The Mercenaries' Dilemma in Libya: Domestic and Regional Repercussions

Ahmed Nadhif | 21 Jun 2021

On 22 May 2021, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Libya Jan Kubis warned the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that progress on the main issue of withdrawing mercenaries and foreign fighters from Libya had stalled, and that their continued presence posed a threat not only to Libya, but to the entire African region.[1]

This warning brought back to the fore the dilemma of mercenaries in Libya, after months of optimism in the wake of the political agreement that ended years of war, and stipulated in one of its clauses the need for all foreign forces to leave the country within 90 days.[2]

This paper sheds light on the issue of mercenaries in Libya, first by defining the map of foreign irregular armed forces in the country, and secondly by analysing the political and security repercussions of the presence of those mercenaries, both at the internal and regional levels, as well as trying to anticipate future paths for the development of this dilemma.

Map of mercenaries in Libya

In the wake of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, Libya turned into a vast arena for the spread of arms and irregular armed groups, which strengthened their presence and strength by relying on fighters from outside Libya as a means of livelihood or through recruitment operations based on ideological and political motives, taking advantage of great financial capabilities that they controlled in light of the weakness of the central state authority. The UN estimates the extent of the phenomenon at the present time, with the presence of at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in the country,[3] distributed according to affiliation and orientation as follows:

1. Turkish mercenaries: on 27 November 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed two memoranda of understanding with the Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Al-Sarraj. The first memorandum is related to security and military cooperation, and the second is related to defining the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), with the aim of protecting the rights of the two countries stemming from international law.[4] By conferring this legal legitimacy, Turkey began sending forces to support the GNA in its military conflict with the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. However, the number of Turkish mercenaries was limited to the regular forces, including experts and technical operators of the Turkish air defence systems deployed in western Libya.[5]

2. Syrian mercenaries: against the limited number of regular Turkish forces, Ankara has sought since late 2019 to recruit thousands of Syrians who are affiliated with armed groups loyal to it in northern Syria to fight in Libya alongside the forces of the GNA in Tripoli. The numbers of those mercenaries have fluctuated between 4000 men at the beginning of the recruitment process, including 250 minors, and reached the limits of 13,000 men at the end of 2020.[6] Afterwards, the numbers began to decrease gradually after the low levels of financial incentives that the Turkish government granted to the fighters.[7] The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) described the Syrian mercenaries as "unexperienced, uneducated, and motivated by promises of a great salary" indicating that the Turkish private military company SADAT supervised and paid the mercenaries. It noted that the increasing reports of theft, sexual assault and misconduct by Syrian mercenaries in the western regions are likely to further deteriorate the security situation and generate a violent reaction from the Libyan public.[8]

3. Russian mercenaries: the US accused Russia of deploying nearly 2,000 mercenaries to support the LNA forces led by Khalifa Haftar in its attack on Tripoli in 2020, and AFRICOM said that those mercenaries are believed to be members of the Wagner Group, a private military company that was accused of launching secret wars on behalf of the Kremlin in countries such as Ukraine and Syria, but the Russian government denies any official involvement.[9] Meanwhile, a confidential UN report revealed that the Russian private security company deployed nearly 1,200 personnel in Libya to reinforce the forces of the LNA stationed in the east of the country. The report, which was submitted by independent sanctions monitors to the Libya Sanctions Committee of the UNSC said that the Russian company deployed forces in specialiSed military missions, including sniper teams.[10]

4. Sudanese mercenaries: most of the Darfurian groups participated in hostilities (the Sudan Liberation Forces Alliance, the Sudan Liberation Army Movement-Transitional Council, the Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid (SLA/AW), the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening Council, and Abdallah Banda) in Libya extensively since late 2019 until June 2020, in the military operations of the LNA, and significantly increased their capabilities and size in terms of weapons, vehicles and fighters, and strengthened their relations with the LNA. Despite the Juba Peace Agreement, large numbers of Darfurian rebel fighters are willing to remain in Libya for the foreseeable future, according to a UN expert report on Sudan.[11] The bulk of Darfurian forces are concentrated in two areas: in Harawa, nearly 70 kilometers east of the Sirte front line. There are many others in several places in the Jufra area, which has served as their centre for several years, namely: Hun (or Houn), Soukana, and Waddan, especially in the civilian airport, and the Zella area, where the headquarters of the Sudan Liberation Army/Minni Minawi (SLA-MM) movement is located. It also has bases in the Haruj mountains, near Zella, where the SLA/Minni Minawi wing had a training camp.[12]

