Russia eyes Haftar as Libyan strongman as it did with al-Assad in Syria

General Khalifa Haftar (C), commander of the armed forces loyal to the internationally recognised Libyan government, is greeted upon his arrival at Al-Kharouba airport south of the town of al-Marj, about 80 km east of the Mediterranean port city of Benghazi on December 3, 2016 after his visit in Russia. / AFP PHOTO / Abdullah DOMA

Russia threw its weight behind a powerful Libyan army commander, Khalifa Haftar, who’s in conflict with the UN-backed Government of National Accord in there, saying he must have a role in the leadership of the crisis-wracked state, The Sydney Morning Herald said Tuesday.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov criticised the United Nations’ envoy to Libya for favouring other political forces in Libya, it added.

His comments marked Russia’s strongest endorsement yet of Haftar, which may complicate Western-led efforts to shore up the weak, internationally-recognized government in the capital, Tripoli. Russia says the UN-mandated body is ineffective, according to The SMH.

“We believe that the Libyans have to find a compromise on his participation in the new Libyan leadership,” Gatilov said of Haftar, who controls more territory than any other faction in the divided country, in written answers to questions from Bloomberg News.

Russia’s growing role in Libya comes after it turned the tide in Syria’s war through military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad against mostly Islamist rebels, as it seeks to restore some of its Soviet-era influence in the Middle East and wider region.

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