17 May 2022

The Bonds That Tie Libya and Ukraine

Dr. Umberto Profazio

The consequences of the war in Ukraine have already been visible on a global scale, most notably the uncertainty around energy supplies and wheat imports, for both developed and developing countries. The fallout is highlighting the entanglement between various issues in a not-yet de-globalised world. It is also shedding light on the bonds that tie conflict theatres together, which appear distant but are very much close to each other. Suffering from chronic instability and regional polarisation that has only recently started to recede, the Middle East and North Africa seems to be particularly affected by the destabilising effects of the Ukraine war. Despite recent reconciliation efforts and some encouraging results, intractable conflicts did not find comprehensive solutions, remaining prone to negative externalities.

Visible links emerging

The ramifications of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine have also been felt in Libya, where visible links between a frozen conflict on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and the active war theatre that is destabilising the Black Sea are slowly emerging. Indeed, in early February, there were reports indicating unusual movements of hundreds of mercenaries who had been present in Libya since the latest round of fighting. As the war drums over Ukraine were beating louder, Syrian sources were reporting that Russia had withdrawn 300 Syrian fighters from Benghazi to be deployed at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, without replacing them.[1] The Ukrainian intelligence agency later confirmed these reports, saying that Russia had been recruiting mercenaries from Libya and Syria to join its forces in Ukraine.[2]

The Syrian mercenaries withdrawn from Libya had been stationed in Jufra in support of the Libyan National Army (LNA, officially known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces – LAAF), led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the controversial commander responsible for laying the siege of Tripoli in 2019-2020. According to the Syrian news network As-Suwayda 24, there are now 1,200 Syrian fighters deployed alongside Haftar’s forces in Libya, distributed in four brigades. At the height of the conflict, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) estimated that there were 2,000 Syrian fighters alongside the LNA, while Turkey is said to have deployed approximately 5,000 Syrian mercenaries in support of the armed groups that were backing the rival Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli at the time.[3]

Growing entanglement between different theatres

After the civil war – triggered by the revolution against the regime of Muammar Gadhafi in 2011 and the clash between Operation Dignity and Operation Libya Dawn in 2014 – the conflict in Libya has been characterised more by its internationalisation, which between 2019 and 2020 pushed foreign meddlers to bring in thousands of mercenaries, foreign fighters and military contractors. Regional power politics and third-party interventions contributed to magnifying the intractability of the conflict, laying down the premises of insurmountable problems that deeply undermined any negotiation for a political solution.

The deployment of these foreign fighters followed in the footsteps of the extreme polarisation that was shaping the geopolitics of the region at that time, as shown by the recruitment process mirroring the political divide in Syria, yet another conflict theatre that became increasingly entangled with the war in Libya. Indeed, while the mercenaries fighting alongside the LNA were mostly drawn from pro-regime forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad (such as the ISIS hunters, the 5th Corps, and the Quds Brigade), Turkey sought to shore up the GNA by recruiting fighters from its local proxies there, including the Sultan al-Mourad Division, Suqur al-Sham and other armed groups part of the Syrian National Army (SNA).[4]

Rising privatisation of war

Thousands of other mercenaries from neighbouring Chad and Sudan also joined the fray, totalling up to 20,000 foreign fighters, according to the estimates made public by then UN Acting Special Representative of the Secretary General (now UN Special Adviser) on Libya, Stephanie Williams. More than 16 months later, there has been no visible progress on the withdrawal of these forces from Libya, despite a ceasefire agreement calling for their complete withdrawal by 23 January 2021, and an action plan agreed by the Joint Military Commission (JMC, also known as 5+5) in October last year. On the contrary, a recent report of the UN Panel of Experts on Sudan said that Sudanese rebel groups from the Darfur region have no intention to withdraw from Libya, since their mercenary activity still represents a major source of their financing.[5]

In a certain sense, the Libyan case already represents the perfect case study highlighting the complex web of interdependence between different conflicts in the MENA region and beyond, as well as its main characteristics, among which the growing privatisation of warfare figures prominently. In this context, it is worth mentioning the instrumental role played by Russian and Turkish private military companies (such as the Wagner Group and SADAT) in the recruitment and training process of foreign mercenaries. There were unexpected yet striking similarities, despite Ankara opting for direct military intervention in Libya as a result of the controversial Memorandum of Understanding signed in late 2019 with the GNA.

