Washington’s obsession with the Wagner Group is clouding its efforts to contain Russia’s growing influence in Libya and Sudan.
In the 12 years since the killing of Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of the state, Washington has stayed clear of direct engagement with the Libyan civil war. CIA Director, William Burns’ 24-hour visit in January is an indication of the necessity – rather than the desire – to re-engage. The most immediate reason for this: to curb Moscow’s growing influence both among Libya’s warring factions, and in the wider region in which the crisis in Sudan has been sucked into the region’s larger vortex of violence and instability.
The foreign mercenary file
Although the 5 + 5 Joint Military Committee, which includes the two main protagonists of the military conflict in Libya, have met inside and outside Libya to settle the niggling issue of removing mercenaries from Libyan territory, the response of their patrons is far from enthusiastic.
According to sources in the United Nations mission in Libya, its head, Abdoulaye Bathily, returned from his visit to Sudan, Chad and Niger, all of which border Libya, without obtaining a clear timetable for the start of the gradual withdrawal of an army of foreign mercenaries from Libyan territory.
Months after CIA Director William Burns visited Libya, the first high-ranking US official to do so since the end of 2011, . Burns contented himself with meeting representatives of the two military forces in the east, represented by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Commander-in-Chief of the National Army stationed in the eastern region, and Abdel Hamid al-Dabaiba, head of the Interim Unity Government, ignoring the presidents of the presidential councils, parliament, and the state.
Hany Khallaf, the former Egyptian ambassador to Libya, believes that the Americans, who control Libyan affairs remotely, are seeking to replace any other international parties to determine the future of Libya.
He told African Arguments that the visit is an attempt to ensure the future of the US presence there and to compete with other countries such as Russia, France and Italy with their military and economic presence.
He pointed out that Burns’ meeting with Dabaiba means that the latter, from the US point of view, is the legitimate official responsible for the government. The legitimacy of Dabaiba’s government supported, on the other hand, the parallel government of stability headed by Fathi Bashagha, which was recognized by the Libyan parliament.
He believed that the US presence in Libya, although it mainly concerns the strategic interests of the United States, is threatened by more than one regional and international party.
In confirmation of this trend, in March the Biden administration presented its strategy for the next ten years for Libya, which the active political parties have unsurprisingly received in complete silence.
The United States said in an official statement wntirely lacking in irony, that it is committed to assisting the Libyans in their ongoing struggle for a more peaceful, stable and united future, noting that Libya has faced, since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, division and violent conflict.
Washington accused external actors, including Russia, of exploiting the unstable situation in Libya, posing a threat to NATO’s southern flank and further destabilizing the Sahel region.
The American plan is supposed to create the necessary conditions for holding democratic elections in the long term, which elections all the parties insist must be held this year, an increasingly unlikely possibility.
Recently, US special envoy to Libya, Robert Norland put forward the possibility of holding elections in the presence of foreign forces and without the withdrawal of mercenaries. Dabaiba, who appears to believe that staying on Washington’s good side bolsters his chances of consolidating power, immediately endorsed the proposal. Haftar, the strongman who militarily controls the south and east of the country, thwarted by the mercenaries, quite predictably, is opposed to it.
Although Norland ruled out the reopening of the US embassy in Tripoli, closed since 2014, it is becoming increasingly difficult for US Libya diplomats to justify working from neighbouring Tunisia while trying to limit Russia’s growing influence, and hoping that its coterie of corrupt proxies and ageing warlords will get the job done.
Further signs of Washington’s growing desperation could be detected, say our Egyptian sources, when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi recently received an American request to help end the Russian presence through the Wagner Group in Libya and Sudan. The Americans, our Egyptian sources say, are now keen for the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries as soon as possible.
The Biden administration has been pressing for months, in cooperation with some regional powers such as Egypt and the UAE, to put pressure on the military leaders in Sudan and Libya to end their relations with the Wagner group.
Washington called on the Sisi government to help persuade Field Marshal Haftar, the head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, to end their dealings with Wagner, while a Libyan official said that US officials demanded the withdrawal of mercenaries from oil facilities.
However, sources close to Haftar said that the American official asked him to stop Wagner activity on Libyan soil, and warned him of sanctions and charges against of aiding and abetting the Russian mercenaries.
As part of his follow-up talks with Burns, Haftar met with American political and military envoys at his headquarters in Al-Rajma, outside Benghazi, in eastern Libya. Sources close to Haftar say he asked for Washington’s support in ending the confrontation the Turkish-financed Syrian mercenaries and Al-Dabaiba’s forces in western Libya, pointing out that he considered that the continuation of what he described as the Turkish occupation of the western region of the country was no longer acceptable.
The sources, who asked not to be identified, said that Haftar requested the repatriation of the mercenaries without delay, given that their presence was an insult to the Libyan people, and obstructs all efforts aimed at creating a security and military environment for holding the postponed elections. According to the information, Haftar asked for assurances that Turkey and the militias supporting the Dabaiba government would not attack his forces.
Haftar confirmed, according to the same sources, his response to international and regional efforts aimed at finding a political solution to the current situation, providing verbal guarantees that he does not intend to repeat the experience of his failed war against Tripoli in 2019, again.
