After some equivocation, Moscow is now reportedly throwing its weight more fully behind Libya’s maverick General Khalifa Haftar in his attempt to overthrow the United Nations-backed Tripoli government of Fayez al-Sarraj.
About 200 highly trained and well-armed Russian fighters recently entered the battle for control of Tripoli, according to The New York Times, quoting United States intelligence sources. The battle has raged since 4 April when Haftar, backing the eastern government based in Tobruk, launched a major offensive against the capital. The Russian troops are all evidently mercenaries from the private military company Wagner, which is rumoured to be controlled by President Vladimir Putin.
Haftar, who heads what he calls the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), formerly the Libyan National Army, is also being supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, in part, France. Turkey is the strongest external military backer of al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord.
The New York Times quotes US intelligence sources saying the injection of the Wagner special forces, equipped with special sniper rifles and backed by hundreds of drones and Russian Sukhoi fighter jets, could tilt the war in Haftar’s favour.
Using Wagner allows Moscow some deniability, while nevertheless executing its foreign policy
These same trademarks characterised Wagner’s operations in Syria, the paper notes. It also quotes officials of al-Sarraj’s forces complaining that the United States (US) has abandoned them, as indeed the US recently abandoned its Kurdish Syrian allies, leaving them at the mercy of their Turkish enemies, plus the Russians and the Syrian government.
The unpredictable Trump administration has certainly been fickle in Libya, backing al-Sarraj’s government but also expressing support for Haftar’s campaign against Tripoli. In April the US joined Russia in blocking a United Kingdom-backed resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, soon after Haftar began his offensive.
Russia’s precise strategy in Libya is not easy to read either. Al-Sarraj reportedly attended last month’s first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi on the Black Sea, where he met Russian officials, presumably to complain about the growing presence of Russian mercenaries in Haftar’s army. It isn’t clear if he met Putin, or what response he got from the Russians. The recent expansion of the Russian military presence, if true, would suggest it wasn’t what he wanted.
Haftar’s people had hoped to exploit the summit by organising press events to publicise their claim that they were only fighting alleged terrorists among the militias defending Tripoli. According to Kirill Semenov, writing for the Al-Monitor journal, the Haftar faction had planned to claim at the summit that Russian jihadists had also been transferred from Syria to Tripoli to join al-Sarraj’s forces. But the latter’s unexpected arrival at the summit rather upstaged their propaganda ploy.
The unpredictable Trump administration has been fickle in Libya
Semenov believes al-Sarraj’s presence at the Sochi summit was evidence of disagreements among different factions of the Russian government about how to handle the Libyan crisis, including whether to fully back Haftar, or hedge its bets.
The use of private military companies is generally contentious. South Africa, for example, has outlawed them. But Moscow doesn’t seem embarrassed, in principle, about the activities of companies like Wagner.
At a seminar last month in Pretoria, Russia’s new ambassador to South Africa Ilya Rogachev said, ‘Private military companies are not necessarily bad … I think it depends on the goals that are assigned to these companies.’ If they were used to suppress Shi’a Muslims in Basra it would be bad. But if they helped defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – as they had in Syria – it would be good.
He also indicated that Moscow was indeed exercising control over these companies, the implication being that it approved their activities, such as in Libya. Russia has also entered the Central African Republic, and recently northern Mozambique, reportedly using Wagner as its proxy. In Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province the company is helping Maputo fight jihadist insurgents, now evidently affiliated to Islamic State.
Al-Sarraj’s unexpected arrival in Sochi upstaged Haftar’s propaganda ploy planned for the summit
Despite Rogachev’s candour, using Wagner does still seem to allow Moscow some deniability, while nevertheless executing its foreign policy designs. In Africa these range from oil, gas and diamond commercial opportunities to wider geo-strategic ambitions to gain a foothold on the continent and check the influence of the US, China and others. The Sochi summit itself was part of that initiative.
In Libya, apart from those general aims, Moscow may also be looking for permanent access to a North African port or base, with influence over sea routes to the entrance to the Suez.
The presence of so many outside forces in Libya’s conflict, with different and obscure agendas, needs to be discussed and resolved. The UN’s Libyan envoy Ghassan Salamé intends to invite these external forces, as well as the Libyan combatants, to a conference which he and the German government are planning for later this year. Salamé told The New York Times that if external players were removed from the equation, the Libyans themselves could resolve the conflict.
That might be debatable, though the externals are certainly amplifying the warfare. The conference does seem to have a better chance than previous attempts to bring the combatants together, organised by Italy and France. Both were seen to have too many national interests in play to be neutral referees, while Germany is more objective.
And the African Union? It wants to be part of the action but at an AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) and UN Security Council meeting last month, the latter rejected the AU’s proposal for a joint UN-AU special envoy on Libya, according to the latest PSC Report of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Sources say the AU is unhappy as it has been offered no more than observer status at the proposed UN-German conference.
One could perhaps question what value the AU might add were it more involved. But at least it would boost the legitimacy of the process – at least in Africa – as the PSC Report argues. That’s important, given lingering resentment across the continent about how the AU was sidelined from international efforts to end the civil war in 2011.
In every way, the stakes are high in the latest peace moves. ‘This is potentially very serious for Africa,’ says Anton du Plessis, ISS Executive Director. ‘If it goes wrong it could aggravate the already de-stabilising influence of the Libyan conflict on the region and on migration routes to Europe.’