Turkey's growing official military role in Libya supporting the Tripoli Government of National Accord (GNA) has long been documented, but Russia's role less so — in the past months mercenaries from Russian contractor firm Wagner Group have been reported fighting for Haftar's LNA.
That has changed apparently, as initial reports that Russia recently transferred multiple MiG-29 fighters along with Su-24 jets have been confirmed, with the Pentagon releasing a series of photos showing the fighters in Libya.
This after Bloomberg reported a week ago at least “six Mig-29 and two Su-24 aircraft escorted by two Russian Air Force Su-35s” have arrived in Libya.
The aircraft were believed transferred from Hmeimim Airbase in Syria, where Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) said they'll be used against Turkish targets "in all occupied cities" - again underscoring the expanding nature of what's become another international proxy war in the Mideast-North Africa region.
The timing of the Pentagon release of the photo series is especially interesting given President Trump's weekend phone call with Turkey's Erdogan, wherein Trump slammed "foreign interference in Libya" - though it wasn't clear if the statement was geared toward Erdogan himself, given Turkey's deep military involvement, or in reference to Moscow's greater role in assisting Haftar.
“President Trump reiterated concern over worsening foreign interference in Libya and the need for rapid de-escalation,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement over the call.
A US Africa Command press release alleged the Russian jets entered to the country to support Wagner Group forces on the ground, after further "they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin," according to the statement.
"Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner," said AFRICOM commander Army Gen. Stephen Townsend.
"For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way," Gen. Townsend added.
"Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia."
"Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions," the AFRICOM statement said.
The new Libya conflict 2.0 presents an interesting case study in evolving and confused US policy in the region. While the US still officially supports the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, Trump himself on multiple occasions over the past year has praised Haftar's ability to "secure the oil".
State Department officials also last fall met with Haftar's political team, though it's as yet unclear the degree of US-LNA potential behind-the-scenes cooperation.
However, the Pentagon statement was clear in condemning any level of Russian involvement in the theater.
"The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be #Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb #Libyans."— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand) May 26, 2020
- Gen. Townsend, AFRICOM commander
Photos: https://t.co/raTal1LKPa pic.twitter.com/3P1IPQsLvo
It should be noted that Haftar was a longtime CIA asset (and US dual citizen) while he spent over two decades in exile living in Virginia during the last part of Gaddafi's rule.
Currently, Haftar's army has suffered major setbacks as Turkey ramps up support to its Tripoli ally.