How Russia Became The Middle East's New Power Broker

On the morning of January 11, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar climbed up the companionway of an aircraft carrier floating off the Mediterranean port of Tobruk. As a Marine band played and an honor guard presented arms, an admiral in a white full-dress uniform greeted the Libyan strongman, who was a senior commander in the U.S.-backed rebel forces that ousted the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. After the welcoming ceremony, the 73-year-old Haftar, an American citizen who for many years lived in the United States, was escorted below decks for a secure video conference with the Middle East’s most energetic foreign power broker. The official topic was battling terrorists. But both sides knew the unofficial agenda was something else: how to boost Haftar’s power as he tries to defeat a weak, U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

Haftar has close ties in Washington, but his hosts in January were not American. Rather, he was aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, and his interlocutor was Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Like a growing number of leaders in the Middle East, Haftar has a new set of friends in Moscow. After three decades on the sidelines, Russia is once again a major player in the region. In the last six months alone, the country has altered the course of the Syrian civil war and taken control of the peace process, forged a close relationship with Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has been courting traditional U.S. allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Israel. And over the past two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has received the leaders of Middle Eastern states 25 times—five more than former U.S. President Barack Obama, according to a Newsweek analysis of presidential meetings.

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