Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, raised the alarm Thursday about Russian interference in Libya during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill.
“It is very concerning, senator," Waldhauser said in response to Arizona Sen. John McCain's question about Russian involvement in the region. "General Haftar has visited, as you said, on the carrier with the Russians. He's also visited in the country of Russia. Also, this week it's reported in the open press, [Prime Minister Fayez al-] Sarraj from the Government of National Accord has also visited Russia.
In January, Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar — a former general whose militia opposes the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli — was invited onto the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov for a tour and video conference with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army has been waging a battle against ISIS militants and rival political factions in the Libyan city of Benghazi.
The situation in Libya right now is highly “fractured,” Waldhauser told lawmakers.
Powerful militias with varying political allegiances have been waging battle for control of Libya’s coastal cities and oil infrastructure since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011.
“It's difficult to say who is the most powerful partner right now inside Libya, Waldhauser said. "If you took polls, you would see that the Libyan National Army has got great support in the ... east, and the GNA has support in the west.
The fractured state of Libya’s government has created chaos around the region and invited meddling from outside foreign agents and terrorist groups, to include ISIS.
“Senator, Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes, and what entity becomes, in charge of the government inside Libya," Waldhauser told South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. "They're working to influence that decision."
The power vacuum created after the collapse of the Libyan state, with the U.S. and Russia backing rival militia leaders along the Libyan coast, has led to comparisons to the conflict in Syria. And Russia is seeking to exert its influence over Libya much as it has in Syria, Waldhauser said.
The U.S. air campaign targeting ISIS fighters in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte this past fall aided a militia out of the nearby city of Misrata, which backs the Western-supported, U.N.-backed Government of National Accord led by Sarraj. The Misratan forces pushed ISIS fighters out of Sirte and into the desert, but the group still poses a threat to the region.
“The status of ISIS in Libya is they are right now regrouping," Waldhauser said. "They're in small numbers, small groups."
In a Feb. 17 interview with The Associated Press, Waldhauser said massive Jan. 18 airstrikes against ISIS camps in southern Libya killed more than 80 Islamic State militants and generated significant intelligence, including critical computer data, documents and information from prisoner interrogations, which the U.S. could use to track and target more fighters.
Alluding to those airstrikes in his Senate testimony, Waldhauser said Islamic State militants have "scattered again now; they're in small groups, trying to regroup."