Haftar seized back the ports by March 15 and,as fighting broke out in Tripoli, it was revealed that Russian special forces and drones had been deployed on the ground in order to assist the LNA from an air base in Western Egypt. Russia supports an elected Parliament in Tobruk while the West backs an unelected GNA government in the capital.
Immediately US voices condemned Russian meddling. Geoff Porter opined “As in Syria, Russia’s interest is opportunistic Moscow saw an opening that was afforded to it by Washington’s lack of leadership.”. Senator Lindsey Graham called on Rex Tillerson, Trump's Secretary of State, to put these actions "on the radar screen".
US condemnation of Russia for backing General Haftar is curious given how he was once courted by Washington as a means to impose a new order. Chris Stephen states that 'Haftar has been spurned by most western diplomats'. Officially, it's true but for years he was in exile in North Virginia near Langley and was a CIA asset until 2003.
The hope until the invasion of Iraq in that year had been to have Haftar as a regime replacement for Colonel Gaddafi. However, with the new idea it was better to try installing democracy in Arab lands in order to control oil supplies, as opposed to the old Cold War and colonial era concept of sticking in strongmen clients, he lost favour.
Naturally, the democracy promotion business in Iraq did not have to mean much change elsewhere. In point of fact, where the invasion or Iraq and toppling of Saddam's regime on the basis on non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction', was successful in that it convinced Colonel Gaddafi through diplomacy to give up his 'WMD'.
One main obvious reason that Russia is being criticised for aligning behind Haftar is because the Western Powers are piqued that their 'strongman' has shifted across to Moscow and is battling to control the oil that they thought they would have exclusive access to via backing the GNC in the course of 2012 and 2013.
The entire fault for this debacle was the blundering of Cameron and Sarkozy in 2011 in aligning NATO air power effectively with militias that contained a large number of fanatical jihadists bankrolled by the Gulf States in order to overthrow Gaddafi and then expect a democracy would instantaneously replace a dictatorship.
Much of this was part of a craven attempt too by Britain and France to ingratiate themselves with Qatar in proving that the Western Powers supported the "Arab Spring" for selfless motives, the better to defuse criticism that they backed dictatorships elsewhere, a major cause of Muslim resentment and Islamist recruitment.
The problem was that 'democracy promotion' for Qatar and Turkey was as much, if not much more, about geopolitical strategies and a bid to control east-west flows of energy whether in Syria or ,in fact, in Libya. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States then felt threatened by this and funded rival militias from Qatar and Turkey.
As the civil war broke out and Libya collapsed into a chaos that allowed ISIS to gain ground across the Maghreb and into Sub-Saharan Africa, the 2013 coup in Egypt against the feeble and incompetent Muslim Brotherhood government led by General Sisi ensured that Haftar would align with him against jihadists.
Britain maintains that the era of the strongman in the Libya is over. This is necessary 'public diplomacy' because it is embarrassing to have to admit that the democracy promotion effort of 2011 failed completely and because they have, in practice, been complicit with the victory of Sisi in the strategically vital region of Egypt.
Sisi made plain that if the West was not prepared to support his regime with arms under the 1978 deal,then there were other suitors just as there had been in the Cold War such as Russia. Putin and Sisi sent that message in their 2015 meeting, where infrastructure projects and arms deals were mooted.
What the Western Powers and the fears, or at least the Pentagon as President Trump and his administration might have other ideas, is that Russia via Rosneft and deals with Libya’s National Oil Corporation could extend further their control over the oil, a major source of energy diversification for the EU powers.
Italy: The Soft Underbelly of Europe.
Italy, the old colonial power, depends on Libyan oil. Libya would be a place where Trump could align with Putin, doing an artful deal to "take the oil" or, at least, gain mutual control over resources and migrant flows that affect Italy, a major core EU nation faced with anti-EU forces from within such as Grillo's Five Star Movement.
Putin is vying for strategic influence in lands on the EU's periphery where there are resources or where the lands are vital transit routes for oil and gas ( as with Syria and Ukraine ). By gaining influence over a Libya under Haftar, dependent on Russia and maybe Trump, he would have influence in a land that supplies most of Italy's oil
The Pentagon probably would prefer to avoid this as would political opposition to Trump. Also there is a fear that a Grillo led government in Italy by summer 2017 would lean towards Russia because it wants the migrant flow stemmed immediately by Haftar just as Gaddafi had before after an agreement with Silvio Berlusconi.
Russia would exert leverage over Italian politicians by basically having them and the rest of Europe by the balls. Certainly pro-Trumpismo politicians in Italy would align with both him and Putin and further fracture EU unity. After all, Italy would be far more likely to oppose sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
The New Great Game.
Libya is another cockpit of a brutal new Great Power game involving energy security and control over and access to oil and gas, just as Syria in reality is much the same about that and asserting control over the Mediterranean. It is often forgotten that in 1945, at Yalta, Stalin wanted not only control over the Black Sea Straits but also over Libya.
The same Great Power contests were being fought over Libya as they were in the run up to the Great War in 1914, with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and led by predator powers such as Italy in 1911, in the interwar period with Mussolini's fascist projects and, thereafter, with the Cold War by supporting those who secured oil access.
The stakes are never reported as being such in Western newspapers because the double standard requires that the public sees Russian intervention in Libya as necessarily 'bad' and ours as 'good'. Meanwhile, French air strikes to support the same strongman against Islamist rebels barely enters the newspapers because officially the West does not do that.
After all, if French airstrikes to support Haftar were publicised, it might mean that the claim not to support secular strongmen, such as Russia did in Syria by decisively swinging behind Assad, was untrue and would draw attention to the contradictions and hypocrisy behind the entire strategy of Western 'liberal interventionism'.
Western double standards towards Syria and Libya could be seen in the fact that Western politicians and security spokesmen were indignant when claiming that Russia was primarily targeting not ISIS in Syria but the 'moderate rebels' around Aleppo and Idlib. But, as an Al Jazeera report on the November 2016 French airstrikes reported,
"What's clear is that Western forces are helping Haftar coordinate air strikes in eastern Libya, which is where his base of control is. But the targets there aren't actually Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS)," Karim el Bar, the journalist who reported the story, told Al Jazeera. "They [the targets] are his [Haftar's] political enemies - some of whom are Islamists, some of whom have other political affiliations ... he's undermining the government in Tripoli."One problem for governments in the Western democracies is that the level of public information and free media requires a careful 'public diplomacy' that depicts Western Great Power manoeuvres as only being about humanitarian and security objectives. Never about 'spheres of influence' or, heaven forbid, the oil consumer economies feed off.