The United States is now redoubling its efforts to limit Russian influence in Libya, in particular by putting pressure on local and regional actors to break with the Wagner group. The ongoing war in Sudan only heightens American fears of Moscow intervention from neighboring Libya.
The meeting of the joint military committee which includes military officials representing both sides — east and west — of the military conflict in Libya1, repeatedly postponed, and which was to be held in May 2023 in the city of Sabha, in the south of the country, in order to discuss the withdrawal of mercenaries and Russian and Turkish foreign forces from Libyan territory, has been further postponed. This new report confirms what regional and Arab sources were saying about the ” permanent political tensions ” between the two parties in conflict, despite the optimism displayed by the members of this committee as to the possibility of reaching an agreement. overall.
This new attempt was to take place nearly four months after a rapid and unusual visit to Libya by CIA Director William Burns in mid-January, the consequences of which are only beginning to be measured. The desire to target the Wagner group and try to contain it in order to restrict Russian influence on neighboring countries is now clearly felt. This trend has been reinforced since the outbreak of the Sudanese crisis, which acts as additional pressure on the Americans.
SUDAN IN SIGHT
The announcement of the American special envoy Richard Norland on May 15, 2023 already said a lot, he who mentioned on his Twitter account ” the common interest of Libya and the United States to obtain a ceasefire in Sudan ”, after his telephone conversation with Libyan acting Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah. On the other hand, Norland stressed to the head of the Libyan Presidential Council Mohamed Al-Manfi ” the importance of forming a joint force to carry out patrols on the southern border, and to ensure that Libya will not be used as a platform for intervention in Sudan “. These statements reflect a particular American fear of the involvement of the Wagner groupin the destabilization of the Sudanese border.
For her part, still on Twitter, US Under-Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf highlighted to the commander of the Libyan National Army, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, what she described as ” the urgent need to prevent outside parties, including the Kremlin-backed Russian Wagner Group, from further destabilizing Libya or its neighbours, including Sudan .” Note that Haftar’s son, Seddik, had denied any political responsibility for his controversial visit to Khartoum just days before the outbreak of the armed conflict between the head of the regular army Abdelfattah Al-Burhan and the head of the Force rapid support ( FSR)) Hemetti, whom he had briefly met.
WASHINGTON IN THE GAME
William Burns is the first senior US official to visit Libya since late 2011. This is his third visit to the country, the first having taken place after the restoration of US relations with the Gaddafi regime in 2004. But this times, his agenda – limited to a meeting with Haftar, based in the eastern region, and with Dbeibah in Tripoli, without consideration for the head of the Presidential Council, for the President of Parliament or of the State – has translated well this American concern about the presence of Russia in Libya, through Wagner.
Haftar did not disclose the content of his talks with Burns, nor published a photo of their meeting, while Abdulhamid Dbeibah said the purpose of the meeting was to “stabilize Libya and support it internationally, until the presidential and parliamentary elections which have been postponed ”. However, the US official’s choice of a meeting with the interim prime minister would mean the latter is now ‘ the legitimate representative of the government ‘from the American point of view, according to the former Egyptian ambassador to Tripoli, Hani Khallaf.
Especially since this visit comes just a few weeks after a wave of criticism that targeted the Libyan government for having handed over to Washington the former Libyan intelligence officer, Abu Ageila Massoud Al-Maryami. The latter is currently on trial for having made the bomb that was used in the Lockerbie bombing in December 1988.
Khalaf explains that ” the Americans insist that Dbeibah be the legitimate representative of Libya and their interests “, although Egypt has taken a ” different position “. Cairo no longer recognizes the legitimacy of Dbeibah and prefers to support the Government of national unity led by Fathi Bachagha, which had obtained the confidence of Parliament. Khallaf believes that the Americans, who control Libyan affairs from afar, ” seek to substitute for other international parties to determine the future of the country “, explaining that Burns’ visit is ” an attempt to ensure the future of the American presence there, and to compete with other countries such as Russia, France and Italy, militarily and economically ”. Consequently, underlines the Egyptian diplomat, the American presence in Libya threatens more than one regional and international actor.
Two months after William Burns’ visit to Libya, the representative of the UN Secretary General , the Senegalese Abdullah Batili, began to intensify his efforts in the same direction as the American envoy. He visited the neighboring countries (Sudan, Chad and Niger) to ensure the support of these countries for the UN mission and the joint military committee, with a view to implementing the action plan. on the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries.
The intensive pressure exerted by the Biden administration to contain the rise of Russian influence in Libya, and in Africa in general, seems to be bearing fruit. Egyptian sources who requested anonymity confirm that President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, who met with Burns as well as US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in late January, received a US request to help end the Russian presence in Libya and Sudan, and more generally to that of foreign mercenaries as soon as possible. Information confirmed by an article from the Associated Press agency ( AP) after Blinken and Burns’ visit to Cairo, citing Egyptian, Sudanese and Libyan officials who complained of increasing pressure from Washington to expel Russian mercenaries from Sudan and Libya.
