April 7, 2017

The Middle East and North Africa. Analytical Review 03/2017

 

Oleksiy Volovych

The Military-Political Situation in March 2017

 

In March 2017 the situation in the region was complex, and in a number of countries, unstable. Armed conflicts do not stop in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and other countries of the region. The fifth round of inter-Syrian negotiations in Geneva on 23–31 March to resolve the conflict in Syria took place against the background of the terrorist groups' aggravation of fighting in this country. In Iraq there continued the positional fighting for the liberation of Western Mosul from the ISIS fighters. In Yemen, the troops of loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi are fighting against the supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the outskirts of the port of Al Hudaydah and the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. In Libya, Field Marshal Kh. Haftar, representing the House of Representatives in Tobruk, with the support of Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and some Western countries, is strengthening its positions in confrontation with the ISIS militants, local Libyan groups and the troops of the Government of National Unity led by F. Sarraj in Tripoli.

 

SYRIA

Fighting. In March, in general, the government army and armed opposition groups observed the cease-fire regime. However, the number of violations of the cessation of hostilities does not decrease, there are cases of an open breaking the truce. Government troops and allied forces continued to attack the positions of the ISIS militants in the north of the country in the provinces of Aleppo and Homs. The most difficult situation is in the area of Manbij north-east of Aleppo, where the Syrian army, the armed forces of the “Syrian Free Army” (FSA), supported by the Turkish forces, and mainly the Kurdish “Forces of Democratic Syria” (SDF), receiving assistance from American special forces, are acting simultaneously. Turkey insists that Kurdish forces should leave this city.

March 6, the Syrian army, backed by militias, regained control over oil wells at the Jezal oil field north-east of Palmyra. March 7, government forces drove ISIS militants out of El-Hafsa village near Aleppo, where there is the largest water tower. Returning the control of this facility will allow the authorities to establish water supply to Aleppo and its suburbs. In the province of Homs on 5 March, Syrian troops seized a military airfield, located to the southeast of the city of Tadmor (Palmyra), and on 10 March — the “al-Jarra” air base.

In the middle of March in the central part of the country, Syrian troops, with the support of Russian aviation, continued their successful offensive against the ISIS militants east of Palmyra. Fierce fighting was fought in the city of Deir ez-Zor in the northeast of the SAR, where the ISIS militants repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, attacked the positions of government troops. The Kurdish formations of the SDF alliance with intensive support from the Western Coalition's aviation established control over the suburbs of Raqqa. The representative of the SDF said that the city “is isolated from the rest of Syria”. Preparing for the defense, the ISIS' rebels are building fortifications around the city.

On 23–24 March, the FSA formations fought against government troops in the districts of Jobar and Al-Kabun in Damascus. In the battles also participated the Islamist group “Failak ar-Rahman”, whose representatives are present at the negotiations in Geneva. The force of this group is 9 thousand people. During the fighting, up to 470 militants were killed.

In general, at the end of March, there was a sharp escalation of hostilities in the provinces of Damascus and Hama with the participation of different jihadist groups and units of “rebels”. A large number of terrorists are constantly attacking government troops, and, apparently, the conflict in Syria will not be over soon.

The situation around Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. In early March, the SDF forces with the help of US special task forces gained control over the main heights on the relatively distant approaches to Raqqa, where the deployment of American artillery is planned. Syrian Kurds hope that after liberation from ISIS militants, the city will become part of the Kurdish autonomy, which the Kurds are supposed to create in the north of Syria. According to some experts, the US President Donald Trump's administration, apparently, will postpone the operation to release the city from the ISIS militants at least until mid-April in order to resolve the issue of the Turkish troops' participation in the operation for its liberation, which Ankara insistently demands.

The transfer to the area of Raqqa of special task forces and howitzer artillery of the US Marine Corps indicates that the Pentagon will try not to resort to the help of Turkish troops in the liberation of the city. The reason for delaying the attack on Raqqa is the insufficient air support, since most of the Coalition's aviation is now operating near Mosul.