5. Foreign terrorist fighters: since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya has formed a rear base that helps to create training centres for a wide range of terrorist groups loyal to Al-Qaeda and to Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS), starting in 2014, and a suitable starting area towards Turkey, and onwards to the Syrian and Iraqi interiors for a large segment of foreigner fighters from the Maghreb countries. Most of the terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq had passed through and trained in Libya, before it also turned into a battlefield in which they settled in the ranks of Daesh and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) to fight against the Libyan army since May 2014, the date of the launch of Operation Dignity led by Khalifa Haftar.[13] Despite the decline in the presence of terrorist jihadist organisations, especially after the defeat of Daesh, this type of fighters still maintains a presence in the southern desert cities, mainly in Traghen, Ubari and Ghadwa, as centres of smuggling activities with Chad and Sudan, as well as in sleeper cells in the cities of Sabratha and Tripoli. The city of Bani Walid is also a haven for a large segment of them.[14]

6. Chadian mercenaries: since 2016, opposition Chadian forces have been participating in hostilities inside Libya. These are mainly elements of the Front for Rotation and Concord in Chad (FACT), which is leading a rebellion against the ruling political regime in Chad, and is led by Mahamat Mahdi Ali. The Front is based in southern Libya, and initially allied itself with the BRSC, one of the terrorist organisations loyal to Al-Qaeda.[15] In the spring of 2017, under military pressure from the LNA, the Front was forced to approach Field Marshal Haftar and concluded a tacit non-aggression agreement before being allowed to station itself in the Jufra area.[16] The Front is expanding its presence from Jufra to Sebha and extending to Brak al-Shati in southern Libya, where it has become dependent on Libya as a rear base for its operations deep in Chad.[17]

Repercussions

On 23 October 2020, the parties to the Libyan conflict signed a ceasefire agreement in Geneva, and the parties committed themselves to deporting all foreign fighters and mercenaries by 23 January 2021.[18] However, this did not materialise as stipulated in the agreement, and the issue remained in place despite the inauguration of the Government of National Unity early in 2021. This prompted the international powers to sound the alarm, for fear that the country would return to the cycle of civil conflict, and the spread of the effects of the presence of mercenaries to the rest of the region's countries, where this dilemma threatens with highly complex internal and regional repercussions.

Internal repercussions

  • The presence of large numbers of foreign mercenary forces inside Libya constitutes an element of a security aggravation that could lead to the resumption of military operations between the two parties to the conflict. Indeed, it could perpetuate the division of Libya, even as the future of its citizens will remain hostage to political and military forces from outside their borders.
  • The presence of those forces could also affect the conduct of the electoral process to be held at the end of 2021, as it will be difficult to conduct a fair and transparent electoral process amid the presence of groups of mercenaries with divided loyalty, and not subject to a strong Libyan central authority, especially in light of the presence of Turkish experts in decision-making centres in Tripoli, which will have drastic effects on the election results.
  • The continued presence of mercenary groups in the vast southern desert area – especially the groups coming from Sudan and Chad – will lead to the expansion of smuggling and organised crime networks, especially drug smuggling, which constitutes the financial nerve of the terrorist rebel armed groups in the African Sahel region.
  • The presence of foreign fighters with terrorist tendencies poses a security challenge to the new Libyan authorities, as the sleeper cells of Daesh and al-Qaeda in Tripoli, Sabratha and Bani Walid could pose a major security threat through the possibility of their transformation from military action to security work in cities through suicide attacks or bombings that target civilians and sovereign interests, especially during the election period, due to their hostility to democratic processes.

