By Jalel Harchaoui
Russia has been doing well in Libya — and it likes the fact that few seem to notice it.
Little, For Sure — But Not Quite a Sparta
A few days into the April 2019 offensive, the United Arab Emirates, which had long maintained a clandestine military presence in the country, stepped into the battle to offset the Libyan National Army’s frailty on the ground.
Between April and December 2019, the Emirates carried out more than 900 airstrikes in the Greater Tripoli area using Chinese-made combat drones and, in some instances, French-made fighter jets.
The Emirati military intervention, which also included major logistical assistance and copious arms deliveries, helped keep the Government of National Accord-aligned brigades in check, but wasn’t enough to propel Haftar’s men into downtown Tripoli.
Mere weeks after Abu Dhabi started its bombing campaign, Ankara followed suit by sending its own drones and several dozen Turkish personnel, who carried out about 250 strikes in 2019.
It is important to acknowledge that, before January 2020, the Emirati intervention in Libya was dramatically larger than the Turkish one. And still, that failed to suffice.
Ideologically, Turkey and the Emirates have been mortal enemies since the 2013 military coup in Egypt. But developments in Libya in 2019 were the first instance where personnel from both states were involved militarily in the same war theater.
That Turkey possessed its own indigenously developed drones gave it valuable agility at a small cost while facing off indirectly against the Gulf state. But the main obstacle encountered by Abu Dhabi in western Libya was not equipment related, as its air campaign that year was much more relentless than Ankara’s.
The problem was the Libyan National Army’s inadequate manpower. “Haftar can’t control a city of 3 million with just 1,000 men,” summarized Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.
Although hyperbolic and sarcastic, the Rome official’s quip highlights what has been the Achilles’ heel in the Emirates’ approach to Libya: Not enough young Libyans have been willing to risk their lives as foot soldiers on the frontline for Haftar.
After Sudanese autocrat Omar Bashir fell from power in 2019, many speculated that his successors would let their notorious Rapid Support Forces fight for the Libyan commander — but that never materialized.
This explains why the vast majority of the few thousand Sudanese fighters who have been acting as pro-Haftar mercenaries on Libyan soil consist of Darfuri rebels, usually less disciplined than the Rapid Support Forces.
Something similar can be said of the Syrian government, as almost all of the approximately 2,000 Syrian mercenaries fighting alongside Haftar are “reconciled rebels,” considered expendable and ineffectual compared to the more battle-hardened armed forces that Damascus still needs at home.
This acute difficulty in finding infantry for Haftar must be borne in mind by anyone interested in understanding the nature of the relationship between the United Arab Emirates and Wagner. Abu Dhabi keeps working closely with Moscow not because it shares its vision or because it trusts the Kremlin, but because it has no alternative.
By late August 2019, the Libyan National Army’s offensive on Tripoli had not merely become bogged down in a stalemate — it was in jeopardy. In September 2019, Russian fighters joined the Libyan National Army brigades on the outskirts of Tripoli and participated in the offensive on the Libyan government.
Wagner’s engagement, although it began with the loss of up to three dozen of its men, would persist and grow for several months. The Russian contingent acted as a force multiplier for Haftar’s offensive and made it more “fearsome,” said a Government of National Accord-aligned fighter interviewed.
Wagner forces provided a deadly resilience across the Libyan National Army’s vanguard, which had formerly been lacking. The addition of tighter coordination, anti-drone capability, expert snipers, and advanced equipment allowed the Libyan National Army to make small yet consistent advances into the capital’s suburbs. Thus, over the autumn of 2019, Russian fighters became an essential component of Haftar’s operation.
In mid-May 2020, as per a pattern familiar to watchers of Syria’s Idlib area, the two capitals chose to avoid prolonging a war-fighting episode deemed unnecessary and with no end in sight. The offensive on Tripoli, not having ever been a Russian project, was essentially discarded without consulting Haftar. In exchange, Ankara and Tripoli committed to letting Russian personnel exit the Greater Tripoli area safely.
Other topics of negotiations such as the possible release of two Russian spies arrested by the Government of National Accord a year prior were put back on the table, said a Libyan official familiar with the conversations. Meanwhile, Wagner’s exit from Tripolitania would let it concentrate on better defending the territories outside of Turkey’s sphere of influence.
On May 22, Turkey instituted a drone-strike moratorium and Russian mercenaries withdrew at once from northwestern Libya. In broad daylight, hundreds of Wagner personnel left southern Tripoli and Tarhuna, Haftar’s forward operating base in the west.
“The Wagner mercenaries came by the main road, and flocked to our airport,” said a Bani Walid resident interviewed by phone, echoing another eyewitness. Bani Walid is a partly neutral town situated in the eastern part of Tripolitania.
“The Russians were more than 2,000 in total. Some of them went straight through to Jufrah air base without even stopping. The situation was tense in our city.” The rough estimate comports with the figure of 3,000 Russian fighters published later by U.S. Africa Command Center.
