On 16 January, Stephanie Williams, the United Nation’s special adviser on Libya, stated that it is still “very reasonable and possible” for the country’s postponed elections to occur before June, in line with a roadmap agreed upon in 2020 which the UN helped to broker.
But, even if elections do occur by June, the presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries will likely be a factor that endangers the sensitive political situation. As part of the agreement, all foreign forces, including Turkish personnel, Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, and fighters in the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, must leave Libya.
However, three months after rival parties reached an initial agreement on the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries, only the first phase of the withdrawal has been completed. Those 300 mercenaries came from Chad, according to diplomats.
Despite repeated calls from the UN and international community, the Turks and Russians have shown no sign of leaving Libya.
The Turkish military and Wagner Group’s presence on the ground provides important footholds for Ankara and Moscow as both vie for influence, shares of the country’s vast energy wealth, multi-billion dollar reconstruction contracts, and long-term access to strategic military bases after the new Libyan government is established.
But the Turks and Russians have both approached the war-torn North African country very differently.
Turkey’s overt role
Ankara has thus far leveraged its public support with the current and previous UN-supported governments to remain in Libya.
Ankara began initial military deployments to Libya in support of the then-UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) in January 2020. Yet immediately after General Khalifa Haftar’s westward assault on Tripoli began in April 2019, Ankara started providing the GNA with drones and armoured personnel carriers.
“The GNA called for support from the United States, Britain, Italy, Algeria, and Turkey to help them defend their positions,” remarked Ferhat Polat, a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre, in an interview with The New Arab. “Turkey was the only country who stepped up and offered practical support to the previous UN-backed GNA.”
After Turkish forces and GNA-allied militias successfully pushed Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) several hundred miles east of Tripoli – the outskirts of which the renegade general’s forces reached at the peak of “Operation to Liberate Tripoli” – Ankara established itself as a kingmaker in the Libyan civil war.
Ankara leveraged its alliance with the GNA, and later the Government of National Unity (GNU), to wield control over several ports and military bases, and secure new economic, military, and reconstruction deals.
Also important to Turkey was its maritime demarcation agreement with the GNA, signed in November 2019. The degree to which Ankara managed to turn the tide of the Libyan civil war against Haftar was impressive and highlighted Turkey’s rise as a drone power.
Turkish officials have thus far denied that their forces need to evacuate the country. Ankara claims that the Turkish military’s continued presence in Libya has a legal basis.
“It should not be forgotten that the Turks, and consequently also their mercenaries, are in Libya at the request of the GNA and subsequently of the GNU, both governments supported by the United Nations because they were born through their effort,” Dr Frederica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, told TNA.
“This is a detail that cannot be underestimated. Their presence will be guaranteed at least until Prime Minister Dbeibah is sacked from his role.”
It currently appears that despite the LNA-aligned eastern-based parliament ending GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s mandate on 25 December, Dbeibah has no intention of leaving office.
Other experts agree. “Turkey’s military presence is highly likely to remain in the country as long as the Libyan legitimate government needs,” according to Polat. “Turkey will presumably continue to provide assistance and training as well as advisory support to Libyan Army forces so they can reach global standards.”
Russia’s clandestine influence
Whereas Turkey’s military maintains a highly overt presence in Libya, Russia asserts hard power influence in the North African country in far more shadowy ways.
Unlike Ankara, which is open about the contingent of Turkish forces in Libya, President Vladimir Putin’s government denies that the Kremlin has any relation to the Wagner Group’s activities in Libya. Yet there is strong evidence that the organisation is affiliated with the Russian government.
“Wagner is a means, a tool, or an instrument, but it should never be referred to in isolation from the Russian state,” explained Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, in an interview with TNA. “The connection between the Wagner Group and the Russian state is exemplified every week when we see Russian air force planes taking care of the logistics of this presence in Libya.”
Harchaoui continued, “Wagner is just a manifestation of a project that is not just tolerated by the Russian state but is actually deemed desirable and it is also assisted and coordinated by the Russian state.”
Ultimately, by denying that Moscow has any relation to the Wagner Group or other foreign fighters in the country, Russian officials can claim that they support the withdrawal of mercenaries without actually taking responsibility for the Wagner Group’s continued role in the country.
For years, the Wagner Group has been supporting Haftar’s LNA. Composed of former military personnel who are mostly Russian (but also Ukrainian, Serbian, and Syrian), Wagner members have advised the LNA, trained local Libyan forces, and undertaken operations. Presently, roughly 7,000 Wagner Group armed personnel are in Libya, according to the head of Libya’s High Council of State.
Although Moscow publicly denies any connection to the Wagner Group, Russia benefits from the Wagner Group’s presence on the ground. The arrangement gives Moscow access to the al-Jufra airbase and control over some of the country’s oil resources.
However, the bigger inflection point is that the Wagner Group’s presence in Libya is an important part of the Russian government’s expansion into Africa. “For Russia instead, the presence of the Wagner Group in Libya must be seen in a broader perspective that takes into account Moscow’s expanding military foothold in North Africa and the Sahel,” said Dr Umberto Profazio, a Maghreb analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation.
“Given the confirmed presence of Wagner assets into Mali as well, Libya could well serve as a bridgehead in North Africa from where Russia can disturb European powers (France in particular) using hybrid means such as private military companies and contractors in the soft underbelly represented by the Sahel, diverting Europe’s attention from other fronts.”
Looking ahead, European countries realise that Turkey and Russia’s military presence in Libya will likely remain a reality for at least a considerable period. As the US remains largely uninvolved in Libya, there is no power that Europeans can turn to pressure the Turkish military and the Wagner Group to leave.
Within this context, the Turks and Russians have gained various levels of leverage vis-à-vis Europe by virtue of their positions on the ground in Libya. If, when, or how either Ankara or Moscow takes advantage of this new reality, in which Turkey and Russia are the two kingmakers in Libya, to the dismay of Brussels remains to be seen.