Regional Repercussions

  • Libya could turn into a rear base for all rebellions against the political regimes in the Sahel-Saharan region. A few years ago, it has indeed become a springboard for attacks against Chad, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt and Mali. Perhaps the assassination of Chadian President Idriss Deby on 20 April 2021 is a significant example of the strategic location that is now assumed by the Libyan desert depth for the Chadian armed opposition, given that the forces that participated in the killing of Deby set out from southern Libya. What happened in Chad could repeat itself again in any country, and could extend from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa in Sudan, South Sudan and Niger.
  • The significant movement of armed groups and terrorists, as well as economic migrants and refugees – often through channels run by organised criminal networks and other local actors across uncontrolled borders – increases the risks of increased instability and insecurity in Libya and the region, and can deepen the humanitarian tragedies related to incidents of human trafficking and human rights violations.[19]

Future prospects

Most of the international powers – mainly Western and neighboring countries – show interest in the issue of the presence of mercenaries in Libya, and are pushing for its solution as soon as possible, considering it a vexing security concern that threatens the southern coasts of the Mediterranean through migration and terrorism networks. Since April 2021, the UNSC began holding special sessions to discuss this issue.[20]

Recently, the website Politico[21] revealed details of a plan proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron to his counterparts in the US Joe Biden and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, regarding the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libya. The plan proposes first withdrawing the Syrian mercenaries supported by Turkey, followed by the withdrawal of the fighters backed by Russia and regular Turkish forces, according to a six-month timetable. While the conflict in Libya is not a political priority for the Biden administration, it is clear that it is in the US interest to strongly advocate for the immediate withdrawal of all mercenaries and foreign fighters in Libya, as the expulsion of mercenaries would bring a second-class geopolitical advantage to the Biden administration, which looks to developments In Libya through the perspective of competition with Russia. Considering that most of the Russian presence in Libya consists of Wagner company forces, the departure of all mercenaries from Libya will deprive Russia of a strategic location on the Mediterranean coast, and on the southern coasts of Europe.[22]

The recent Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement could play a pivotal role in resolving the foreign mercenary dilemma, as Libya will be among the files that the two parties seek to resolve. This could lead to the end of the Turkish military presence, and the withdrawal of the remaining Syrian mercenaries loyal to Ankara, which would push the LNA to abandon the services of the Russian forces, as a step to restore the balance of power between the two parties, despite the Turkish threat to maintain a permanent military presence in accordance with the 2019 Turkish-Libyan Defence Agreement.[23]

The peace agreement signed on 3 October 2020 between armed and non-armed opposition groups in Sudan and the government paves the way for local stability, which significantly expands the representation of the country’s parties during the transitional period before the elections. This would be beneficial for the situation in Libya, given that those armed groups would not be forced to engage in military adventures abroad, as was the case in Libya in recent years.

Conclusions

  • In the wake of the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya turned into a vast arena for the deployment of arms and irregular armed groups that enhanced their presence and strength by relying on fighters from outside the country as a livelihood or through recruitment operations based on ideological and political motives. The UN estimates that there are at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya.
  • The mercenaries in Libya are distributed according to affiliation and orientation to four prominent nationalities: Turkish, Syrian, Sudanese and Chadian, in addition to a large segment of fighters with terrorist tendencies loyal to Al-Qaeda and Daesh holding the nationalities of neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, and some of them come from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The dilemma of mercenaries in Libya poses important internal challenges, the most prominent of which is the security challenge, where the presence of large numbers of foreign forces inside Libya constitutes an element of a security aggravation that can lead to the resumption of military operations between the two parties to the conflict. Besides, the presence of those forces may affect the conduct of the electoral process scheduled to be held at the end of 2021.
  • Among the regional challenges posed by the issue of mercenaries in Libya is the possibility that this country could turn into a rear base for all acts of rebellion against the political regimes in the Sahel and Sahara region, as it has already become, a few years ago, a launching pad for attacks against Chad, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt and Mali, as well as causing an expansion of human and drug smuggling networks in the African Sahel region, which enhances the financial capabilities of terrorist groups in the region.
  • Most of the international powers, mainly Western, show interest in the issue of the presence of mercenaries in Libya, and are pushing for its solution as soon as possible, considering it a vexing security concern that threatens the southern coasts of the Mediterranean through migration and terrorism networks. The US is also taking it as a gateway to limiting the Russian presence in the region.
  • The recent political settlements in the region, such as the Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement, and the Juba Agreement between the Sudanese armed opposition and the government, could lead to solving the bulk of the foreign mercenaries' dilemma in Libya, and represent a catalyst for the withdrawal of Turkish, Syrian and Sudanese mercenaries from this country.

