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AFRICOM commander Stephen Townsend (left). Picture: public domain
Tripoli

Instability in Northern Africa: AFRICOM brigades, Russian planes and Syrian jihadists

On May 30, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) released a statement in which its commander, Stephen Townsend, expressed to Tunisian Defence Minister Imed Hazgui readiness to deploy the US Security Force Assistance Brigades in Tunisia, citing concerns about Russian activities in Libya.

Published: June 1, 2020, 10:50 am

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    According to the statement, both Tunisian and American officials agreed “to cooperate in order to achieve regional security and confront the escalation of violence in Libya in response to growing Russian military activities”.

    Thus, the USA sees deployment of a military contingent to Tunisia as an acceptable option for Washington to respond to recent developments in North Africa. The justification for sending troops to yet another country is supposedly in reaction to Russia’s actions in the region.

    AFRICOM has accused Russia of sending military fighter aircraft to Al-Jufra Libyan airbase.

    AFRICOM’s commander Stephen Townsend claims that the planes made their first stop after departing from Russia in Syria, where they were “painted to disguise their Russian origin” before arriving in Libya.

    Moreover, pictures and shots of alleged Russian jet fighters and some unidentified airbases were published by AFRICOM and presented as irrefutable evidence of Russian involvement in the Libyan conflict. A wide array of media outlets as well as military experts expressed various misgivings and doubts about the veracity and relevancy of the published photographs.

    In the recent months, US officials have actively started issuing declarations of their support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) – a Tripoli-based Islamist government (which pretends to be recognized by the UN). Its forces are at war with the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. The US assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs David Schenker said that Khalifa Haftar “is not showing any flexibility towards reaching a cease-fire”. At the same time Schenker underlined that the GNA has fully embraced such flexibility.

    According to a recent investigation of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 11 000 mercenaries are fighting on the side of the GNA, 279 of which have died in combat. The jihadists were transferred from Syrian Idlib to Libya through Turkish cities Gaziantep and Izmir. The UN condemned the flow of arms and foreign fighters into Libya, but despite these warnings violations of the arms embargo as well as the sending of troops to Libya from Syrian Idlib continue.

    The main issue which the UN has kept ignoring, is the connection between the GNA leaders and terrorist groups which pose a serious threat to the stability in the region. Some of the jihadists, fighting on the side of the GNA, have close ties with ISIS. On May 28, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released exclusive information about 50 ISIS members identified by their actual names.

    “A battalion of mercenaries comprising some 50 members headed by a former security official of the Islamic State Mohamed al-Ruwaidani from eastern countryside of Homs, joined the fight in Libya with the ‘mercenaries’,” the statement of the Syrian Observatory said.

    According to the LNA spokesman al-Mismari, Turkey has transferred some 17 000 terrorists from Idlib, Syria, all of which were connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

    Aguila Saleh, the speaker of Libya’s parliament, called on the UN Security Council to withdraw its recognition of the Tripoli-based government and appoint a new administration representing all Libyan regions. He also called for clearing Tripoli of terrorist groups and a fair distribution of the nation’s oil and gas revenues.

    The recent media activities of the US in the framework of the Libyan conflict, clearly show the pro-GNA orientation of America’s foreign policy. According to a statement from the US Embassy in Libya, Ambassador Richard B. Norland spoke with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj on May 22 to welcome the Government of National Accord’s “important contributions to defeating terrorism and achieving peace”. Norland also mentioned that such activities of the GNA take place against the background of “destabilizing the flow of Russian and other foreign military equipment and mercenaries into Libya”.

    On February 22, the GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha called on the US to set up a base in the North African country to counterbalance Russia’s expanding influence in Africa. In March, the US chargé d’affaires Joshua Harris emphasized that the US embassy will work with Bashagha to ensure full implementation of the US Executive Order 13726, which allows for sanctions against individuals that threaten peace, security, and stability of Libya.

    It is worth mentioning that officials holding high positions in the GNA have tight connections with both the US and terrorist groups. A vivid example of this particularly cosy relationship is the RADA Special Deterrence Forces which is a radical Islamic military police unit of Tripoli headed by Abdul Raaouf Kara.