Moving at ease in the grey zone

On the other hand, the intervention of the Wagner Group alongside Haftar’s forces during the attack on Tripoli offered Russia a plausible deniability option, often used by the government in Moscow despite evidence to the contrary. Wagner’s close ties to the Russian military intelligence (GRU), the Ministry of Defence and President Vladimir Putin, via the Group’s head Yevgeny Prighozin, make the company more of a paramilitary organisation serving Moscow’s interests in conflict theatres around the globe. This is particularly evident in Africa, where the Wagner Group has taken solid roots in the Central African Republic and more recently in Mali, taking advantage of France’s repositioning in the Sahel that provided Moscow with an unexpected opening.

In yet another sign of growing complexity and interconnectedness, Wagner has frequently used Libyan airbases as stopovers while sending its operatives to Bamako, after reportedly reaching an agreement allowing its presence with the military transitional government of Mali.[6] Moving at ease in a grey zone where faltering and, to a certain extent, non-existent state institutions have proved unable to effectively fight terrorism and/or provide essential services to the population, Wagner has frequently shown its blatant non-commitment to the basic principles of international human rights and humanitarian laws. The growing amount of evidence ranges from the recent massacre in the village of Boura, Mali, to the dissemination of sophisticated booby traps in southern Tripoli, Libya, both blamed partially or exclusively on Wagner.

Consolidating Russia’s global outreach

Recent reports about the repositioning of the Wagner Group have also raised speculations about its complete or partial withdrawal from Libya to beef up Russia’s military in Ukraine, suggesting a relationship characterised by growing interdependence between the two conflicts. Indeed, just a few days before of the start of the Russian military operation, Libyan sources reported that Wagner operatives had left Sokna to regroup in the Jufra airbase, bringing with them all their arms and equipment, including Pantsir air defence systems, which performed very poorly against the TB-2 Bayraktar and the Anka S-1 drones.[7] These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which have also been provided by Turkey to the Ukrainian military, were successful in pushing back the LNA from Tripoli and moving the frontline to the Sirte-Jufra axis in 2020.

However, it remains very unlikely that Russia will proceed with the complete withdrawal of the Wagner Group from Libya, since the company is still considered instrumental in consolidating Moscow’s global outreach. In times of inevitable decoupling between Russia and the West, the company still provides a useful leverage in distant theatres and fragmented States, from where Russia can still exert its influence with just a few thousand contractors. Recent estimates put the number of Wagner operatives in Libya at around 2,000, and even at the height of the conflict, when AFRICOM thought the contingent represented Wagner’s largest deployment worldwide, the number of fighters did not exceed 3,000.[8] Evidently, their withdrawal from Libya would not be enough to tilt the military balance in Ukraine, where Russia has already amassed 190,000 troops.

Oil and gas factor

The presence of Wagner is certainly much more strategic in Libya, where it has acted as a force multiplier for the LNA during its offensive on Tripoli. Since the end of the latest round of fighting, the company has been valuable in securing key strategic infrastructures. Military facilities have not been its only objective, since Wagner operatives have also reinforced Haftar’s grip on the oil industry, the lifeline of Libya’s economy. Russian contractors have been spotted at the El Feel and Sharara oil fields, as well as near the terminals of the oil crescent region in eastern Libya – a factor that considerably delayed the lifting of the oil blockade in 2020 following an agreement reached in Sochi, Russia, between Libyan rival factions. The understanding was already an indication of Moscow’s growing clout in Libya, and in its oil sector in particular.

The presence of Wagner in or around key terminals and oilfields in Libya is a very important aspect of the global confrontation between Russia and the West, and could be used by the Kremlin to further antagonise its rivals and disrupt energy supplies from its main competitors. To end its over-reliance on gas imports from Russia, Europe needs a steady flow of supplies from its southern flank, and the recent agreement struck between Algeria and Italy to push the Transmed gas pipeline to full capacity certainly moves in that direction. However, Rome also expects to get some extra gas supplies from Libya, but this particular outcome is contingent on the successful conclusion of the ongoing peace process in the North African country.