References

[1] UN stresses ‘significant threat’ of mercenaries in Libya for region, The Arab Weekly, 22/05/2021. https://thearabweekly.com/un-stresses-significant-threat-mercenaries-libya-region

[2] Libya rivals sign ceasefire deal in Geneva, BBC News, 23 October 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54660039

[3] UN: 20,000 foreign fighters in Libya are a 'serious crisis', AP, December 2, 2020. https://bit.ly/3iyKriX

[4] Turkey-Libya maritime deal triggers Mediterranean tensions, DW, 29.11.2019. https://www.dw.com/en/turkey-libya-maritime-deal-triggers-mediterranean-tensions/a-51477783

[5] Samy Magdy, US: Turkey-sent Syrian fighters generate backlash in Libya, The Washington Post, 02.09.2020. https://wapo.st/3uXWubM

[6] Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to Security Council resolution 1973 (2011), 8 March 2021. https://undocs.org/en/S/2021/229

[7] Turkey Reduces Salaries of Mercenaries from $2,000 to $600, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Sep 9, 2020. https://www.syriahr.com/en/183498/

[8] US: Turkey-sent Syrian fighters generate backlash in Libya, AP, September 2, 2020. https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-africa-679a6d6fc549bda59f8627d91d9a363c

[9] Sheren Khalel, US says 2,000 Russia-backed mercenaries are fighting in Libya, ME, 17 June 2020. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/us-africom-2000-russia-backed-wagner-mercenaries-libya-khalifa-haftar

[10] Michelle Nichols, Up to 1,200 deployed in Libya by Russian military group - U.N. report, Reuters, May 6, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-libya-security-sanctions/up-to-1200-deployed-in-libya-by-russian-military-group-u-n-report-idUKKBN22I2Y5?edition-redirect=uk

[11] Letter dated 13 January 2021 from the Panel of Experts on the Sudan addressed to the President of the Security Council. https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3899184; https://undocs.org/S/2021/40

[12] Letter dated 13 January 2021 from the Panel of Experts on the Sudan addressed to the President of the Security Council. https://undocs.org/S/2021/40

[13] Ahmed Nadhif, Return of Tunisian Fighters from Hotbeds of Tension: Repercussions and Challenges, Emirates Policy Center (EPC), 17 May 2021. Available at: https://epc.ae/topic/the-returnees-of-daesh-classification-risks-and-integration

[14] Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to Security Council resolution 1973 (2011), 8 March 2021. https://undocs.org/en/S/2021/229

[15] Letter dated 1 June 2017 from the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council, 1 June 2017. https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2017/466

[16] Qui sont les rebelles du Front pour l'alternance et la concorde au Tchad ?, DW, 19.04.2021. https://www.dw.com/fr/qui-sont-les-rebelles-du-front-pour-lalternance-et-la-concorde-au-tchad/a-57255972

[17] Letter dated 1 June 2017 from the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council, 1 June 2017. https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2017/466

[19] UN stresses ‘significant threat’ of mercenaries in Libya for region, The Arab Weekly, 22/05/2021. https://thearabweekly.com/un-stresses-significant-threat-mercenaries-libya-region

[20] Ibid.

[21] Rym Momtaz, Macron pitches Biden on plan to get foreign fighters out of Libya, Politico, June 16, 2021. https://www.politico.eu/article/emmanuel-macron-joe-biden-withdrawal-fighters-libya/

[22] Alia Brahimi, Libya has a mercenaries problem. It’s time for the international community to step up, Atlantic Council, May 21, 2021. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/libya-has-a-mercenaries-problem-its-time-for-the-international-community-to-step-up/

[23] Alessia Melcangi, Egypt recalibrated its strategy in Libya because of Turkey, Atlantic Council, Jun 1, 2021. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/egypt-recalibrated-its-strategy-in-libya-because-of-turkey/

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