Summary: UN efforts to get foreign forces and mercenaries out of the Libya conflict are doomed to failure.
It has been more than a month since the two sides in the Libyan civil war met in the town of Ghadames, southwest of Tripoli and announced an agreement to implement a UN-brokered ceasefire.
Among the recommendations was one that called for the withdrawal of “foreign troops from contact lines.” Those lines run from the coastal city of Sirte due south for 360 kilometres to the strategic airbase of al-Jufra.
The UNSMIL spokesperson noted that in the agreement there is a “timeframe given for the departure of mercenaries and foreign forces.
The onus, the responsibility is on the shoulders of those countries and elements that are responsible for bringing those mercenaries and forces to Libya; they must respect the Libyan request.”
At this point it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of who those foreign forces are. Lined up with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli are the Turks.
Turkey’s intervention was critical in blunting an offensive, begun in April 2019, by the Benghazi- based warlord Khalifa Haftar that had come close to overwhelming the GNA forces and taking Tripoli.
Hafter is backed militarily by Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
In August of this year his soldiers were driven back to Sirte having lost all the ground they had gained in the offensive of 2019. At Sirte, forces loyal to the GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj halted on the outskirts and a ceasefire was agreed.
The Russians disingenuously claim to have no military presence in Libya. However the Wagner Group, a private (i.e. mercenary) military operation with close ties to the Kremlin is operating openly in support of Haftar.
And US Africa Command identified the presence of Russian MiG jets at al-Jufrah, which remains in the warlord’s hands, in May of this year.
The UAE support is primarily aerial bombardments via warplanes and Chinese manufactured Wing Loong II drones.
As detailed in an UNSMIL report to the UN Security Council in January “General Haftar’s Libyan National Army and affiliated forces have conducted some 850 precision air strikes by drones and another 170 by fighter-bomber, among them some 60 precision air strikes by foreign fighter aircraft.”
The foreign aircraft are Emirati and allegedly Russian fighter jets.
A drone attack that killed 26 unarmed cadets in the capital in January was operated by the UAE according to a BBC investigation which noted “at the time of the strike, Wing Loong II drones were only operating from one Libyan air base – al-Khadim – and that the UAE supplied and operated the drones that were stationed there.”
In addition to operating the drones themselves, the Emiratis have supplied Haftar with the Wing Loong II and the Blue Arrow 7 missiles it carries.
Not to be outdone, Turkey armed GNA forces with the Bayraktar TB2 drone. As noted by Al Jazeera: “Smaller and with a much shorter range than the Wing Loong, the Bayraktar was still able to engage and destroy the LNA’s ground targets, harass its supply lines, and attack forward air bases that were once considered safe.”
The drones were essential to the blunting of the Haftar offensive and the subsequent rout of his forces from western Libya.
The Turks have also engaged in the mercenary game. According to a Pentagon report Turkey has sent between 3500 and 3800 Syrian rebels to fight on behalf of the GNA, initially paying them US$2000 a month with a promise of citizenship thrown in.
In a macabre twist, Russia was instrumental in a deal that saw other former Syrian rebels sent to aid Haftar in return for cash payments of US$1000 a month and the promise of clemency from the Assad regime.
A just published paper by Jalel Harchaoui, an acute observer and analyst of the Libya conflict argues that Turkey has three reasons for its military backing of the GNA.
The first reason has to do with offshore rights in the Eastern Mediterranean: in November, 2019 Ankara and the GNA signed a deal that extended Turkey’s maritime claims and directly challenged those of Greece.
As Harchaoui notes, a few weeks later Turkey committed its military to defending the GNA in a classic transactional manoeuvre.
The second reason has to do with the commercial interests that Turkey has in Libya, interests that date back to before the revolution that overthrew Gaddafi.
Harchaoui writes: “By early 2011, Turkish companies had over $20 billion of outstanding projects there, mostly in construction, engineering, and energy.”
A GNA regime secured by the Turks represents a lucrative opportunity to return to those interests.
And the third reason is that Turkey views Libya as a gateway to the Sahel and beyond, as it seeks to pursue political and commercial interests in Africa.
For the UAE, the motivation is ideologically driven. Mohammed bin Zayed, the Abu Dhabi crown prince and de facto ruler, has what could be termed a pathological hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, one that has put him directly at odds with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
It saw the Emiratis bankroll the overthrow of the brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in 2013 and, beginning in 2014, becoming Haftar’s biggest backer. MbZ views the GNA as a brotherhood puppet.
Added to that, he also has his own interests in Africa and a Libya controlled by his chosen warlord would be useful to those ambitions.
The UN spokesperson, commenting on the meeting in Ghadames, said there was “a lot of hard work ahead of us.” The toughest challenge will be to remove foreign military forces.
The evidence thus far is anything but encouraging.
Turkish and GNA sources report that Haftar is moving militias from Benghazi to the Sirte front where trenches are being dug and anti-aircraft systems set in place.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group and Sudan are still much in evidence. And on the other side, Turkey, having recently acquired two military bases in western Libya, is showing no inclination whatsoever to withdraw.
As Harchaoui writes: “The imperturbable frequency at which the Turks have sent military cargo flights and consolidated their assets in Libya after Haftar’s defeat is a reminder that they have no intention to leave within the foreseeable future.”
That being so, the Emiratis will not depart the fray and the Russians are in no hurry to go, all of which leaves the UN’s hopes for the departure of mercenaries and foreign forces looking either decidedly forlorn or wildly optimistic.