Tom Grein | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
In May, the international press reported several hundred Russian mercenaries had been flown out of southern Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Their departure came as the Libyan National Army (LNA)—the main government opposition—suffered a string of setbacks that culminated in the breakthrough of the 13-month siege of Tripoli. The significant Russian retreat from the frontline illuminated, among other things, the direct involvement of foreign actors in Libya, and starkly revealed the state of the country’s internal affairs. What started as a domestic struggle for democratic reform has now become an international proxy war.
Libya has been without central government control since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. For the past six years, the country has been split between the LNA in the east and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west, with a conglomeration of smaller groups, including the Islamic State, controlling various territories. The LNA—led by Haftar Khalifa, a former top Gaddafi military officer—is backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It controls key trading ports and Libya’s lucrative ‘oil crescent’, the home of Africa’s largest oil reserves.
The GNA is the country’s official interim government and was formed through the United Nations-led Libyan Political Agreement of 2016. Turkey is its major sponsor, and has provided munitions, armoured vehicles and drones in an effort to consolidate national control. A trade-for-help scheme has effectively been established between Ankara and the GNA, exemplified in the signing of a controversial maritime boundary deal which expands Turkey’s right to gas drilling in the eastern Mediterranean in return for military assistance.
The Libyan Civil War is for all intents and purposes an international conflict within a single state that has echoes of the war in Syria. In 2019, the UAE conducted over 900 airstrikes in the Greater Tripoli area to contain GNA forces. Turkey responded with around 250 drone strikes of its own. It was amid this escalation that hundreds of Russian troops were deployed to the frontline. Their superior tactics and equipment were vital to the LNA’s advance on Tripoli.
The presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya has been widely documented by journalists and diplomats, with social media images purporting to show Russians among LNA ranks. A UN report found the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor, deployed around 1200 mercenaries to Libya to support the LNA. Hired fighters from Belarus, Serbia, Ukraine and Sudan are also among the contingent.
Despite the pledge of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, to end foreign interference and work toward a permanent ceasefire, foreign actors remain embedded in Libya. In fact, LNA advancements earlier this year only drove Turkey to increase its operations. In January and February 2020, at least three Turkish cargo ships delivered over 10,000 tons of military equipment to the GNA, while around 100 Emirati cargo planes supplied hardware to the LNA.
The West’s role in mitigating conflict in Libya is, at this point, largely limited to statements of discontent. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) intervention of 2011 that helped topple Gaddafi, and its resultant political instability, has damaged confidence in future Western intervention in Libya. The 2012 Benghazi affair, in which four Americans were killed, has also demoralised American involvement in the region. President Donald Trump in fact used the incident to discredit his opponent Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. As a result, any future American intrusion, particularly under the current administration, is highly improbable.
Furthermore, Washington has lately adopted a posture of indifference toward Africa, signified through the Pentagon’s musings of a regional drawdown of troops and resources. And now with domestic civil unrest sparked by police brutality and the forthcoming economic challenge of COVID-19, America’s attentiveness abroad is compromised.
The Libyan Civil War is one of the lesser known conflicts of the last decade, and global events of recent months threaten to plunge it even deeper under the radar. These major distractions could spur foreign powers to make good on geopolitical objectives they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to with the world watching.
Russia and Turkey have jousted along Syria’s northern border for almost a decade, funding their respective proxy armies and coming close to all-out war in 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet. The trajectory of the Libyan Civil War—the deep investment of international actors, the presence of the Islamic State and its ambition to turn Libya into the next “vanguard of the Caliphate”, and the lengths each side is willing to go in order to win—signals a treacherous path ahead for the nation. Moscow and Ankara risk turning Libya into Syria 2.0.
The close proximity of Libya to Europe means Western leaders cannot afford to ignore the conflict. Though so long as one crucial externality resulting from an uptick in violence is managed—refugee flows to Europe—the country is more or less fair game for its international interlopers. Another refugee crisis, amid current economic and social friction across the West, would simply be too much for governments to handle.
With all the world’s current distractions, we mustn’t take our eye off Libya, as the worst may still be yet to come.
Tom Grein is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.