According to the information of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in late March, dozens of representatives of the command of the terrorist group “Islamic State” and members of their families left Raqqa. In the middle of March, 300 ISIS fighters left the city. Some of them fled to the region of Hama, and part — to the province of Deir ez-Zor.

Supplying government troops in the surrounded by ISIS militants Deir ez-Zor, is the main problem after the terrorists blockade of the airfield. Syrian and Russian planes are dropping food, essential goods, water for the population, as well as ammunition and fuel — for the Syrian troops, who have tried (so far unsuccessfully) to break through the blockade.

March 30, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced the completion of the “Shield of the Euphrates” operation. The official statement says that the operation aimed at “ensuring the security of the borders of our country, preventing the threat of an attack coming from the terrorist organization of the ISIS, giving an opportunity to our Syrian brothers who left their places of residing, to return to the country” was successfully completed. The statement says that during the operation, 71 Turkish soldier was killed, about 3,000 armed terrorists were eliminated and a territory of 2,000 square kilometers was liberated. The statement stresses that Turkey's allies (the USA and Russia)'s supporting with the money and weapons the groups declared terrorists (Syrian Kurds) in Ankara, can damage friendly relations with them. It should be noted that this statement had been spread before the meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who arrived in Ankara on March 30 on a one-day official visit.

According to some experts, as because of the USA and Russia's opposing, Turkey failed to realize the strategic task of capturing Raqqa and Manbij independently, the termination of the “Shield of the Euphratus” military operation was an enforced measure for Ankara. Turkey also failed to separate the Kurdish cantons located to the west and east of the Euphrates, in order to prevent creation of Kurdish autonomy in the North of Syria. Besides, the “successful” completion of the operation is of great political importance on the eve of voting on the issue of constitutional amendments, which will be held on 16 April.

The completion of the “Shield of the Euphrates” operation does not mean that Turkey will withdraw its troops from Syria. This is evidenced by the fact that in addition to the already existing military base in Akhtarin, the Turkish Army has begun to create a second military base in the area of El Bab, after the liberation of which, in accordance with the agreement with the Russian Federation, the Turks had to transfer it to the Syrian Army, but have not done so. Besides, Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic B. Yildirim has stated that “if in the future we need to do something in Syria, it will be another operation under a different name”. Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu has said that “Turkish troops will remain in Syria until local forces take control of the situation”.

Rex Tillerson's visit to Turkey. On 30 March, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson visited Turkey, where he held “tense negotiations” with President R. Erdogan and other Turkish leaders. During the talks, R. Tillerson said that the decision on the fate of President of the Syrian Arab Republic B. Assad should be taken by the population of Syria. R. Erdogan raised the issue of the situation in the Syrian city of Manbij and pointed out that the USA should stop its assistance to the Syrian Kurdish party “Democratic Union”, which is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish authorities. The issue of the possible extradition to Turkey of the US-based Islamic preacher F. Gulen, whom Ankara considers responsible for the attempted putsch of July 15, 2016, was also discussed. R. Tillerson left these Turkish demands unanswered, pointing out that Turkey is Washington's “key partner” in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

In recent months, the Israeli aviation's have repeatedly conducted airstrikes against the military facilities on the Syrian territory. On 17 March, Israel's military aircrafts raided the infrastructure of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Homs. During this operation, Syrian AD systems allegedly shot down one of the Israeli aircraft. However, Israel stated that there were no losses among the planes, and the missile launched by the Syrians was shot down by the Israeli Air Force’s Hetz-3 (Arrow-3) AD system. Earlier, an Israeli UAV, violating the airspace of the SAR in the region of the province of al-Quneitra in the Syrian Golan Heights, occupied by Israel, was shot down by the government's Air Defense. On 19 March, Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman promised to destroy the Syrian AD systems if they open fire against Israeli aviation.

