The Internationalization of Libya’s Post-2011 Conflicts From Proxies to Boots on the Ground
By Frederic Wehrey
For almost a decade, Libya has been riven by increasingly internationalized conflicts, stemming from local and regional fissures during the 2011 anti-Qadhafi revolution and the NATO-led intervention.
In the wake of that conflict, foreign missteps and the failures of Libyan elites to produce political unity and workable institutions opened the field for an escalating proxy war.
By May, Turkey joined the war on the side of the GNA, though its military support in this phase was unannounced and clandestine. It principally consisted of armed drones—“Bayraktar” TB2s, manufactured by a company belonging to Turkish President Erdoğan’s son-in-law—along with “Kirpi” mine-resistant armored personnel carriers.
The net effect of this equipment on the battle was limited. To be sure, the Turkish-piloted drones did prove useful in some close-air-support engagements, against infantry and armored vehicles. And Turkish support helped the GNA seize a strategic LAAF base at Gharyan in June.
But overall, Turkish aid was not as decisive nor as substantial as the GNA might’ve hoped. Emirati drones outclassed the Turkish Bayraktars in performance and lethality, and by the late summer of 2019 they had destroyed most of the Turkish craft on the ground.
Similarly, the Turkish Kirpi vehicles did not have an appreciable effect on battlefield outcomes; their value was mostly a “morale booster,” according to one senior GNA official.
Aside from this muted impact on the battlefield, Turkish support also opened up rifts within the GNA’s political coalition. The initial GNA outreach to Turkey was stymied by competition among Libyan intermediaries who jostled for access and influence. The more dominant of these networks had previously channeled Turkish—and affiliated with or sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Their outreach stirred resentment among anti-Brotherhood elements within the GNA coalition, especially from Misrata and also, reportedly, opposition from Turkish intelligence itself.
By late 2019, these Libyan individuals had been removed from their roles as intermediaries. The task of procuring Turkish support then fell to the increasingly powerful GNA interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, though the perception that Turkish assistance was buoying the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood remained.
By the fall of 2019, diminishing Turkish support—mostly the result of battlefield attrition of Turkish drones—had shifted the momentum to the LAAF. Much of this was due to a redoubling of Emirati support after the fall of Gharyan, but also the arrival of yet another foreign meddler to the frontlines.
In September, hundreds of Russian paramilitary fighters from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, arrived at the LAAF frontlines outside Tripoli, soon joined by a stream of hundreds of others.
A notionally private paramilitary group tied to Russian businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Wagner Group is in fact a clandestine arm of Russian “gray zone” power projection.
It has deployed to conflict-wracked states in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe with mixed results. In Libya, the Wagner Group fighters took on an increasingly active role in the LAAF advance on the capital, abetted by the United Arab Emirates, which reportedly paid the salaries of their fighters and put its drones and logistics assets at their disposal.
But pushing Haftar into power through a brute-force military victory in Tripoli was probably not Moscow’s ultimate goal.
Mindful of Haftar’s advancing age and poor health, contemptuous of his military competence, and suspicious about his historical ties to Washington via the CIA in the 1980s, Russia sought to use his assault on Tripoli as a means to an end.
By nudging Haftar into a stronger battlefield position, Russia would be able to mediate a diplomatic outcome that played to its favor and that would cement a prominent political role for the Qadhafists, who would re-open trade, infrastructure, and arms links between Russia and Libya. Here, Qadhafi’s son Saif, wanted by the International Criminal Court and reportedly in hiding in Zintan, was an object of Russian attention.
In the summer of 2019, GNA intelligence personnel captured two Prigozhin-linked Russian operatives in Tripoli who were trying to liaise with Saif al-Qadhafi and, according to the GNA interior minister, also reconnoitering targets in Tripoli for LAAF airstrikes and seeking to influence the Libyan municipal council elections.
Russian interest in both Saif and Haftar was evident in a broadcast and online media campaign run in support of the two Libyan figures by Prigozhin media firms, which used local content creators to obscure the Russian hand—part of a broader Prigozhin strategy of propaganda franchising that is evident across Africa.
Economic considerations were also important in Russia’s diversified portfolio of pursuing channels of influence with multiple Libyan actors. Even as it was sending Wagner personnel to assist LAAF forces, it continued to engage GNA.
In late 2019, for example, the Russian oil company Tatneft conducted exploration activities in the GNA-controlled Ghadames Basin. Wagner Group fighters were thus a cheap, flimsily deniable, and flexible means to accomplish these goals, without completely sacrificing Moscow’s ties with the GNA.
The Wagner intervention in Libya, while hardly an exemplar of expeditionary warfare, was enough to make a difference in the context of Libya’s rudimentary militia fighting. Wagner personnel conducted frontline reconnaissance for mortars, artillery, and Emirati drones, as well as sniping.
By December, they seemed to be moving from a purely advising and assisting role to exerting a degree of command over LAAF fighters. They reportedly directed the LAAF’s frontline forces in flanking maneuvers, hitherto unseen on the Libyan battlefield, but a hallmark of Wagner’s Syrian engagement.
And, according to Western diplomats, they tried to change the composition of LAAF units by requesting that Haftar send more fighters from eastern Libya to the Tripoli front—reportedly because they were displeased with the performance of the LAAF’s Tarhuna-based combatants.
Buoyed by this support, the LAAF steadily gained territory in late 2019, especially on the disputed Salahaddin front. But the more profound effect of the Wagner Group’s arrival on the battlefield was a sharp decline in GNA morale.
