Why Libya will remain a battleground for foreign mercenaries

Protesters against Muammar Gaddafi celebrate on 27 February 2011 in Benghazi, Libya. [Getty]
7 min read
22 June, 2021
Analysis: Libya's proxy conflict has emerged as a key theatre for mercenary activity, with foreign fighters unlikely to leave anytime soon.

In February this year, after five months of negotiations, a new transitional government was formed in Libya during UN-led talks in Geneva.

The breakthrough came following a formal truce in October, with the Government of National Unity tasked with unifying Libya’s institutions, preparing for elections, and reconstructing the country after a decade of war.

For multiple actors, however, the conflict in Libya represents a continued opportunity for geopolitical prestige, economic benefits, and influence in North Africa and the wider region.

"Estimates on mercenaries in Libya range from 10,000 to 20,000 fighters - from Russia, Chad, Syria, Sudan, and beyond"

The vote of 74 Libyan delegates in Geneva was the first breakthrough in finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict. But another key dynamic could also shape the country’s future.

On 23 January 2021, all foreign forces in Libya were obliged to leave the country under the provisions of the October ceasefire agreement supported by the UN.

The deal focused mainly on mercenaries, which according to various estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 fighters from Russia, Chad, Syria, Sudan, and beyond.

However, the agreement proved to be another diplomatic setback to resolving the conflict in Libya, which has seen the interests of several countries clash, including France, Italy, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In-depth Rauf Mammadov
Foreign actors have made substantial economic investments in Libya. [Getty]

Months after the deadline passed, and despite public hints of withdrawal, there are no concrete signs that mercenary forces will leave Libya. Indeed, the issue remains a mirage in the corridors of international negotiating rooms.

At the end of January, Russia sent another 300 members of the infamous Wagner mercenary company to Libya to strengthen the defensive lines around the Al Jufra airbase and the city of Sirte.

Russia has set up kilometres of trenches there, bolstered with fortifications, aimed at preventing a possible attack on Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) forces.

Amid such entrenchment, and against the backdrop of a political and diplomatic blockade, analysts warn that a large-scale withdrawal of mercenary forces is unlikely in the near future.

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“On several occasions, Richard Norland, the U.S. Ambassador and Special Envoy on Libya, said the issue of foreign personnel should not be used as an excuse to delay the elections, which are supposed to take at the end of 2021,” Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Geneva-based NGO Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told The New Arab.

“A direct corollary is that, in all likelihood, no one will leave this year.”

There are several reasons for international observers to be concerned, and the reality on the ground is quite different from the aspirations expressed for Libya’s future by diplomats.

Despite a new cabinet in Tripoli and the ceasefire, mercenaries still play a significant role in both the west and the east of Libya.

"Analysts warn that a large-scale withdrawal of mercenary forces is unlikely in the near future"

For example, events surrounding the recent death of Idriss Deby, the former president of Chad, have drawn serious attention to the links between Chadian mercenaries and Khalifa Haftar's forces.

Numerous reports suggest these contacts have not only not decreased, despite the assurances of Haftar's supporters on the international stage, but have intensified.

This complicates the situation even more because it expands the conflict far beyond Libya. Certainly, the use of mercenaries, as well as high-tech weapons such as drones, have become a hallmark of the conflict in Libya.

Just as the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has relied on mercenaries through Turkey, Khalifa Haftar's forces also have the support of private soldiers recruited through the UAE and the Kremlin.

Haftar Libya
Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army is heavily dependent on mercenary forces. [Getty]

But while in the west of Libya the UN-backed GNA uses Syrian mercenaries to bolster its defences and relies on Turkish drones by air, Haftar is heavily dependent on mercenary forces, and this has become even more apparent over the last two or three years.

Russia's group Wagner, linked to the country's military intelligence, is a key element in the UAE, Russia, and Egypt's strategy to support Haftar.

The mercenaries took part in the rebel general's main offensive against the capital, Tripoli, in 2019 and built the defensive lines that currently run along the Sirte-Jufra line.

Wagner's head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was seen in a video with Khalifa Haftar during an official meeting in Moscow in October 2018 - the same month Wagner installed itself in Libya.

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The UAE allegedly also has direct and regular contact with Sudanese mercenary groups, which it equips and pays.