    This group operates as an independent department under the Ministry of Interior (and its head Fathi Bashaga). In May 2019, the RADA Special Deterrence Forces arrested two Russian sociologists in Tripoli who were conducting sociological research about the country.

    Maxim Shugaley and his interpreter Samer Sweifan were arrested and detained in the Mitiga prison without any official charge or accusation. After a year of detainment, they were accused of interference in the elections. Curiously, the date of the elections in 2019 was never – and has not yet been – set.

    Both scientists had been working for the Russian non-profit Foundation for National Values Protection and were conducting sociological research in Libya about the support of the Tobruk government and the GNA. Attempts by the Foundation to arrange talks with GNA authorities had failed. According to sources, the arrest could have been initiated by CIA structures (from the Tunis office), which had become worried about the growing popularity of Haftar (and his operation Al-Karama, launched in April 2019).

    Recently, a record of the conversation between Chairman of the High Council of Libya (the GNA government) Khalid al-Mishri and one of the employees of the Foundation for National Values Protection was published in Arab media. Proposals put forward by the GNA representative looked like an obvious political manipulation, if not blackmail.

    Khaled al-Mishri began the conversation by saying that he was able to influence the fate of Russian sociologists and help them return home. However, he added that in order to make it happen, Moscow should change its official position on the conflict in Libya.

    “I talked with Mr. Fayez Sarraj. He said that they have evidence and confessions that Russians work for Saif al-Islam [son of Muammar al-Gaddafi] and communicate with the people of Saif al-Islam. Therefore, we will strive to resolve the issue by friendly means and in such a way so that both sides can draw benefit. Mr. Sarraj desires to visit Russia, to meet President Putin, and to come out of this meeting declaring that Russia supports legitimacy and the decisions of the UN Security Council,” Khaled al-Mishri concluded his conversation with the Russian employee of the Foundation, giving a clear hint that the GNA prime minister Sarraj expects Russia to recognize their legitimacy.

    This clumsy attempt at political blackmail by the GNA’s high authorities creates an impression that they feel quite confident being supported by the EU, the US and the UN. Especially since none of these geopolitical actors appear to notice the obvious connections of the GNA with terrorist formations.

    But there is one fact which has not been not so easy to ignore even for hegemons with an international agenda: During these times of uncontrolled migration from Arab countries, the dire situation in Libya has a direct impact on the situation in Europe.

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    • LuciusAnnaeusSeneca

      Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman adventures in the eastern Mediterranean continue, and as they progress, so does the risk of war. The number of Syrian mercenaries hired by Turkey and placed in Libya is now at least 11,000, with more likely. Many of them are former ISIS, and are probably already working with other ISIS that have fled to LIbya and taken refuge there, with the knowledge, if not the assistance of, the GNA government in Tripoli. The deployment of the jihadists probably stalled Haftar’s effort to capture Tripoli, and has forced the LNA to retrench for the moment. And more Turkish backing of the GNA has resulted in greater Russian support to Haftar and the LNA, a fact doubtless well-known in Brussels, as well as in Washington DC.

      In pursuit of Turkish regional dominance, Erdogan wants control of Libya as it not only helps him control the eastern Mediterranean and its natural gas resources, but also because such control would allow him an additional way to turn on or off the migrant spigot to pressure the EU. Erdogan already controls the migrant routes into the Balkans, and he is now trying to control the sea routes from Libya to Italy and Malta. And yet the EU still supports the GNA government in Tripoli, which allows organized crime to use its territory to run the “migrant express”. Of course, the EU has never been able to face down the bully Erdogan, either.

      In all this, perhaps the likely American strategy in Tunisia makes sense. Washington might have its reasons for not criticizing the cause of the problem, namely Turkey, as it is a fellow NATO member. But increased American influence in Tunisia means that there will likely be less Turkish influence there. The plainly evident fact is that in Libya, as in Syria, an increased Turk involvement means an increased Russian involvement. Perhaps this is an effort to curb Erdogan. If so, much more needs to be done. A conflict over economic zones and access to natural gas reserves is increasingly likely if the Turks keep up their present behavior.

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