Peaceful Settlement Attempts. March 10, the UN Security Council in its statement called on the delegations of the official Damascus and the Syrian opposition to conduct a dialogue constructively and without preconditions. The Security Council's statement stresses that the only solution to the crisis in Syria is through a comprehensive inter-Syrian political process based on the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012 and the statements of the International Syria Support Group.

The fifth round of the inter-Syrian talks, held in Geneva on 23–31 March, did not ensure significant progress in the political settlement of the Syrian conflict. The participants in the discussions were not able to bring their positions closer together on the main topics (transitional government, constitution, elections, struggle against terrorism). The opposition's High Negotiations Committee insisted on the consideration of the issue of the transitional government first thing, while representatives of Damascus suggested discussing the topic of fighting terrorism. Representatives of the Kurdish National Council suspended their work in the delegation of the High Negotiations Committee, as the promises given to the Kurds to bring issues of national minorities for discussion in Geneva were not met. Syrian Kurds, who participated in the negotiations, demanded autonomy for the Kurdish territories as part of the future confederative Syrian state. The main positive result of Geneva-5 was the fact that the parties agreed to continue negotiations. The sixth round of inter-Syrian negotiations in Geneva is tentatively scheduled for mid-May, after the meeting on Syria in Astana on 3–4 May. As it has become known, on 30 March, S. de Mistura's authorities of the UN Special Representative for Syria were prolonged for another 6 months.

The next round of inter-Syrian talks was planned for March 14–15 in Astana, but they were thwarted because of the non-arrival in Astana of the pro-Turkish armed opposition, whose representatives claim that they boycotted the talks because “Damascus and Moscow failed to fulfill their promises to end the hostilities”. But this is a formal explanation. Considering the fact that the Turkish special services fully control the actions of the pro-Turkish opposition, the decision to boycott the talks in Astana was made in Ankara after Erdogan's unsuccessful visit to Moscow on 10 March, when he failed to persuade V. Putin to stop supporting Syrian Kurds.

Another manifestation of Ankara's dissatisfaction with the outcome of the talks in Moscow was the termination of ferry communication with the Crimea. To all that, Turkey has introduced customs duties on the import of Russian wheat due to the fact that the Russian Federation has not completely removed the ban on the supply of Turkish agricultural products. On 3 April, Turkey's Navy frigate TCG “Gaziantep” and corvette TCG “Heybeliada” arrived in Odesa on a friendly visit. On the same day the commanders of the ships met with the Command of the Ukrainian Navy and the leadership of the Odesa regional state administration. It is unlikely that this event was to the liking of the Kremlin strategists.

Important for the development of the Syrian conflict in early 2017 is the split among jihadist groups operating in the Idlib province, which today is the main center of the jihad resistance in the North of Syria. The split occurred between the Salafi groups, supported by Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and by the groups supported by Turkey and Qatar, on the other, and this greatly facilitates the peace process in Syria. In our opinion, there will be no positive results of the peace process in Syria until mutual understanding and interaction are reached between the foreign players (the United States, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran), which today have opposite interests in Syria.

 

IRAQ

Armed Hostilities. Since last October, the Iraqi Army, with the support of Kurdish militias and the International Coalition led by the United States, has been conducting an operation to liberate the second largest city of the country, Mosul, from the militants of the ISIS. In March, terrorist groups yielded up actually without striking a blow the quarters in the western part of the city, where government and administrative buildings are located, and moved to the quarters of the old city with its narrow streets. This terrorists' maneuver makes it impossible to use tanks, aviation and artillery, as this could lead to large losses among civilians in this part of the city. For this reason, the offensive by Iraqi and US troops in Western Mosul has largely slowed down. The ISIS' militants put “living shields” almost at every step. Since the beginning of the operation to liberate Western Mosul, more than 400 townspeople have died. On 17 March alone, as a result of one air raid of the US Coalition, 150 to 200 civilians were killed. The number of civilian casualties has become critical, and now the US military are rapidly developing options for an offensive with smaller humanitarian risks for the city's population.

