- Recent events in Libya and Syria suggest that Russia may not soon be able to count real wins from its investments in the Middle East and North Africa.
- But to stabilize the situation in those countries and counter Russia’s moves, the US needs a three-pronged approach that empowers locals, enlists allies, and boxes in bad actors, writes Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War.
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Is Russia’s lucky streak in Syria and Libya finally running out? The Kremlin has gambled big on proxy warfare in both countries, deploying thousands of private military contractors with the so-called Wagner Group to back its favorite strongmen.
But after a recent run of misfortunes for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the head of the breakaway Libyan National Army, it is starting to look like Russia may not be able to cash in real wins in the Middle East and North Africa anytime soon.
The most significant sign that Russia’s support for private paramilitaries in Libya may be a losing bet for the Kremlin came earlier this week. The US military’s Africa Command on Tuesday publicly accused Russia of deploying MiG-29 fighter jets to protect Wagner Group operatives and Libyan National Army forces retreating from Tripoli.
For months, Russian support for the Libyan National Army has helped Haftar impose a blockade on oil ports in eastern Libya, locking its economy in a crippling vice grip. Over several weeks, Haftar’s forces aided by the Wagner Group have clashed heavily with Syrian mercenaries backed by Turkey and militias loyal to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, known as the Government of National Accord.
Last week, however, Turkish-backed forces, with the help of Turkish drone strikes, dealt Haftar’s troops significant battlefield losses, forcing them to pull back and rely heavily on Russian fighter jets for aircover. On Monday, video footage surfaced of Wagner Group fighters being airlifted out of the town of Bani Walid, southwest of Tripoli, seemingly corroborating claims by local Libyan officials that Russian forces are turning tail.
News of the Wagner Group’s apparent exfiltration from Libya comes after the leak of a report by UN experts that 800 to 1,200 of its contractors had deployed to Libya since August 2018. The report identified 122 individuals with the Wagner Group’s special sniper unit and attack and reconnaissance contingent. Russia has denied any link to the deployments and criticized the UN panel’s findings.
By providing air support to Haftar’s army, “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya,” AFRICOM’s commander, Gen. Stephen Townsend, said in a sharply worded statement that was accompanied by satellite imagery of several Russian fighter jets on a tarmac in Libya. Townsend and other US military officials expressed legitimate concerns that a win for Haftar in Libya would allow Russia to set up a permanent military base on the coast of the southern Mediterranean.
Since Russia already has forces in the eastern Mediterranean, at an airbase in Syria, such a move could in theory allow the Russian military to control much of the airspace over the coast of North Africa and southern Europe. But now that it looks like the Russian mercenaries are starting to leave Libya, the Libyan National Army presumably will have much a more difficult time helping Moscow achieve that objective.
Meanwhile, in Syria, Russia’s support for Assad also appears to be flagging amid reports that Assad has become increasingly bogged down in an internal feud with his wealthy cousin, Rami Makhlouf, the regime’s most prominent financier.
The rift within Assad’s inner circle has been unusually public, with Makhlouf taking to Facebook to plead with Assad not to seize his assets, and the Syrian government imposing a travel ban on Makhlouf in a dispute over his telecom empire, Syriatel. It has resulted in equally unusual public criticism of the Assad regime from Kremlin surrogates in Russian think tanks.
The question of who holds sway over Syria’s crumbled economy, including future reconstruction contracts, is also shaping up to be a real problem for the Wagner Group’s titular head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin insider whose companies facilitate Russian operations in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the region.
For years, Makhlouf and others close to Assad, such as Syrian oil and gas magnates Ayman Jaber and George Haswani, have relied on the Wagner Group and Prigozhin’s mercurial managerial talents to protect their interests in the country. Prigozhin’s company, Evro Polis, and related firms connected to the Wagner Group have reportedly earned hundreds of millions along the way by seizing and securing valuable oil, gas and mineral production sites in Syria.
But as the Syrian civil war grinds on into its 10th year, and as ever stricter U.S. and EU sanctions against the Assad regime continue to take a toll, the logistics of getting sanctioned oil and gas to the black market are not getting any easier for Prigozhin’s Syrian partners.
In the short term, Russia’s unsteady footing in the region — the result of suddenly more fickle relations with Assad and Haftar, and the Wagner Group’s slipshod operational culture — may deliver modest gains to the United States and its allies, especially Turkey.
Whatever political twists and military bumps come next for Assad and Haftar, thousands of Syrians will likely continue to flee the fighting in the northwest of the country, near the Turkish border, while Libyan civilians bear the brunt of dueling but equally punishing US and Russian airstrikes.
As detailed in past and forthcoming reports by New America and Airwars, a London-based research organization that tracks civilian casualties stemming from military air campaigns across the Middle East, the internationalization of the Libyan conflict has taken a serious toll on civilians. There is really no “winning” for Libyans in grinding proxy wars where more than a half-dozen states have backed their own militias and mercenaries, while warlords and oligarchs cash in on all the misery.
Washington needs to get to grips with that fact and understand that playing a zero-sum game is not an option when every player has cards up their sleeve and wealthy Russian oligarchs and their local counterparts combine forces to stack the deck in their favor.
If the US and its allies repeat the mistakes of the past decade by limiting their responses to Russia’s regional maneuvers to military means alone, ordinary Libyans and Syrians will most certainly suffer. To stabilize the situation in both countries, Washington needs to continue to put pressure on Russia where it is hurting the most: lines of revenue in the hydrocarbon, shipping and arms sectors that support Russia’s sovereign wealth fund.
To do that, US national security agencies need a three-pronged approach that empowers locals, enlists allies and boxes in bad actors.
The first prong of such a strategy entails providing Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli with more support in the form of better intelligence, including financial expertise, about how the Wagner Group fits into Russia’s larger strategic objectives. That way, Libya’s Central Bank could better monitor revenues that flow in and out of Libya between Russian firms and individuals, and freeze the assets of Libyans who have helped Russia gain a foothold in the country.
The second prong requires more vigorous American engagement with EU partners on sanctioning Prigozhin’s firms, as well as individuals and state companies that benefit from the Wagner Group’s support to Haftar and Assad’s allies. The latter may require a much harder look at European and North American commodities brokers and shipping firms that help Russian state firms bring oil, gas and guns to market in the Middle East and North Africa.
The third prong requires the White House and the State Department to have some tough talks with leaders in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt about whether US military aid to those countries can continue at current levels while both are collaborating with Russia to support Haftar and hedging their bets with the Assad regime in Syria.
Syria and Libya will only see stability when the US government finally understands that its military options in the Middle East are limited, and that the most gains it can make are at the margins, with better information about Russia’s maneuvers in the region.
Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.