Published: July 13, 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Rome on July 4, meeting with Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti.
While discussions focused on bilateral relations, in the following Putin-Conti news conference, Putin delivered a stark warning about regional political instability.
“I am particularly concerned that from the Idlib zone in Syria we are witnessing the infiltration of militants into Libya and this is a threat for everyone because from Libya they can go anywhere. Let’s not forget about it,” Putin said.
His statement encapsulates two fundamental elements of Russian Middle Eastern foreign policy: support for existing regimes, as in Syria; and the need for united international efforts to suppress terrorist instability with the potential to metastasise regional unrest when terrorists flee from Idlib.
Putin reminded that Libya was shattered by a NATO offensive in 2011 and has been disintegrating since.
The Russian Foreign Ministry estimates that up to 8,000 Russian citizens have fought in Iraq and Syria and it is more than willing to assist recalcitrant Western countries to resolve incipient terrorist problems incubating in Iraq and Syria. The most high-profile has been Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists marginalised by the defeat of their caliphate.
Whether EU members beyond Italy will realise the commonality of interest between Moscow and Brussels in stabilising the Middle East while combating terrorism remains to be seen but there is more reason for optimism than in US Middle Eastern policy. It is becoming more and more pro-Israeli, anti-Iran and increasingly disinterested in terrorism, unless it affects the continental United States directly.
Russian concerns about Libya’s political stability are not totally altruistic. Like other nations, Russia is interested in rebuilding Libya’s battered hydrocarbon-producing infrastructure.
Prior to the 2011 NATO intervention, Libya, possessor of Africa’s largest oil reserves, was producing 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil. Assuming that the political situation stabilises, the government in Tripoli plans to increase oil output from existing fields to 1.4 million bpd by the end of 2019.
Libya has been torn by conflict since long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia can have a major effect on international efforts to end the Libyan civil war.
In it, forces and militia backed by the UN-backed Government of National Accord are battling the Libyan National Army, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and earlier ostensibly supported by Russia.
Last year, Russian media reported that Haftar, during a visit to Moscow, told the Russian government that after he gained control over oil exports through National Oil Company facilities in Benghazi, Russian companies would be able to export oil from the country’s “oil crescent” terminals, along the coast from Sirte to Ras Lanuf.
Three months ago, Haftar’s forces launched an offensive to take Tripoli but the initiative has faded and Russia and the international community, far from seeking overt intervention, have basically adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Russia’s strongest support for Haftar now is its veto power in the Security Council.
The arrival in Libya of ISIS militants fleeing Syria is introducing a malignant wildcard into the Libyan binary stalemate, which the international community will be unable to manage or limit.
Two days after Putin’s warning, ISIS’s Libyan cell reaffirmed its loyalty to self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, expressing readiness to fight on the side of the group.
ISIS’s intention from its inception has been to radicalise the global Muslim community to wage jihad to further the establishment of a transnational Islamic state. The transfer of ISIS terrorists from Syria to lawless regions of Libya, where they can regroup and flourish, is particularly unsettling to Russia, whose population is nearly 10% Muslim, heavily concentrated in the country’s restive Caucasian regions.
Russia’s pragmatic solution to terrorism is to eliminate terrorists where they incubate. Whether the international community will see beyond its issues with Putin’s government and heed his warnings about Syrian terrorism incubating in the Maghreb “going anywhere else” is another matter. source