Never before had US troops in Iraq encountered such fierce resistance. According to Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, Commander of the US troops in Iraq and Syria, he for the first time has witnessed such “fierce close combat clashes” that are now being observed in western quarters of Mosul. The remaining ISIS fighters are practically suicide bombers, who, fighting to the last, will not break out of the city.

The units of the Iraqi Army have come very close to the an-Nuri cathedral mosque of the 12th century in the old city, where June 29, 2014, the leader of the ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of his “caliphate” in Mosul. Earlier, the terrorists' leaders and their families left Mosul and headed towards Anbar province. It is believed that among them could be the ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

According to the Iraqi information portal Iraq Business News, in the second half of March, as part of the operation to liberate Western Mosul, the Iraqi Army managed to take control of a complex of government buildings in the center of Mosul. Iraqi military servicemen, with the help of American special task forces, now control two of the five half-ruined bridges across the Tigris. With all options for the development of the situation, the fate of Mosul is in fact predetermined — within the coming weeks the ISIS' militants will be finally expelled from there.

The USA — Iraq. March 20, Washington hosted talks between US President D. Trump and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, during which bilateral relations and issues of struggle against the “Islamic State” were discussed. D. Trump assured the Prime Minister of Iraq that his administration would assist Iraq in its struggle against the ISIS. D. Trump and H. al-Abadi agreed on strengthening trade ties and expanding cooperation in the energy sector.

Baghdad has formally appealed to Washington with a request to consider the possibility of placing additional US military units in the Anbar province immediately after the capture of Mosul. According to Iraqi intelligence, the leader of the ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, along with his deputies and key field commanders, is currently in the desert areas of the Anbar province in Eastern Iraq. In this province, where the rear bases have already been established, ISIS terrorists are coming from Syria, in particular from Raqqa.

According to Iraqi special services, in the mountainous areas of the Sunni provinces, the ISIS' militants managed to create strong points with a ramified system of underground tunnels and bunkers. In this regard, the Iraqi leadership has appealed to the Pentagon with the request to transfer there additional US units with experience of fighting in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Washington reacted positively to the request, since the deployment of US troops immediately in the ISIS' combat zones is in line with the Pentagon's current anti-terrorist strategy, which is to ensure that the administration of D. Trump tackles combat missions in the Middle East first of all by its own forces, not committing themselves too much to local forces loyal to the USA.

At this, Baghdad and Washington's main priority is pacification of the Sunni tribes in the Anbar province. Seeking a compromise with the tribal elite of the province is the main task of the Iraqi leadership to date. As the first condition for the beginning of a dialogue on separation of powers, the tribal Sunni elite demands a withdrawal of Shiite forces from the province. Currently, representatives of the main tribes in the province of Anbar (Dulaim, Zoba and Shammar) are lobbying in Washington for the deployment in the province of US troops instead of Iraqi ones.

Currently, the Pentagon is working out the conditions for the presence of American forces in the Anbar province, including their security and interaction with the local tribal elite. All this pushes the idea that Americans are risking once again getting bogged down in Iraq seriously and for a long time. And this is not at all what D. Trump called for in his election campaign. He called for the USA' interfering as little as possible in local conflicts in the Middle East. However, realities dictate their own rules of actions, far from speculative and abstract declarations.

UN — Iraq. On 30–31 March, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres visited Iraq. During the meeting with Iraqi President Fuad Maasum, humanitarian aspects of the situation in the country were discussed, especially in the northern regions, where there are active armed hostilities. A. Guterres urged the Iraqi leadership to facilitate the speedy return of refugees to the liberated provinces, and to provide them with everything necessary, while emphasizing the UN's continued support. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi drew the UN Secretary General's attention to the fact “that the Iraqi people were able to debunk the myth of the invincibility of the “Islamic state”. Iraq's Premier urged the UN to intensify its aid and assistance to Iraq in solving humanitarian problems.

