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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Eastern commander Haftar welcomed aboard Russian aircraft carrier

(January 12) As pro-Putin President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take over as president of the United States, Russia has shown clear signs of support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya.

Haftar is commander of the Libyan National Army, the armed forces of the House of Representatives (HoR), a rival to the UN-back Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Neither Haftar nor the HoR recognize the GNA although the GNA is backed and recognized by the U.S. and many European countries as the sole legitimate government. Supporters of the HoR and Haftar such as Russia, UAE, Egypt and Jordan also give lip service to supporting the GNA. The HoR has yet to vote confidence in the GNA and critics argue that the GNA is illegal until supported by the HoR and the constitutional declaration amended. On August 22 last year, the HoR voted against approving the GNA.
The Russians flew Haftar by helicopter to Russia's only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetzov, for a meeting. There was considerable ritual as shown in photos with Russian sailors in white dress uniforms being inspected on the flight deck. Both Libyan and Russian national anthems were played. The whole episode is in conflict with a UN resolution that stresses countries should not deal with parallel institutions. Haftar's LNA is a parallel institution not part of the GNA forces such as they are. The GNA depends mostly on different militia groups to provide security. The Russians brought a consignment of medical supplies.
Haftar had a video conference with the Russian defence minister Sergey Shoygu. Although full details of the conference were not made public, one topic was cooperation on fighting terrorism. Haftar's Operation Dignity has been fighting terrorism since May of 2014. However, Haftar considers terrorists any Islamist group that opposes him, many of them militia loyal to the GNA. including many brigades that drove the Islamic State out of Sirte. He also is besieging Islamists of the Derna Shura Council who were instrumental in driving the Islamic State out of Derna. There was no invitation for anyone to attend from the rival UN-recognized GNA or its armed forces.
Italy, on the other hand, has just recently shown its support for the GNA by opening its Tripoli embassy, Italy also has troops guarding a field hospital at Misrata. Atlantic Council analyst Mohamed Eljarh tweeted: “Italy (to an extent EU) support one side of the war in Libya and Russia jumps in to support the other side."
Haftar travelled to Moscow as recently as last December. Russia has already called earlier this month for the UN arms embargo to be lifted. The GNA wants the embargo lifted only for groups it approves and this would not include Haftar's forces. The HoR refuses to agree to the LPA and GNA until Haftar is assured of remaining head of the LNA a position that many in the GNA will never accept. As it is now, the Presidency Council of the GNA serves as head of the armed forces. There did not appear to be any civilians in Haftar's party but the military included Major-Geneeral Abdull Al-Nazurhi of the army and air force head Major-General Saqr Geroushi. Both Geroushi and Haftar were at one time being considered for sanctions by the EU back in March 2016. The Information and Communication Administration of the Russian Defense Ministry referred to Haftar as "commander of the Libyan national army" when announcing the visit. Haftar forces are not recognized by the GNA as the Libyan national army.
Some media outlets had reported that the Kuznetsov had entered Libyan territorial waters as Haftar arrived in Tobruk. If the Kuznetzov had entered Libyan territorial waters, I wonder if it bothered to obtain permission to do so from the internationally-recognized GNA government or from the HoR government. The speaker of the HoR, Ageelah Saleh and a special envoy also visited Moscow earlier as well as Haftar. All three asked Russia to help out with airstrikes on Benghazi against their jihadist opponents. The Russians did not do so.
One photo shows Haftar signing an agreement with the Russians. A tweet suggests this was for more medical supplies:"‏@Eljarh @MaryFitzger they received a shipment of medical supplies and signing likely to do with further assistance (most likely medical) #Libya " Another tweet suggests that Kuznetzov is still in Libya: "Aircraft carrier 'Kuznetsov' (hosted LNA's Hafter for meetings Wednesday) is still in #Libya. Press conf. Friday by #Russia's FM in Moscow."
The conflict in Libya could be shaping up as between supporters of the GNA and supporters of the HoR government and Khalifa Haftar. Haftar can stress that he is fighting terrorism. He may gain the support of the United States with Trump as president and strengthen his position.


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