These officials claimed that ” the Biden administration has been working for months with Egypt and the Emirates to put pressure ” on the Sudanese and Libyan officers, and end their relations with Wagner. The article adds, quoting a high-ranking Egyptian official, that the Wagner group “ is at the center of all the meetings ”.
A Libyan official tells us that ” US officials demanded the withdrawal of mercenaries from Libyan oil installations “, while sources close to Khalifa Haftar confirm that William Burns asked him to end Wagner’s activity on the ground Libyan, and warned him of the sanctions that could affect him and the officers of his army.
A week after meeting the director of the CIA , Haftar hosted at his headquarters in Al-Rajma, near Benghazi, an American delegation that included the deputy commander of the United States Air Force in Africa, General John de Lamontagne. , and Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Libya, Leslie Ordman.
According to sources close to the Libyan marshal, the latter would have asked for help from Washington to put an end to the presence of Syrian mercenaries who are fighting on behalf of Turkey and for that of the forces of Dbeibah in the west of the country. The military leader also reportedly stressed that the continuation of what he described as the Turkish occupation of the western region of the country ” is no longer acceptable “.
GUARANTEES FOR HAFTAR
The same sources explain that Haftar would have demanded the immediate withdrawal of these forces, on the grounds that their presence ” is an insult to the Libyan people and hinders all efforts aimed at creating a security and military environment favorable to the holding of the postponed elections ” .
According to information from certain journalists, the marshal would have asked for guarantees that Turkey and the militias supporting the government of Dbeibah do not attack his troops. He would also have affirmed his readiness to respond favorably to international and regional efforts aimed at finding a political solution to the current situation in the country, by pledging not to attempt to take Tripoli again. This reassuring speech, however, contradicts his controversial statements during his successive visits to the various areas under his control, where he affirmed that the military solution remained, from his point of view, the last resort to resolve the situation.
Sources within the Libyan National Army point out that instructions have since been given to equip the forces supposed to replace members of Wagner and the Chadian and Sudanese militias, without giving further details. These new provisions are linked to the announcement made by the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Brigade, loyal to Haftar, that it would position itself on the border strip with Chad at the end of April, after an armed faction belonging to the rebel forces of Mahamat Nouri’s Union of Forces for Democracy and Development ( UFDD ) have announced the start of their withdrawal from Sabha, in southern Libya, to return to Chadian lands.
Haftar has never acknowledged the presence of these mercenaries in his ranks, but their support, as well as that of Wagner, is widely accepted, as well as the help they gave to ensure control of the territories administered by the marshal. Since 2018, the latter has used the mercenaries of the Russian group to help his forces fight against militias in the east of the country, in addition to their participation in his failed offensive against Tripoli in April 2019.
The presence of these mercenaries is estimated , according to the United States Africa Command (Africom), to 2,000 people. They would have received support from the United Arab Emirates in the second half of 2020, with Russian military equipment, including armored vehicles, air defense systems and combat aircraft. The American command also presented,3to try to change the nature of the conflict, including through the use of attack aircraft.
Photos had already been released in the past showing Russian planes taking off from bases controlled by Haftar, in Al-Joufra and Sirte. However, according to the report published in March 2021 by the United Nations Group of Experts in Libya, the number of Wagner militiamen who supported Haftar’s forces is instead between 800 and 1,200. International rights organizations Humans in turn believe that Wagner is involved in the Libyan conflict on Haftar’s side, and accuse the Russian group of war crimes, including extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas and recruitment of child soldiers.
“THE KISS OF LIFE”
Since the UN declaration of a ceasefire in 2020, Wagner’s role has been limited to training Haftar’s forces and protecting oil installations in areas under his control, in the east and south of the country. In addition to securing energy sources and coping with US-Western expansion in the Mediterranean basin, Russia seeks, through this support, to preserve the influence it has acquired since the 1960s in Africa. of the North, as well as its strategic interests in Libya. However, she failed to convince Haftar to grant her a military base.
Major General Mohamed Abdel Wahed, Egyptian national security expert, believes that:
the visit of William Burns confirms the maintenance of the American presence in the region, in order not to leave the field open for a greater Russian presence, whether directly or through companies, and this within the framework of a broader US strategy to expel Russians from Syria, Libya and the Sahel region. Washington would like to eliminate Wagner once and for all.
But what interest for the Libyan actors ? According to Mohamed Abdel Wahed,
Dbeibah presented himself as a strategic partner and an agent of the United States, whose interests in the region he could guarantee. He is ready to put other Libyans in the hands of American justice. Not to mention Libya’s ability to increase its oil exports to three million barrels a day over the next three years.
He also indicates that Dbeibah proposed to Burns ” the reopening of the American embassy in Tripoli, on the condition of recognizing the legitimacy of his power “. People close to the Prime Minister summarize the situation by saying that the American visit gave the latter’s government ” the kiss of life “, after 12 years of failure to build a new political system for the country.