As evidence has recently emerged of the killing of civilians by Wagner members stationed in the Central African Republic, where the Kremlin is backing the local government following the deployment of mercenaries in Libya, warnings by local and foreign observers about the use of hired guns have continued to grow louder.

Similar allegations have been made against Russian mercenaries in Libya, where mass graves and torture rooms have been found in areas once controlled by their forces and those of Haftar. There are similar accusations from Syria as well.

But those looking to Western powers to help remove mercenaries from Libya will be disappointed.

"Mercenaries are a tool of influence and as such will continue to be part of developments in Libya"

“In 2021, the United States is very unlikely to take the kind of action necessary to force the approximately 3,000 Russians now in Libya to leave the country,” Jalel Harchaoui from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime told The New Arab.

“Knowing that, Washington is very unlikely to exert genuine pressure on Turkey’s Libya mission. The latter acts as the only means of containing Russia on the southern flank of NATO”.

Furthermore, due to the multi-layered geopolitical competition in Libya, it seems that the US and EU member states are less concerned by Russia’s influence than Turkey’s role, despite Moscow being effectively in control of Sirte, which is where the ceasefire line is drawn and where tensions remain high.

“The US and EU insist on equating Turkey’s military agreement with the Libyan government with Russia’s unofficial involvement through its Wagner mercenaries, which Russia always denies,” Libyan activist Ahmed Sewehli said during a recent talk on the subject.

Libyan military graduates loyal to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) take part in a parade marking their graduation, a result of a military training agreement with Turkey. [Getty]
Libyan military graduates of the UN-recognised GNA take part in a training agreement with Turkey. [Getty]

The future of mercenaries, unlike that of the country itself, is relatively clear: Russian and African fighters in Haftar’s forces are likely to remain.

Using them is not only cheaper than maintaining a regular army but is also important for Haftar's survival and the influence of supporting countries, including France.

Paris remained silent both on Haftar's actions against the capital, Tripoli, and on revelations about the links between events in Chad and Haftar's role in Russia providing weapons to Chadian rebels.

There are expectations of a slight reduction in the number of Ankara-backed Syrian mercenaries, whose number is currently less than 4,000, according to Harchaoui. But even that is rather unlikely. In all cases, the contingent of 700 or 800 Turkish officers will not go anywhere.

"Because countries generally do not want to sacrifice their own forces, mercenaries will continue to be a convenient tool"

“As for the thousands of Sudanese mercenaries, there is no compelling mechanism that will reduce their number noticeably. The Juba accords of last year have helped a little bit, but it is no panacea. The situation regarding the Chadians is more confused still,” added Harchaoui.

Lastly, the number of Syrians fighting on Haftar’s side exceeds 2,000 and may continue to swell as monitoring eastern Libya is far harder than in the west.

Mercenaries are a tool of influence and as such will continue to be part of developments in Libya. Despite numerous criticisms of their use and lack of control, Turkey, Russia, and the UAE are unlikely to reduce their involvement in the conflict.

The Libyan war itself is far from over, despite diplomatic steps forward. Signs of a new mobilisation of forces are increasing, this time from the south. This has also been confirmed by observers.

“Alarms have been raised in Tripoli and Misrata as Haftar has mobilized forces to southern Libya, including along the border with Algeria,” said Sewehli, who often criticises EU inaction. “There has been no comment from the international community regarding this mobilization”.  

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Indeed, as international attention shifts to other areas, the race for influence in Libya will continue amid the summer months.

Several countries, including Italy and France, have direct interests in Libya, and this affects any possible diplomatic breakthrough. And because countries generally do not want to sacrifice their own forces, mercenaries will continue to be a convenient tool.

One can also add mercenaries from South Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, linked to Blackwater founder, Erik Prince, to the overcrowded Libyan theatre of conflict.

The depth and breadth of militia activities from Libya through Syria and the Caucasus suggest that a reduction in either regional rivalries or the use of mercenaries by the end of the year is unlikely. And probably the year after, too.

Ruslan Trad is the author of 'The Murder of a Revolution' and co-author of 'The Russian Invisible Armies'. His journalistic work is focused on PMCs, Syria, and conflict zones.

Follow him on Twitter: @ruslantrad