According to a third Libyan source, Wagner’s abrupt withdrawal made it impossible for Libyan National Army or Sudanese units to smooth out the transition, hence their inability to avoid Haftar’s drastic collapse in Tripolitania.
Less than two weeks after Wagner withdrew, Libyan National Army forces and their non-Russian mercenaries had no choice but to abandon vast quantities of equipment and flee the province.
This back-and-forth — between ferocious fighting against Turkish-backed Libyan forces and a more passive stance — is the crux of the Kremlin’s approach.
First, Russia doesn’t share the Emirates’ commitment to propping up Haftar under all circumstances.
Second, the United Arab Emirates’ policy in Libya features security gaps. For more than half a decade, Moscow has been the only actor both able and willing to fill those gaps. As Russia does so, it becomes more essential to Haftar’s architecture and then uses that status to tilt the conflict according to its political will, which differs from that of the United Arab Emirates.
The exit from the Tripoli area showed the Kremlin’s willingness to hurt Haftar and Abu Dhabi’s agenda in situations where such moves let Moscow extract incremental advantages via its dialogue with Ankara and Tripoli.
Politics by Other Means
Since the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord forces, with the help of several thousand Syrian mercenaries, expelled Haftar’s armed coalition from northwestern Libya in June 2020, the territorial divide between the two main camps has been static.
The fault line runs from the city of Sirte, located in the middle of Libya’s littoral, down to the strategic Jufrah air base 160 miles farther south.
In a much less clear manner, another line going from Jufrah air base to Awbari, 300 miles to the southwest, runs between the Fezzan and the northwestern part of the country.
The reluctance of Turkish-backed Government of National Accord forces to attempt further advances since June was achieved through continued work by Wagner.
Both Moscow and Abu Dhabi carried on sending lethal equipment. Wagner has made a significant contribution along the Sirte-Jufrah frontline by planting hundreds of anti-personnel and anti-car mines, digging trenches, and building defense posts that feature air defense systems manned by well-trained Russian personnel.
Rumors about suspected S-300 systems near the oil port of Ras Lanuf even sparked fears of “anti-access/area denial” zones taking shape in North Africa until U.S. Africa Command Center issued a soft denial.
This situation is ironic given that the United Arab Emirates sent an MIM-104 Patriot air defense system to Libya in January 2020, only to give in to American pressure and remove it from the war theater, a European defense attaché and other Western sources said in interviews.
Wagner has also been active along the Jufrah-Awbari line, expanding its light footprint into the Fezzan. As part of these efforts to dissuade Turkish-backed forces from venturing into the east or the south, Moscow even introduced 14 MiG-29 fighter jets and Su-24 bombers piloted by mercenaries.
The deployment of these Russian warplanes, which elicited some anger from the United States, helped even out the balance of power between Libya’s two main camps.
On Nov. 2, U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland visited Moscow, a preview of how Russia’s discreet persistence in the North African country may, over time, become accepted as a force to reckon with.
The fact that those quiet advances are made by a private military company in lieu of the Russian state itself makes them more difficult to address or stop.
Over the last 12 months, the Wagner Group has greatly increased its command-and-control activities in several military bases across Libya. In an August 2020 interview, a senior insider to the U.N. peace talks on Libya recognized that “the Russians” now controlled Qardabiyah air base, a large dual-use airport located 15 kilometers from the coastal city Sirte, and made similar comments about Jufrah air base, another strategic facility situated farther south.
“If a demilitarization of that overall area is agreed, the Russians won’t leave Jufrah Airbase right away. But hopefully they’ll leave later on,” he added, betraying an awkward ambiguity often detected in diplomats when it comes to Wagner’s growing military presence in Libya.
But Western military officers tend to be more candid. “There is no sign the Russians are retrograding or preparing to depart from Libya,” Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, director of intelligence for U.S. Africa Command Center, told me last month. “To the contrary, it seems that they seek to become even more entrenched.”
In addition to Jufrah and Qardabiyah — two air bases that are now run almost entirely by Wagner — a third one called al-Khadim, near Benghazi, has also hosted substantial Russian activity this year.
Initially, the United Arab Emirates refurbished al-Khadim air base in 2016. For several years, Emirati-contracted cargo planes landed frequently at the facility.
Through most of 2019, Emirati forces operated both Jufrah and al-Khadim, until they moved most of their combat drones and personnel to facilities in western Egypt, letting Wagner settle into the two Libyan bases in their stead.
In early spring of 2020, al-Khadim became a major point of entry for Russian logistical support according to open-source data analyzed by aircraft-tracking specialists. By some estimates, Russian Air Force flights from Syria into eastern Libya averaged about one cargo plane per day for several months.
The manner in which these valuable bases moved from Emirati to Russian hands is a tangible example among others of de facto coordination between Moscow and Abu Dhabi.
Jalel Harchaoui is a senior fellow specializing in Libya at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Swiss-based institute. He previously was a research fellow at The Hague’s Clingendael Institute, where he is grateful to have had the opportunity to work on parts of this essay.