A new power struggle taking shape in Libya

The new phase of political polarisation is threatening once again the transition in Libya, which could have a huge impact on its oil sector. The growing volatility is the result of the ongoing power struggle between the internationally recognised Government of National Unity (GNU) based in Tripoli and the newly formed Government of National Stability (GNS), endorsed by Haftar and welcomed by Moscow.[9] Even though the new prime minister designate of the GNS Fathi Bashagha later condemned Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, the very presence of the Wagner Group in areas under the control of LNA indicates a certain degree of collusion between Moscow and the GNS, a grey zone behind which the political resurrection of Haftar hides in plain sight.

The looming bifurcation increases the likelihood of a return to military confrontation between rival factions in Libya, and the recent statement of the LNA representatives in the JMC certainly added fuel to the flames. Besides confirming the suspension of their participation in the JMC and the end of their cooperation with the GNU, the LNA representatives allegedly called for a halt to oil exports from Libya, effectively resuming the oil blockade imposed by Haftar a few days before the first Berlin Conference on Libya in January 2020.[10] The call, which was later denied by the LNA, is a way of exerting political pressure on the Prime Minister of the GNU, Abdelhamid Dbeibah, to force him to leave office and allow Bashagha to enter Tripoli.

The rise of a parallel government in eastern Libya certainly plays in favour of Russia, as indicated by the surprising remarks of Maxim Shugaley, Head of the Foundation for the Protection of National Values – a Russian think tank with links to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll factory owned by Prighozin. Shugaley (who was previously arrested and detained by the GNA for interfering in the elections and secretly meeting with Saif al-Islam Gadhafi – another political figure held in high regard by Moscow), welcomed the establishment of the GNS and encouraged the resumption of the oil blockade to pressure the international community into accepting the Bashagha-led government.[11] Retrospectively, the similarities between the statement of the LNA representatives in the JMC and Shugaley’s comments are remarkable and show Moscow’s interest in using the card of political instability in Libya to disrupt the flow of oil and gas to Europe.

Battle of narratives

In this highly inflammable context, reports about the LNA sending volunteers to fight alongside the Russian military in Ukraine are even less plausible.[12] It is indeed very unlikely that, as Libya finds itself at a dangerous turning point in its political transition, Haftar would voluntarily accept to send its fighters to Ukraine and significantly undermine the military capabilities of the LNA, particularly after the unsuccessful military operation in Tripoli. With the partial withdrawal of Syrian mercenaries from Libya and the repositioning of the Wagner Group due to the conflict in Ukraine, it would not make sense to reduce the LNA’s manpower while Haftar is attempting to enter Tripoli again by other means.

Returning the favour to Moscow for its help during the battle for Tripoli would prove costly for Haftar. It is also worth mentioning the increasing difficulty in navigating the contrasting narratives around the conflict in Ukraine. Reports by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry state that Haftar had recently visited Moscow to green light a deal. However, these speculations have been denied by the LNA and have not yet been confirmed. They could well be part of the war propaganda that is intoxicating and shaping public debate around the conflict in Ukraine.

On the same note, it is also very unlikely that Syrian mercenaries, previously affiliated with the GNA and now supporting the GNU, have been transferred from Libya to Ukraine by Turkey to fight against Russia in a re-edition of the battle for Tripoli. Again, a closer look at the source of these reports would raise serious doubts about their credibility. News about the deployment of Syrian mercenaries from Libya to fight alongside the Ukrainian military has featured prominently on the French media, which is known for its anti-Turkish stance in line with the French presidency.[13] Emmanuel Macron has indeed often criticised Turkey’s foreign policy in Libya and the East Med, which clashes with France’s interests.

Preserving the normalisation process

While it is true that Turkey has armed Ukraine, the deployment of its Syrian proxies would represent a giant leap in its military support to Kiev. This could prove detrimental to Ankara’s strategic interests, both in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Doubling down on the Ukrainian military would further antagonise Moscow, drawing yet another parallel with the conflict in Libya, whose immediate result was the uneasy cohabitation of Russia and Turkey. Even though this scenario is not uncommon,[14] for the time being, Turkey feels much more at ease playing the role of a neutral mediator in Ukraine, while reaping the benefits of its revitalised NATO membership.

In Libya as well, returning to a more assertive role while Russia’s attention and resources are diverted elsewhere would be counterproductive for Turkey. Pushing beyond the Sirte-Jufra red line, for example, would cause irremediable damage to Ankara’s relations with regional partners and possibly revert the normalisation process that has characterised the geopolitics of the region in the last few months. It is likely that Turkey will prefer to build up on the recent reconciliation efforts that have allowed Ankara to mend ties with former rivals such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Mainly driven by economic factors, especially given the global fallout from the Ukrainian war, this normalisation process could potentially move the Middle East and North Africa away from the dangerous polarisation that characterised the last years of the Trump administration.

References

[1] “Wagner withdraws hundreds of Syrian mercenaries through Benghazi airport,” Libya Observer, 6 February 2022, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/wagner-withdraws-hundreds-syrian-mercenaries-through-benghazi-airport.

[2] Abdulkader Assad, “Ukraine’s Intelligence: Libyan mercenaries recruited for Russia’s war,” Libya Observer, 15 March 2022, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/inbrief/ukraines-intelligence-libyan-mercenaries-recruited-russia’s-war.

[3] Jeremy Binnie, “AFRICOM says 7,000 Syrian fighters in Libya,” Janes, 3 September 2020, https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/africom-says-7000-syrian-fighters-in-libya.

[4] Elisabeth Tsurkov, “The Syrian mercenaries fighting wars for Russia and Turkey,” The New York Review, 16 October 2020, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/10/16/the-syrian-mercenaries-fighting-foreign-wars-for-russia-and-turkey/.

[5] Edith M. Lederer, “UN experts: Darfur rebel groups make money in Libya,” AP, 5 February 2022, https://apnews.com/article/business-africa-sudan-libya-united-nations-0d231f5dd2474332efa9037fc4fd0cd6.

[6] Tim Lister and Sebastian Shukla, “Arrival of Russian Wagner mercenaries in Mali condemned by European government,” CNN, 24 December 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/24/africa/russia-mercenaries-mali-intl/index.html.

[7] Safa al-Harathy, “Wagner mercenaries assemble in Jufra base,” Libya Observer, 22 February 2022, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/inbrief/wagner-mercenaries-assemble-jufra-base.

[8] Mohammed Erteima, “1,300 Wagner mercenaries sent from Libya to help Russian forces in Ukraine,” Anadolu Agency, 25 March 2022, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-war/1-300-wagner-mercenaries-sent-from-libya-to-help-russian-forces-in-ukraine/2545629.

[9] Mustafa Fetouri, “Libya turns on Russia over Ukraine war, but does it matter?” Al-Monitor, 11 March 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/03/libya-turns-russia-over-ukraine-war-does-it-matter.

[10] Sami Zaptia, “Hafter’s representatives in the 5+5 Joint Military Commission announce suspension of their participation in the commission,” Libya Herald, 10 April 2022, https://www.libyaherald.com/2022/04/hafters-representatives-in-the-55-joint-military-commission-announce-suspension-of-their-participation-in-the-commission/.

[11] “Wagner welcomes parallel government measures, including oil shutdown,” Libya Observer, 12 March 2022, https://www.libyaobserver.ly/inbrief/wagner-welcomes-parallel-government-measures-including-oil-shutdown.

[12] “Ukrainian DM: Haftar promises to send volunteers to support Russia,” Middle East Monitor, 21 March 2022, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20220321-ukraine-dm-haftar-promises-to-send-volunteers-to-support-russia/.

[13] Houda Ibrahim, “Guerre en Ukraine: d’anciens mercenaires syriens en Libye envoyés aux côtés des Russes,” RFI, 23 March 2022, https://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20220323-guerre-en-ukraine-d-anciens-mercenaires-syriens-en-libye-envoyés-aux-côtés-des-russes.

[14] Güney Yildiz, “Turkish-Russian adversarial collaboration in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh,” SWP, 24 March 2021, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/turkish-russian-adversarial-collaboration-in-syria-libya-and-nagorno-karabakh/.

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