The UN and Washington are urging foreign troops and mercenaries to leave Libya. Letting the Libyans decide their own destiny and exercise sovereignty over their lands would be the latest move towards a stable political transition process in the war-torn country.
However, the rampant, deeply rooted network of foreign forces and mercenaries backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are showing no signs of leaving the country soon.
UN Envoy Stephanie Williams said flights carrying military cargo were continuing to both sides, “undermining” the cease-fire agreement. She called on all foreign fighters and mercenaries who were supposed to leave Libya by 23 January to leave now.
A ceasefire deal concluded in Geneva on 23 October also provided for the withdrawal of foreign troops to set the stage for national elections in late December. Libya’s rivals agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire that included the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya within three months.
Since then, however, no progress has been made. Violence has recommenced. Last week, CNN showed satellite images of Russian troops digging tens of kilometres near the frontline coastal city of Sirte. In apparent disregard of the ceasefire last December, Turkey extended its authorisation for troop deployment in Libya by 18 months.
The North African country is now divided between two rival administrations, each backed by an array of militias and foreign powers. An administration backed by military commander Khalifa Hafter rules the east and south. This is supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. A UN-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli, controls the west, and that is supported by Turkey.
Experts and analysts unanimously agree that Russia and Turkey are not likely to leave Libya due to deep, entrenched interests in the country. “There is no sign of Turkey, Russia or the UAE leaving Libya in the near future,” Talmiz Ahmad, a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE told Al-Ahram Weekly. “No withdrawal timetable is set for that regardless of the calls being made by the UN or the US, and I expect they will make every effort to expand and consolidate their influence in the divided country.”
Explaining the interests of the countries supporting the rival administrations in Libya in Tripoli and Tobruk, Ahmad said, “Turkey has both ideological and strategic interests. It supports the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Government of National Accord in Tripoli as an ideological partner; Libya is also important for its strategic outreach into the Mediterranean.”
For Russia, on the other hand, “There are strategic and economic interests as the country may be Russia’s gateway to a presence in the Mediterranean, perhaps by providing bases on the coast, in addition to other economic interests that include energy and infrastructure projects.” Despite the fact that Russia and Turkey are supporting different ideologies in Libya, according to Ahmad, they still “can accommodate each other’s interests”.
He stressed that the main divide is between Egypt and Turkey, as the latter is supporting a Muslim Brotherhood-ideologised government in Libya. Ahmad emphasised that reconciliation initiatives between Libya’s conflicted parties can happen under two scenarios. The first is “a Turkey-Egypt rapprochement arranged by Russia”, a move that backs the stability of the country. Egypt as a neighbouring country already has direct security concerns in Libya due to the long porous border they share.
The second scenario is a “real agreement” between Tripoli and Tobruk, without foreign involvement, “one that calls for statesmanship -- prioritising national interest, a united army, acceptable arrangements for the production and sale of oil and transparency relating to national revenues and expenditure”. Continued violence between warring factions in Libya is undoubtedly hindering peace talks sought by mediator states like Egypt and Morocco who all through January have been intensifying efforts to bring the Libyan rivals together to the table.
The various foreign forces staying in Libya “create space and rhetorical justification for spoilers to act against the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum,” Nathan Vest, a research assistant at RAND Corporation, told the Weekly. Moreover, the withdrawal of forces may create a “vacuum in the security landscape”, according to Vest, with foreign troops deployed along the Jufra-Sirte line of contact and in military bases in the east and west.
He mentioned that after the withdrawal of Russia’s Wagner mercenaries last May, Hafter’s forces suffered a rapid disintegration. The same scenario may happen along the Jufra-Sirte line. Leaving Libyans alone to decide their future was the core of the UN talks last week.
“It’s essential that all foreign troops and mercenaries move back and leave the Libyans alone, because the Libyans have already proven that, left alone, they are able to address their problems,” the UN Security Council and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated. However, setting a Libyan transition process in motion would require “a neutral third party or parties working with the internationally recognised Libyan government and the main insurgent forces will need to ensure the foreign troops’ withdrawal process as one primary step to start Libyan-Libyan talks,”
John Parachini, a senior international and defence researcher at RAND, told the Weekly. “Stopping Russian and Turkish meddling in Libyan affairs will not be easily achieved and will require internationally agreed on actions. Guaranteeing a stable political transition with no upsurge of violence requires third party forces to monitor and help maintain public order during the transition period,” Parachini said. Halting by now entrenched Russian and Turkish powers in Libya “won’t be an easy task and will need international coordination,” he added.
According to Claudia Gazzini, the International Crisis Group’s consulting analyst for Libya, there are two main reasons for the delay on the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Libya. The first is domestic-related: “each warring side in Libya is heavily reliant on foreign forces to defend themselves against an attack from the rival coalition, so they won’t risk the foreign withdrawal without consolidation of each party’s positions,” Gazzini told the Weekly.
The other reason is tied to the interests of their respective foreign backers. “Both Turkey, which supports the Tripoli-based authorities, and Russia, which supports the Hafter-led coalition, have strategic long-term ambitions in Libya and are unlikely to pull out voluntarily before safeguarding their own interests.” The withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya is but one of many steps necessary to stabilise a country divided between two rival military coalitions.
“There is a need for a unified Libyan military apparatus, and this won’t be easy to reach,” Gazzini stated. “The political forum currently underway is supposed to bring to power a new three-man Presidential Council that is supposed jointly to appoint the top commander of the military, but this is unlikely to be a smooth process,” she added.
Civil war has torn the oil-rich country since the NATO-backed uprising that ousted long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and after many rounds of negotiations the warring factions have failed to reach a settlement.
With about 20,000 foreign and mercenary troops still in Libya, the UN’s latest reports confirmed that Turkey’s mercenaries are Syrian fighters loyal to Ankara while Russia sends mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation. The UN estimates the cost of the conflict since 2011 has been $578bn (£424bn) so far.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly