since the end of the Cold War. The first measure to be taken, in my view, could be that NATO will need to deploy more military assets to the region to accomplish the same tasks as has been the case in a single power period of the Pax Americana in MENA. But this approach is questionable now because of Trunp’s administration would need time for the situation assessment within framework of new US foreign policy proclaimed.
Moscow’s current moves show a re-enactment of an old strategic idea, namely to encircle your potential adversary. By putting this in place, Moscow intends not only to diminish Western influence in the ongoing instability in the Middle East, but also oust the West totally in the end. Perceived Western containment strategies are the basis for this new Russian engagement.
Next to the Syrian actions, Putin now wants to counter the loss of Moscow’s influence in Libya. In 2011 Putin totally opposed the Western military operations to remove Ghadaffy from power. However, at that time, Russian president Medvedev held a different view. The current developments in Libya, in which Haftar has gained part of the power back, Moscow now seems to be putting in place the same approach as has been successful in Syria. After a short period of being blocked by Western powers to actively engage in Syria, Moscow entered in full in September 2015.
Putin proceeded with his MENA strategy but (re-)establishing ties with old allies in the region. Western lack of resolve, and perceived support for Muslim Brotherhood and others, opened up new roads for an Arab-Moscow rapprochement. Main Arab leaders, especially Egypt, showed a keen interest to gain access to Moscow, as they were totally disappointed by Western support for rebels during the Arab Spring. Russia also took advantage of the lack of willingness in the West to counter Russian re-armament policies. The expansion of Russian military forces, combined with new military cooperation in the Arab world (and even Turkey), has given Moscow ample opportunity to build new operating bases. The move of the Admiral Kuznetsov group to the Mediterranean is a normal step forward in Putin’s goal to reestablish Russia’s Mediterranean fleet. The whole process took only 2 years to be put in place.
Russia also made several other large gains. Moscow was not only able to set up its Mediterranean fleet, which tips part of the military balance in the Med, but also was able to secure basing rights in Cyprus to enable pier-side support for the Admiral Kuznetsov, arranged Russia's first-ever joint naval drills with Egypt, sent ships to make a port call in Alexandria for only the second time since 1992, and renewed naval access and military sales to Algeria. The last months, Russia has been fully coordinating with Egypt, still a Western military ally in the region, on several high level military training exercises in the Western Desert (next to Libyan border) and in Africa.
As other analysts have indicated also, Moscow’s renewed ties with Cyprus (still a main base for British troops), Iran (including Hezbollah), Iraq, but especially with Egypt and Algeria, shows the prowess of Moscow’s military-economic powers, directly targeting Western power projections in the Mediterranean.
The build-up of Russian Navy capabilities in the Syrian port of Tartus should not be underestimated at all. Full access and positioning of high-tech Russian weapon systems is partly blocking free Western and Israeli movements in the region. If Moscow will be able to gain full access to other ports, especially Alexandria (Egypt), Limassol (Cyprus) and Algiers, NATO’s Southern Flank and economic interests are being under threat. Russia’s impact is not only confined to naval security, but a free movement of Western forces in the air in the area also has been put on the line. Russia has already put in place ship- and submarine-launched cruise missiles and established airspace control with potent antiaircraft systems (S-300 and S-400 missiles). Moscow also has delivered mobile S-300 systems to Algeria, Egypt, and Iran. These systems represent an increased risk to US and NATO air operations in the Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, and as much as 90 percent of the Persian Gulf.
Changing Libyan Balance
It was reported that Libyan general and military commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar visited a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. The fact that the East Libyan military commander, who is currently fighting an internal Libyan power struggle against UN-Western backed Libya’s official government in the west of the country and Islamic extremist groups, is being courted by Russia is of the utmost importance. It not only will increase the standing of General Haftar inside the Libyan conundrum, but also shows open interest of Moscow to increase Russia’s power projections beyond the Syrian theatre.
Haftar’s renewed engagement with the Russians, at least according to main-stream media, is however not new. He has been trying to gain support of Moscow since the start of the Libyan crisis. His current engagement comes however at a time when the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli that he has shunned is once more in crisis. Being already a power broker in Libya, his current strive for Moscow’s political and probable military support could make him one of the main future leaders. Open support by Putin for Haftar already represents a major setback for a possible unity government in Libya. Until now most Western support has gone to the U.N.- backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which also had the implicit support of Washington. The latter’s position, after the election of Donald Trump as US president, could be changed dramatically, as military analysts are indicating. Trump’s intentions to set up a geopolitical coordination in the region with Putin could end the already fledgling power structure of the GNA within the next months.
The last week’s internal splits and open resistance to the GNA in the capital have weakened existing power structures already. At the same time, Haftar has been building up his power in the east, while addressing first the hard-needed removal of Islamist Groups, especially IS/Daesh. Arab military support for Haftar is also building up, showing a sharp decline in the former cooperation between Western and Arab forces in Libya. Egypt and UAE already have chosen openly to support Haftar. Russia’s ongoing in-the-field fight against terrorist groups, and its success in Syria, has also influenced this trend. The LNA leader has understood that Western support will be hard to be gained, so his main attempts for international support have been targeting Arabs and increasingly Moscow. During Haftar’s visit to the Russian naval vessels in the Mediterranean, Haftar and Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed the fight against "terrorist groups" by videoconference.
The current Haftar overture with Russia is an effort to secure crucial military support that could pave the way for his control of the North African county. According to Italian sources, Haftar already has signed an agreement with Russia that will allow Moscow to build two military bases near Tobruk and Benghazi. Russian media sources have however not mentioned any agreement yet, but indicated that Russia would get a foothold in the south of the Mediterranean. The latter is of importance, as this would mean that Russian forces could be operating in the same area where at present Emirati and French air forces have been reportedly operating since March 2016(?). The latter are operating from the Al-Khadim Airport in the city of Marj, Haftar's headquarters.
It also openly questions now the possible deal which the European Union, under chairmanship of Malta is trying to arrange with the UN-sponsored Presidential Council led by Fayez Al Sarraj. Italy even has reopened its embassy to support a possible deal with West Libya, trying also to get a refugee deal in place, along the lines of the EU-Turkey deal, to quell the ongoing influx of immigrants via the Mediterranean to Italy or Malta. Sarraj’s authority has however almost diminished, as the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), came under the direct influence of General Haftar refusing twice to endorse Sarraj's proposed list of ministers.
The coming weeks will be crucial for Libya’s internal power configuration. The future of the UN-backed initiative, based on the Libyan Political Agreement, which was signed by the Libyan factions in December 2015, is vague. Haftar’s next moves and military operations could dramatically change the situation on the ground very quickly. If Haftar can also gain the open military support of another main player, Egypt, he could become undisputed champion among Libiyan leaders striving for full power. This would lead to a direct threat to Western interests, as ongoing cooperation with Russia shows the option of Russian engagement on the ground in that situation.
There is some room still for US-EU counteractions. Support to some of the Western Libyan militias could prevent a total domination by Haftar until he has not been able to gain enough military power to win over rival militias in Misrata. The latter have at present been successful in removing Daesh strongholds in Sirte, which was liberated in December 2016.
Haftar deprived his rivals from the source of financial streems. While consolidating Cirenaica, he removed jihadists in Benghazi and took hold on oil terminals in the east of the country. He was able to buy dislodging military units of the Petroleum Facilities Guard and their commander Ibrahim Jadhran, an ally of the GNA. The loss of the Oil Crescent, which was the main financial resource of the GNA, has shifted the power of balance to Haftar. The already implicit support of Egypt for Haftar could make military coordination quite real. According to insiders in Egypt, there is increased optimism that with full Egyptian military involvement, backed by GCC countries such as the UAE, a move can be made in the next couple of months. These developments are playing into the Russia’s hands.
For Russia, already leading a successful military operation in Syria, while supporting Iran even in Iraq, its other goals are now at reach. As it is indicated by several reports, Russia sees Libya as a way to anchor its return to the Middle East. According to Alexei Malashenko, the chief researcher at Dialogue of Civilizations Institute, Berlin, a think-tank with close ties to the Russian leadership, Syria is not enough for Moscow. He indicated that Moscow will need not only Syria for Russia’s military presence in the Mediterranean region or Middle East, but other options are also targeted, especially Libya.
This statement comes not out of the blue. Russia always had a large interest in setting up its military power in North Africa, even during Soviet times. Algeria, Libya and before 1973 even Egypt, were part of the Soviet Empire’s client states. A restoration of Moscow’s influence in Libya is of interest for Putin, who also always had opposed the military actions of NATO to remove Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffy.
It seems that current Libyan approach is the last in line of putting Putin’s strategy in place. Until now Russia has been backing UN mediation in Libya and abiding to the still existing international arms embargo on the country. However, the spoils of war could be too “attractive” to resist. In addition to a possible direct access to Libya, with an implicit option to build up Russian military presence, Russia also could stand to recover billions of dollars-worth of weapons and energy deals lost when Gaddafi lost power in 2011. Eastern Libyan officials have indicated that this could hold a value of around $4 billion in pre-2011 arms contracts.