After a meeting with the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament S. al-Jabouri, A. Guterres held a working meeting with the leadership of the UN mission in the country (UNAMI). Then he left for the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, where he held talks with the President of the Kurdish Autonomy Masud Barzani. The UN Secretary General highly appreciated the actions of the Kurdish militia of Peshmerga in the fight against terrorists and reaffirmed the UN's intention to continue providing all the necessary material and moral support to the Iraqi Kurds. M. Barzani informed the UN Secretary General about the intention to hold a referendum on the state sovereignty of the Iraqi Kurdistan in the near future. According to some experts, this decision of the radical forces of the Kurdish Autonomy of Iraq, confident of the support of the United States, the European Union and Turkey, could result in future military clashes between the Kurdish armed groups and the Iraqi Army, since the central government in Baghdad is categorically against the Iraqi Kurdistan's separation from Iraq.

 

YEMEN

Armed Hostilities. In March, military clashes in Yemen were minor and the situation as a whole remained without much change and active actions of the warring parties. In general, the Yemeni conflict is increasingly becoming a positional war. Neither the Houthis, nor the Arabian Coalition can boast of serious victories. This situation completely suits Al-Qaeda, which is increasingly spreading its influence in the South of Yemen.

March 9, the government's army approached the capital of Sanaa, captured by the Houthis’ rebels, having established control over a number of strategically important positions in its outskirts. To the Houthis' successful offensive operations in the northern province of Sa'ada, the Saudis responded with massive bombardments in the area.

In mid-March, the Houthis launched another missile attack on the King Salman air base in Saudi Arabia. As a result, 10 Saudi soldiers died and several dozen were injured. For this action, Iranian missiles were used — Ghader. American air defense systems MIM-104 Patriot, defending the base from air attacks, could not hit Iranian missiles.

Currently, the Arabian Coalition is preparing an offensive against the last controlled by the Houthis sea port — Al Hudaydah. At the moment the Coalition's forces are deployed 120 km south of it. According to some reports, in response to the requests of the KSA and the United Arab Emirates, the USA agreed to take an active part in this operation by providing material and technical assistance. Taking the port of Al Hudaydah will mean almost complete food blockade of Houthis, because about 80 % of all food comes to the country through it.

Sudan Mercenaries in Yemen. According to some experts, under Khartoum's agreement with Abu Dhabi, to Aden were delivered 6,000 Janjaweed (ghosts) — irregular paramilitary groups of Arab tribal militia from the Sudanese province of Darfur, who so “effectively” showed themselves in the war against the Darfur rebels, that fell into the category of war criminals according to the verdict of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The basis of the Sudanese expeditionary corps will be fighters from the tribe “Rezeigat”. KSA and the UAE will be financing the training and equipment of the fighters. It is assumed that the Janjaweed will basically guard the borders between the KSA and Yemen, as well as the former border between the PDRY and the YR. It seems that the use of Sudanese thugs in the civil war in Yemen will not do much good to the international reputation of the UAE and the Arabian Coalition as a whole.

Sending Janjaweed to Yemen means that the Emirates and Saudis intend to minimize their participation in the Yemeni conflict. By sending the Janjaweed to Yemen, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir intends to strengthen allied relations with the KSA and the UAE, which will make it easier for him to receive the Arabian monarchies' financial and diplomatic assistance to support Sudan's economic stability and to have the USA and EU's economic sanctions lifted. Until recently, regular Sudanese forces were present in Yemen, consisting of 3,000 servicemen who did not take part in active hostilities.

Humanitarian Disaster. According to the UN, over the past two years, Yemen has been affected by a humanitarian catastrophe. In 2016, the number of starving people in Yemen reached 7 million people. Since the intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into the Yemeni conflict, about 6,000 people have died, half of which are civilians. According to some reports, Saudi Arabia uses cluster bombs bought from the UK. The peculiarity of cluster bombs is that all ammunition does not always explode, as a result of which civilians may suffer after the end of the battles. Therefore, in 2010 an international agreement entered into force banning the use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions.

