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Russia now on front lines of Libya's "proxy war," interior minister says

A fighter for Libya's UN-backed government in Tripoli. Photo: Amru Salahuddien/picture alliance via Getty Images

Libya’s crippling “proxy war” will doom the country to become “a haven for terrorists and extremists” absent support from the U.S., the interior minister for the country’s UN-backed government tells Axios.

Between the lines: The U.S officially supports the government in Tripoli, but has played no part in the current civil war beyond calls for a political solution. Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries are bolstering renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar's offensive and dramatically changing the nature of the war, Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha told Axios Thursday evening in Washington.

The big picture: Libya has seen eight violent and chaotic years since the U.S. and European powers backed the uprising that toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

  • The oil-rich country’s sporadic civil war resumed in earnest in April when Haftar — whose forces control sparsely populated Eastern Libya — launched a surprise offensive against the weak government.
  • It devolved into a bloody stalemate in the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital, with ongoing fighting fueled by foreign firepower, including armed drones.
  • Haftar's supporters include Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, while Turkey backs the Tripoli government.
  • The NY Times reports that roughly 200 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group are in Libya, taking Moscow’s backroom support for Haftar onto the battlefield. As the Times notes, it’s "the same playbook that made Moscow a kingmaker in the Syrian civil war."

Bashagha says he began to hear reports of Russian involvement over the summer, including from locals who described groups of light-skinned people “taking the roads through the desert.”

  • “By August, they were on the front lines,” he says. "The tactics used by Haftar’s forces drastically changed. The operations were becoming very professional.”
  • Suddenly airstrikes were being conducted from higher altitudes and at night, he says. Russian snipers have also been “very effective and very harmful to our forces.”

Bashagha rejects the suggestion that Russia's interventions in Libya and Syria indicate that in a conflict, Moscow is a stronger partner than Washington.

  • Russia wants to install authoritarian governments and Libya needs democracy, he says. He makes clear, though, that Tripoli is desperate for American support.
  • “Ironically, the countries that support Haftar while he attacks a government that is internationally recognized are also allied with the United States,” he says. “We are hoping that the U.S. will help push against the UAE and Egypt, to stop their meddling in our country.”
  • Bashagha says he’s optimistic a summit that Germany is attempting to organize will lead to “some sort of solution” that can guarantee democracy in Libya. But he says Russia can’t offer any such guarantee “while they have Wagner on the front lines.”

Zoom out: Bashagha is adamant that it was not a mistake for the U.S. to intervene in Libya in 2011, but says after Gaddafi’s downfall — and particularly after the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi — “America left us alone.”

“That American withdrawal made many regional countries have their proxy wars, their wars of interest on Libyan soil. And finally now it’s the Russians.”