With a more enterprising Russia, cards are reshuffled in the Arab world

Although Russia says it remains committed to UN arms embargo on Libya, show of support for Haftar comes when his enemies are weakening.

Libyan demonstrator holding image of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar


2017/01/22 Issue: 90 Page: 8


The Arab Weekly
Francis Ghilès



Barcelona - A new power structure is emerging in the Middle East as Russia uses its intervention in Syria to position itself as an im­portant partner for regional pow­ers as diverse and opposed to each other as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and Iran.

In North Africa, Algeria and Egypt are indulging in a form of heavy lift­ing that pushes the United States and the European Union to the side­lines. Some observers will welcome these changes, others will deplore them. Nobody can dispute that the European Union’s and United States’ capacity to shape policy in the region is declining fast.

Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt have a common interest in breaking the impasse in Libya as violence in the country since the death of Muam­mar Qaddafi risks spilling over the border. It already has in spectacular fashion in Tunisia with the attack on the southern town of Ben Guer­dane last winter and on the attempt to torch the Algeria gas field of Tiguentourine four years ago.

Matters worsened when Tuaregs from northern Mali, who had long served Qaddafi, returned to their country armed with weapons sto­len from Libyan arms dumps and nearly toppled the regime in Mali.

Whatever the goodwill of the UN special envoy to Libya and the European Union’s backing of the Government of National Accord in the west, the fact that control of eastern Libya rests essentially with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar means a confrontation between the two halves of Libya remains a major risk that the country’s neighbours want to avoid. Nor do they wish to be­come hostage to power games ini­tiated from outside the region and that they feel are not amicable to their interests.

Russia has entered the fray in Libya, where it had docking rights in the eastern port of Benghazi at the time of Qaddafi. Haftar twice visited Moscow last year and was recently invited on board the air­craft carrier Admiral Kouznetsov, which was making its way back to Russia from Syria. While on the ship, Haftar had a videoconference with Russian Defence Minister Ser­gei Shoigu.

Although Russia said it remains committed to the UN arms embargo on Libya, this show of support for Haftar comes when his enemies are weakening. It sends a rebuke to Western powers which, after brokering the fall of the former dic­tator, have been incapable of pre­venting Libya’s slide into chaos.

Algeria and Egypt, at least since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power, have no objection to the Russians playing a role in the region. Algeria was very upset in 2011 as its warn­ings to Paris, London and Wash­ington about the likely outcome of their intervention in Libya were treated with contempt.

Further evidence of Russia’s pro­jecting itself as a major player came when the Qatar Investment Author­ity decided to invest $5 billion in the Russian oil company Rosneft PJSC as part of a $10.6 billion deal that included Glencore Plc.

A significant part of Qatar’s in­vestment portfolio remains in the United States where it is commit­ted to investing $35 billion over the next five years.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has decided to hedge his bets. His decision to in­vest in Rosneft was taken as Rus­sian warplanes bombarded Aleppo where the countries were on differ­ent sides of the Syria divide.

The strong Russian backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad has left the countries that had funded and armed the Islamist rebels — Qa­tar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — in the lurch.

Turkey has moved much closer to its erstwhile enemy Russia recently and Qatar has followed in its footsteps.

Russia has long suspected Qa­tar of supporting militant Islamist groups in Syria, a suspicion shared by many Western observers, and in Chechnya. The emir no doubt remembers that Russian agents as­sassinated Chechen rebel leader Ze­limkhan Yandarbiyev in the Qatari capital, Doha, in 2004.

Another sign that the times are changing is Qatar’s backtracking on pledges made to clean up its act on human rights after it won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It hardly bothers to pay lip service to them today. Human Rights Watch recently pointed out that changes to the labour law that took effect in 2016 will not “protect migrant workers from the serious abuses that characterise Qatar’s construc­tion industry and other low paid sectors of its economy”.

The rise of Russia and populist parties in the West and Donald Trump’s accession to the White House — have emboldened Qatar to discard any promises it made to reform its labour laws. It is also en­couraging regional powers to play a stronger role in mediating in North African and Middle Eastern con­flicts.

In view of the dismal Western record in the region in recent dec­ades, the latter development might not be such a bad thing even if the former can only be deplored.


Francis Ghilès is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.


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