In Yemen, about 14 million people do not have guaranteed access to food, every 10th person was forced to leave his/her home. At the end of March, terrorist attacks in the country claimed the lives of several dozen Yemenis. According to the British expert Andrew Mitchell, Saudi Arabia, actually carrying out the seizure of a sovereign country and putting people on the brink of survival, has achieved only that Yemenis brought to despair begin to unite against the foreign enemy.

The United States' Role in the Yemeni Conflict. Counterterrorism operations in Yemen are conducted in coordination with the Arabian Coalition led by the KSA. The joint operational headquarters, including representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is located in the city of Sharurah in the South of Saudi Arabia.

March 14, Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud met in the White House with US President Donald Trump. (D. Trump's first meeting with Prince M. bin Salman took place immediately after the US President's inauguration on 20 January). During the talks, they discussed economic relations between the two countries and the war in Yemen and Syria. The main goal of Prince M. bin Salman's visit to Washington was to enlist the support and assistance of the United States in the Arabian Coalition's offensive on the port of Al Hudaydah. And after such assistance (within the framework of logistical support operations, the transfer of space reconnaissance data and the targeting of aviation) had been firmly promised, the leadership of the KSA and the UAE made the final decision to conduct an operation to seize the port of Al Hudaydah, the beginning of which is scheduled for early April. In addition to Saudi and emirate troops, the operation will include the southern Yemeni “Haraqat” controlled by the UAE and the above-mentioned Sudanese “Janjaweed”. Formally, the operation will be commanded by the former (in 1986–1990) Minister of Defense of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen General Haytham Qasim. According to the calculations of the Saudi Command, the capture of the last major sea port of Al Hudaydah will block the main channel for the delivery of material and technical assistance to the Houthis and will allow to start the siege of the country's capital, Sanaa.

Prospects for a Peaceful Settlement. March 29, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Yemen, Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed appealed to the UN Security Council with a request to exert pressure on the government and rebels to force them to conclude a peace agreement. In the middle of March, the Special Envoy presented to the conflicting parties a settlement plan that included a withdrawal of paramilitary formations from settlements, as well as formation of a transitional government. However, all the signs are that as of today, neither President of Yemen A. Hadi, backed by the KSA, nor the pro-Iranian Houthis in the union with the former president of the country, A. Saleh, are going to agree on anything.

The Houthis have called on UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to replace the Special Envoy of the Organization for Yemen Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed with a more acceptable candidate. The Houthis did not like another plan for the settlement, developed by Sheikh Ahmed, which actually provides for the capitulation of the Houthis — surrender of weapons and disbandment of their units.

 

LIBYA

Armed Hostilities. In mid-March, in the Libyan capital Tripoli there were clashes between the supporters of ex-Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghawil (Misurata clan) and the groups subordinated to the Presidential Council under the leadership of the head of the Government of National Accord Faiz Sarraj (Tripoli clan). In the clashes, the sides used tanks and artillery. One of the shells hit the building of the Ukrainian Embassy in Tripoli. The cause for street fighting was the abduction of local residents for ransom and robbery. A few days later, the warring clans, with the Algerian mediation, reached an armistice agreement, providing for a withdrawal of all military equipment and armed groups from Tripoli, as well as a release of the captured fighters of the warring factions. The clashes in Tripoli once again demonstrated the political and military weakness of F. Sarraj's government, whose viability largely depends on Algeria's assistance.

In early March, Islamists from the “Benghazi Defenders Brigade” seized the Libyan cities of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, where the country's largest oil terminals are located. Field Marshal Kh. Haftar's Libyan National Army struck the “Benghazi Brigades” from land, air and sea and by March 15 forced them to leave practically all the objects they had seized earlier. Kh. Haftar accuses Qatar and Turkey of supporting the “Benghazi Brigades” and other Islamist groups in Libya. Indeed, it seems that Libya is currently undergoing a joint operation by Doha, Riyadh and Ankara to dramatically change the balance of forces in the country in their favor, and most importantly — to seize oil flows in Libya. The success of this operation will mean the failure of Brussels and Algeria's attempts to reach a compromise in the sphere of power sharing between Tobruk and Tripoli.

