The United States has accused Russia of worsening the situation in war-torn Libya and funneling Syrian mercenaries to support Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar in his battle to capture the capital, Tripoli.
The comments from top State Department officials on May 7 came a day after a UN report confirmed between 800 and 1,200 military contractors from Russia’s Vagner Group are actively fighting alongside Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army that controls eastern Libya.
The report from a UN panel monitoring Libya sanctions said the Russian private security firm, which is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has "acted as an effective force multiplier" for Haftar’s command as they fight the internationally recognized Government of National Accord based in the west of the North African country.
Russian support to Haftar "has led to a significant escalation of the conflict and a worsening of the humanitarian situation in Libya," said Chris Robinson, a State Department official who focuses on Russia.
The Vagner Group is “often misleadingly referred to as a Russian private security company, but in fact it's an instrument of the Russian government which the Kremlin uses as a low-cost and low-risk instrument to advance its goals," Robinson told reporters.
Libya has been torn by civil war since a NATO-backed popular uprising ousted and killed the North African country’s longtime dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The report said forces affiliated with the Government of National Accord had captured arms "typical of the weaponry observed being used by [Vagner] operatives elsewhere in eastern Ukraine and Syria.” It also said Vagner forces use equipment typical of the Russian military.
Robinson told reporters that the "very heavy and advanced weapons" the Vagner Group wields in Libya indicates it is not a private company.
Moscow has denied the Russian state is responsible for any deployments.
Libya’s conflict has drawn in multiple regional actors, with Russia, France, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates backing Haftar’s command.
Turkey, which deployed troops, drones, and Syrian rebel mercenaries to Libya in January, supports the government in Tripoli alongside Qatar and Italy.
The UN panel said that a Russian company has been recruiting Syrians to fight in Libya since at least the beginning of 2020.
Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, told reporters the United States believes Russia is working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer militia fighters and equipment to Libya.
"We know that, certainly the Russians are working with Assad to transfer militia fighters, possibly [a] third country, possibly Syrian, to Libya, as well as equipment," he said.
Henry Wooster, a State Department official in charge of North Africa, urged Russia to wield its influence to get Haftar’s eastern government and the UN-recognized government in the west of the country to return to talks.
Previous rounds of peace talks in France, Italy, Russia, and Germany have failed to yield a breakthrough to end the fighting.
Western diplomats have blamed Haftar’s intransigence coupled with his belief that he can control all of oil-rich Libya through a military solution for the failure of talks. But Russia, too, has been unable or unwilling to fully leverage its relationship with the warlord to push for a cease-fire.
Asked if Haftar's foreign supporters could persuade him to halt his offensive on Tripoli given recent battlefield setbacks, Wooster said: "I don’t think that in the near-term offing, at least in the foreseeable future, there’s any likely prospect whatsoever that that would happen.”
"For as long as there is an objective they can meet through Haftar as an instrument, we don’t see them backing down," Wooster said.
The United States has urged all sides of the conflict to de-escalate, but its position is complicated by the mixed signals it has sent.
In April 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump praised Haftar after a phone call. Haftar is also backed by Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, close U.S. regional partners who view the strongman as a blunt force to counter Islamist militias and political groups aligned with the Tripoli government.
But Wooster said that the United States does not support Haftar and opposes his offensive on Tripoli, adding that it is a distraction from fighting extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda that have taken advantage of the chaos.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters