Libya Tribune

NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan about the foreign countries pouring weapons and mercenaries into Libya’s civil war.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Libya’s capital, Tripoli, has been under siege for eight months, and this conflict has the attention of world leaders.

Just today, President Trump and the Egyptian president spoke by phone about the war.

A group called the Libyan National Army is trying to unseat the government that’s recognized by the U.N. Now the fight is shifting, with foreign countries pouring weapons and mercenaries into Libya – fighters from Sudan and Russia, drones from China and Turkey – despite a U.N. weapons embargo.

Sudarsan Raghavan covers North Africa for The Washington Post and recently returned from a reporting trip to Libya. Welcome.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN:

Glad to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO:

This started as a ground war, but your reporting shows that that has changed. How is the battle being fought now?

RAGHAVAN:

That’s exactly right, Ari. What we’re seeing now is almost daily drone flights over Tripoli and other Libyan cities. The civilian casualties are mounting from these drone strikes.

There’s also war jets and combat helicopters. So this has become an aerial war, although there is quite a bit of fighting on the ground, especially in recent weeks on certain front lines.

SHAPIRO:

The drones, the war jets and, in some cases, the fighters on the ground are not Libyan. So tell us about the role that foreign fighters and foreign weapons are playing.

RAGHAVAN:

That’s correct. You know, we’ve never seen such an internationalization of the Libyan conflict with what we’re seeing now.

On the ground, currently, the biggest and most significant entry into the conflict have been Russian mercenaries. They belong to the Wagner Group, which is a shadowy private army that is linked to the Kremlin.

And they started arriving on the front lines in September, and what they brought was sophisticated weaponry and military expertise. They’re more disciplined than the Libyan militias. What we’re also seeing is mercenaries coming in from Chad and Sudan.

And all of these forces are basically on the side of the eastern commander, Khalifa Haftar, who launched the offensive on Tripoli, and…

SHAPIRO:

He’s the one who leads the Libyan National Army.

RAGHAVAN:

Exactly. It’s a self-described Libyan National Army. But in fact, the army is pretty much a collection of Eastern-based militias.

But at the same time, you also have foreign actors helping the U.N.-installed Tripoli government, the Government of National Accord.

You do have Turkish military advisors and you have Turkish equipment and drones and armored vehicles that have also entered the country to support the U.N.-installed government.

SHAPIRO:

Why are these major foreign powers so invested in what happens in Libya?

RAGHAVAN:

It’s a very good question, and it’s also a complicated question. On one hand, they’re in it for the money.

Both Russia and Turkey have billions of dollars in contracts – in construction contracts, oil contracts – that they had under the Gadhafi regime, you know, who was ousted and killed during the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.

Another reason is also ideological. What we’re seeing in Libya is a new divide in the Middle East. It’s pitting Turkey and Qatar against the UAE – United Arab Emirates – Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Now, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are very much concerned about Islamists taking over in Tripoli, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the organization that has been banned in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

It’s a moderate Islamic group, but it’s considered by these countries as terrorists. But Turkey and Qatar have supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

And so that’s another level of the conflict. But it’s primarily, especially for Russia and Turkey, it’s very much geopolitical and economic.

SHAPIRO:

The U.S. was very involved in getting Gadhafi out of power in 2011. What role, if any, is the U.S. playing now?

RAGHAVAN:

Well, the Americans have been basically, more or less, absent in Libya.

You know, while they have made public statements encouraging both sides to stop the violence, you know, get a cease-fire, the actual policies on the ground have been basically absent. And they’ve also sent mixed signals.

On one hand, you have the State Department saying that the war should end and urging both sides to step down, especially after the Russian mercenaries’ presence had became clear.

The State Department even called for Haftar himself to push back and stop the offensive. But at the same time, in April, you had President Trump on the phone call with Haftar, seemingly endorsing his offensive.

So you’ve got these mixed signals that are being sent by the United States, and that has only emboldened Haftar and has made it increasingly difficult to reach any kind of resolution.

SHAPIRO:

Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post, speaking with us on Skype. Thank you very much.

RAGHAVAN:

My pleasure, Ari.

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