At the end of March, the Libyan National Army, under the command of Field Marshal Kh. Haftar, began the “Operation Quicksand” to liberate the southern region of the country from militants of extremist groups. Within the framework of the operation, the area from the oasis of El-Jufra to the main city of the Sebha region is declared a closed military zone.

The Russian Factor in Libya. Russia's activity in Libya is increasingly visible. In geopolitical terms, the Kremlin, along with Syria, is trying to gain a foothold in northern Africa, in order to strengthen its presence in the Mediterranean. In Libya, Moscow is looking for an opportunity to renew multibillion-dollar contracts, both in the sphere of arms deliveries, and in the development of the oil-producing infrastructure. On 2 March, the head of the Government of the National Accord of Libya, Faiz Sarraj visited Moscow on an official visit.

Field Marshal Kh. HaftarThis visit of the Libyan Prime Minister was preceded by Moscow's contacts with the representative of the competing House of Representatives in Tobruk in eastern Libya — Field Marshal Kh. Haftar, who visited Moscow three times (in June, November and December). On 11 January, Kh. Haftar visited the Russian aircraft carrying cruiser “Admiral Kuznetsov”, where he talked with Russian Defense Minister S. Shoigu during a videoconference. The Field Marshal then stated that he was ready to give his territory to the Russian military to fight against the “Islamic State” in Libya. While F. Sarraj's visit to Moscow was just a formally protocol one, the contacts with Kh. Haftar are more important for the Kremlin, since, unlike F. Sarraj, the Field Marshal has real power in Libya at the moment.

Although Kh. Haftar after the conflict with M. Gaddafi in the late 1980s has lived in the United States for about 20 years, Russia is also not a stranger to him. He twice studied in the USSR — in 1977–1978 he graduated from the course “Vystrel” near Moscow, and in 1983 he studied at the Military Academy named after M. Frunze. 73-year-old Kh. Haftar speaks good Russian. His figure attracted the Kremlin's strategists' attention for several reasons: he controls the largest part of the country's territory, commands the largest military formations, and most importantly — under his control are the main oil fields in the country and the ports through which the oil is exported.

According to Reuters, in March 2017, Russia sent its special task forces unit to an airbase in Sidi-Barrani in Western Egypt, 100 km from the border with Libya, allegedly for further transfer to Libya to support Kh. Haftar's “National Army”. Operators of unmanned aerial vehicles were also stationed there. According to the agency, there are Russian servicemen at an Egyptian military base in Mersa Matruh, 200 km from the border with Libya. The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation denies this information. According to some reports, the Russian private security company O. Krinitshin's RSB Group has sent dozens of specialists to the sectors controlled by Kh. Haftar to demine the oil infrastructure.

General Thomas WaldhauserIn Libya, the element of Russia's rivalry with the West is clearly visible. Not all European countries welcome the RF's presence in Libya. Obviously, NATO overthrew the Gaddafi regime not for the sake of making Libya pro-Russian again. For example, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon at the recent Munich Security Conference said: “We don't need the bear sticking his paws in”, to which S. Shoigu responded that “the British zoo has not yet got an animal able to defeat the Russian bear”.

March 24, in his report to the Pentagon, Commander of the African Command of the US Armed Forces (AFRICOM), General Thomas Waldhauser, said that he was worried by the Russian Federation's growing influence in Libya. According to him, Russia seeks to change the course of events in Libya in its favor, and this raises fears. The Commander of the US Armed Forces in Africa also confirmed the presence of Russian military units in Egypt near the Egyptian-Libyan border. T. Waldhauser informed the media that the United States will deploy a military contingent in Libya for intelligence purposes and will cooperate with the UN-sponsored government of F. Sarraj in Tripoli. So, the USA and Russia, both in Syria and in Libya, have turned out to be on opposite sides of the barricade.