These assurances contradict his controversial statements during successive visits to the various areas under his control, of adopting a military solution. Sources in Haftar’s forces said that instructions were issued to equip military forces to replace the Wagner elements and what they described as collaborating Chadian and Sudanese militias, without going into further details.
An announcement in April by Major General Tariq bin Ziyad, a Haftar ally, that he was stationing his forces at the Chad border after an armed Chadian faction, the “Union of Forces for Democracy and Development” led by Muhammad Nuri announced the start of the withdrawal of his forces present in Sabha city in the south of Libya towards the Chadian lands.
Haftar never acknowledged the presence of these mercenaries within the ranks of his fighting forces, but it is widely believed that they, along with the Wagner Group, supported him and helped secure the territories under its control.
Former Libyan Foreign Minister, Muhammad al-Dairi, considered that Burns’ visit indicates the growing interest of the United States in the Libyan crisis, especially in the wake of the presence of the Wagner Company, pointing to the concerns raised by US Forces Africa Command (AFRICOM) about Wagner’s activities in several statements since 2018.
Al-Dairi added: “We cannot ignore Wagner’s use of its presence in Libya in logistical support for its operations in Mali, and the recent extension of the presence of the Russian company’s forces to Burkina Faso. All of this takes place in the midst of the participation of Wagner’s forces in Russian operations in Ukraine, which increases the United States’ opposition to Wagner’s presence.”
Starting in 2018, Haftar used Wagner mercenaries to help his forces fight against extremists in the eastern region, in addition to his failed attack on Tripoli in April 2019.
The AFRICOM leadership estimated that about 2,000 mercenaries, said to be financed by the UAE, were present in the second half of 2020 with Russian military equipment, including armored vehicles, air defense systems and combat aircraft.
The existence of Wagner has been linked to widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and forced displacement of civilians.
AFRICOM presented, on more than one occasion, evidence of Russia’s involvement in the Libyan war, including its introduction of manned armed attack aircraft in an attempt to change the nature of the current conflict.
In the past, it broadcasted photographs of Russian planes taking off from bases under the control of Haftar’s forces in the cities of Al-Jufra and Sirte.
In addition to securing energy sources and checking US expansion in the Mediterranean basin, Russia seeks to restore the influence it had in the 1960s in the North African region, and its strategic interests in Libya. However, Moscow failed to convince Haftar to grant a military base on Libyan soil.
Many international human rights organizations believe that Wagner is involved in the Libyan conflict on behalf of Haftar, and is accused of war crimes, including extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, and the use of child soldiers.
According to a report issued in March 2021 by the United Nations Panel of Experts in Libya, between 800 and 1,200 Wagner members supported Haftar’s forces in various roles of monitoring, advising, protecting forces, and fighting.
Since the United Nations announced a ceasefire in Libya in 2020, a year after the failed war launched by Haftar’s forces to liberate Tripoli from the control of armed militias loyal to the Dabaiba government, Wagner’s efforts have been limited to training members of the National Army led by Haftar and protecting oil installations in the areas under his control. in the east and south of the country.
According to a high-ranking Egyptian official, American officials are obsessed with the Wagner file, pointing out that it tops every meeting they have, whether in Egypt or Libya.
Washington’s man on the inside
General Mohamed Abdel Wahed, an Egyptian national security expert, believes that the Americans would like to re-establish stability in Libya, however temporarily, especially in light of the war in Ukraine between Russia and NATO, by urging all political forces to cooperate on a number of issues: the unification of military forces; holding elections in the country as soon as possible; in addition to emphasizing the importance of maintaining global energy supplies by securing oil facilities in Libya, a member of OPEC.
He added: “Washington wants to continue the American presence in the region and not leave the arena empty for greater Russian presence, whether directly or through Wagner, in light of an American strategy to expel the Russians from Syria, Libya and the Sahel region…especially after its battles and victories in Ukraine, and its heavy presence in the Sahel region and its contribution to the expulsion of the French forces there.”
What’s in it for the Libyans? General Abdel Wahed says that al-Dabaiba presented himself as a strategic partner and agent of Washington in the region, who demonstrated his willingness to advance American interests by handing over former Libyan intelligence officer Abu Ajila Lammari, accused of making the Lockerbie bomb in 1988. Flirting with Washington’s economic desires, Dababa has also pledged that his country will increase oil exports to three million barrels per day in the next three years.
Thus, the political division continues in Libya between Dabaiba’s government and the parallel government of stability mandated by the House of Representatives led by his rival, Fathi Bashagha, who insists on remaining in office without obtaining the recognition of the international community.
In any case, there is an incomplete mission for NATO, which under US and Turkish leadership, removed the Gaddafi regime in 2011, without establishing an alternative and coherent power structure – the roots of the current instability that has left the Libyan people in the midst of chaos and ruin.
The latest proposal made by Abdoulaye Bathily, head of the United Nations mission to the UN Security Council, to resolve the political crisis there and pave the way for elections that have been postponed for two years, also lacks imagination and reveals the international community’s lack of an effective strategy.
It appears that the initial optimism in Bathily was misplaced. A lasting solution remains very distant, as Washington continues its strategy of motion without movement.
Khaled Mahmoud is an Egyptian journalist covering political and Arab affairs. He has corresponded for several Arabic newspapers in the Middle East.