Most Arab countries are going to be affected, at least economically, by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, separately, occupy crucial positions in the economy of most Arab countries; either as top suppliers of wheat, which is a high-demand food product in the Arab region or as tourists who flood in large numbers to the sea resorts of the region during the winter season. Moreover, Russia is one of the main resources of military armament for most of the Arab countries, especially at times when their favorite ally, the United States, abstains from selling them weapons due to their sluggish performance in improving human rights conditions.
However, two Arab countries will be particularly shaken by the geopolitical and security consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war, due to their direct linkage to the Russian regime; they are Syria and Libya. Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine is only an advanced copy of its uncalled-for interventions in Syria and Libya, over the past decade. Ironically, the claim that “Russia had to defend its national security against the expansion of NATO,” which is currently used by Putin and his media propagandists to justify invading Ukraine, was previously used, in 2015 and 2017 respectively, to justify Russia’s interventions in each of Syria and Libya.
Nevertheless, there is a key difference between the three cases. While in Libya and Syria, local officials paved the way for Putin to destroy their countries and kill innocent citizens, in order to keep their political seats; the Ukrainian citizens and their political leadership are standing united in the face of Russia’s aggression in an impressive way that eventually forced the international community to jump in to rescue them. In that sense, it is not a surprise that the Syrian and Libyan political leaderships are the first, among all other Arab countries, to take sharp positions with, or against, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As predictable, their positions are motivated by the role that Russia has been playing in cementing or shaking their thrones.
For example, in Syria, where Russia has been supporting the Assad regime since 2015, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made public statements to praise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “correction of history and a restoration of balance in the global order.” Ironically, the Assad regime was among the first few to applaud Russia’s recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. In contradiction, Assad may easily launch a war on the Kurds of Syria, if they ever try to have an autonomy rule in the northern territories, following the example of the Kurds of Iraq. In 2016, a few months after Russia intervened in Syria, Al-Assad publicly said that he was ready to go to war against the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)” to regain Syria’s control over their territories.
On the other side of the region, and the opposite side of the spectrum of political alignment, Libya’s interim Government of National Unity (GNU), through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, started to reject Russia’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. The statement also condemned the practices of Wagner Group (a Russian private military company that serves the Russian regime), in both Libya and Ukraine. Russia sent Wagner Group’s militia to Libya, in 2017, to support the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Warlord Khalifa Haftar, in the eastern territories, against the former interim Government of National Accord (GNA).
Since the installation of the current Government of National Unity (GNU), in early 2021, there have been several local, regional, and international calls on Russia and Turkey to withdraw their foreign forces from Libya. Yet, neither Russia nor Turkey, which backs the Tripoli-based government, responded positively. But, in mid-February, Western media reports mentioned that Putin withdrew Wagner Group’s militia from Libya to aid in his war on Ukraine, which started a few days after that.
Now, the question is: What does the future hold for Libya and Syria throughout and after the Russia-Ukraine war?
On the bright side, both countries are expected to have an open political space to breathe, as the international community is getting preoccupied with containing Russia. Consequently, Russia is expected to focus all its military and foreign outreach resources on its war with Ukraine and the West. This is something that may take months, if not years, during which Libya and Syria will have to handle domestic politics on their own, without the foreign interventions that complicated their lives in the past decade. However, on the dark side, the extreme political and military divisions, especially those happening in Libya right now, may get out of control and push Libya back down the road of internal armed conflicts.
Libya has a ripe economic opportunity in the current Russia-Ukraine war. As European countries are determined to boycott Russia’s natural gas, Libya is the country with the highest potential to replace Russia, in that regard. Libya is among the top 21 world producers of natural gas, and the 4th top exporter of natural gas to Europe via the GreenStream offshore pipeline (540 km) extending from Mellitah Port in Libya to the shores of Sicily, Italy.
Moreover, Libya enjoys a unique strategic position in the southern Mediterranean, through which it can easily ship cargos of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to Europe, if it effectively cooperates with its immediate neighbor, Egypt, which is currently ascending as a regional LNG hub, in the eastern Mediterranean. Keeping that in mind, Libya’s success in seizing this unique economic opportunity is conditioned by achieving long-term internal political stability, which seems to be a mission impossible right now.
Indeed! The current war between Russia and Ukraine is a turning point in history, as most world leaders noted. The “swift military operation” that Putin launched, for no good reason, on February 24th, has been extending to a serious unprecedented military, diplomatic, and economic clash between Russia and the powers of the West. This long course of action and reaction, employing traditional and modern warfare, will eventually change the face of our world. Now is the perfect time for the smaller countries that have been struggling, for years, under the grip of these global powers, such as Libya and Syria, to take a deep breath and start re-drawing their future with their own hands.
Also, read on The Levant