Sniper shots from the LAAF side became far more lethal, with one GNA commander reporting that they now accounted for up to thirty percent of the losses in his unit. The volleys of LAAF mortars became more intense and precise, aided by drones.
GNA commanders also reported that the Russians had brought in laser-guided artillery munitions, which struck their field headquarters with a newfound accuracy. Bereft of their own armed drones, or even surveillance variants, the GNA was left increasingly blind and exposed to LAAF airstrikes and mortars.
Crucially, GNA commanders could no longer count on artillery support of their own. Young GNA fighters, already incensed at the government’s uneven payment of salaries and medical care, started leaving the front.
For the first time since the start of the 2019 war, the prospect of an LAAF push into central Tripoli, while still remote and complicated by the capital’s dense urban terrain and the LAAF’s lack of sufficient manpower, appeared as a possibility.
But in facilitating these advances, the Wagner Group had inadvertently spurred another round of foreign military intervention, arguably the most consequential and far-reaching since 2011.
Turkey’s Intervention Changes the Game, November 2019
Fearing a potential collapse of its cordon outside Tripoli, the GNA in the late fall of 2019 turned again to Turkey, its only substantive military patron.
On November 27, the GNA and the Turkish government signed a deal on an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean that would grant Turkish exploration and drilling rights to offshore hydrocarbon resources.
In return, President Erdoğan promised to send military support to the GNA, subject to Turkish parliamentary approval. With a stroke of a pen, the agreement irrevocably transformed the Libyan war. Turkish military support to the GNA, always ambivalent and clandestine, suddenly became overt and more robust.
Geopolitically, the maritime deal worsened tensions with the European Union and infringed on the hydrocarbon and territorial claims of Turkey’s longtime rival Greece and other Mediterranean states.
Erdoğan’s agreement with Libya was thus a major power play, part of a broader pattern of adventurism and militarization in Turkish foreign policy whose roots are partially domestic.
It also aligned with Turkish strategic aspirations in the Mediterranean—the so-called “Blue Homeland” doctrine—as well as Turkey’s economic penetration into Africa.
In Libya, Ankara hoped to secure infrastructure projects, contracts for arms and training, access to banking, a market for Turkish goods, and, especially, to recoup economic losses incurred by the 2011 revolution.
Outside of geopolitics and economics, the arrival of Turkish forces to Libyan soil had a resounding effect on the Libyan war of narratives and disinformation.
Erdoğan’s speeches and propaganda were tinged with evocations of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage and historical ties to Libya—and Ankara’s duty to protect the Turkish diaspora in Libya. While not the primary drivers of Turkey’s deployment, these linkages were nonetheless seized upon and exaggerated by Haftar’s camp and his regional backers.
On satellite television, in press conferences, and on social media, Haftar and his foreign supporters in Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh painted Erdoğan’s intervention as a redux of Turkey’s imperial Ottoman ambitions, opposed by a phalanx of Arab states.
The propaganda war further escalated when Turkey took the far-reaching step of dispatching proxy infantry forces to Libyan soil in December 2019.
These forces comprised an initial tranche of two thousand fighters drawn from Turkish-backed Syrian militias, some of whose members had fought in Syria’s civil war and in Turkey’s subsequent intervention in the largely Kurdish province of Afrin.
Delivered by civilian aircraft and ships into Tripoli and Misrata, the Syrian fighters, many of whom were ethnic Turkmen with close familial ties to Turkey, were offered lavish salaries and the promise of Turkish citizenship.
While these factors certainly played a determining role, interviews with these fighters in January 2020 suggest they weren’t the only drivers: Fresh from battles in Idlib and northwest Syria, some arrived in Libya eager for payback against Russian forces or motivated by a genuine desire to prevent a military dictatorship under Haftar.
The Syrians’ deployment was shepherded by dozens of trainers from the Erdoğan-linked private military contractor, SADAT, hundreds of uniformed Turkish military officers, intelligence advisors from the Turkish national intelligence service (MIT), and technicians.
Turkish drones, artillery, air defense systems, intelligence assets, and electronic warfare equipment also arrived. In the coming weeks and months, this intervention would have a decisive effect on the course of the battlefield—and deal a devastating blow to Haftar’s ambitions.
Turkey’s layered air defense systems, which targeted drones and fixed-wing aircraft, negated Haftar’s air advantage over Tripoli and Misrata. Free from this threat from the sky, GNA forces in Tripoli were suddenly afforded greater mobility.
Turkish self-propelled artillery provided much-needed fire support and bolstered the GNA fighters’ morale. And the dispersal of thousands of Syrian fighters around Tripoli, intermixed with militias from Tripoli, Misrata, and other towns, helped stabilize the front and thrust into sharper relief the LAAF’s manpower shortage.
Yet the Syrians also stirred controversy and dissent. Some GNA commanders resented the intrusion of foreign infantry on the front, arguing that it was an insult to Libyan sovereignty and fighting prowess, and that what was really needed was advanced weapons and equipment, not manpower.
Politically, the Syrian-Turkish presence created the impression with the GNA and especially Misratan circles that the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Libyan faction was again ascendant.
Among Haftar and his foreign backers, the Turkish intervention was a propaganda windfall—pro-Haftar media outlets portrayed the Syrians as al-Qaida and ISIS members. This was false of course, though a minority of the Syrians probably evinced jihadist proclivities and some had committed abuses in the past.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focused on politics and security issues in North Africa and the Gulf.