On August 5, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan released a joint communique following the latter’s August 5 visit to Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Focusing on bilateral affairs, the two presidents agreed to increase economic cooperation and regional stability. The conflict in Libya was one matter they discussed.
“The two leaders emphasized their strong commitment to Libya’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national unity,” the joint statement said.
That is misleading. Over the past few years, Russia and Turkey have escalated violence in Libya by backing rival warring parties and sending mercenaries and weapons to gain influence.
Libya’s civil war has lasted more than a decade. Protests erupted there in 2011– part of a wave that swept the Arab world. Violence broke out between anti-government rebels and the forces of Libyan ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi and spread nationwide. In March 2011, the U.N. Security Council authorized a no-fly zone under NATO’s command to protect civilians.
By August 2011, NATO-backed rebels ousted Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for 40 years. Since then, Libya has split between two major rival groups – the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the capital Tripoli in western Libya, where a majority of the population lives, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, based in eastern Libya, where most of the country’s oil is located.
In April 2019, Haftar launched a military offensive aimed at seizing Tripoli. The fighting lasted until October 2020, when the rival parties agreed to a cease-fire and initiated negotiations toward a political transition.
Various international powers back the rival Libyan governments. The GNA is backed by the U.N., Turkey, Italy and Qatar, while the LNA is backed by Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Russia.
Turkey and Russia have supplied the respective sides with weapons and mercenaries.
In March 2021, the U.N. Panel of Experts on Libya issued a report identifying acts threatening Libya’s peace, stability and security. The report stated that acts of violence and widespread human rights abuses were continuing to disrupt efforts to achieve stability and security.
“The arms embargo remains totally ineffective. For those Member States directly supporting the parties to the conflict, the violations are extensive, blatant and with complete disregard for the sanctions measures. Their control of the entire supply chain complicates detection, disruption or interdiction,” the report said.
Kali Robinson of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in June 2020 that Russia was seeking to secure construction deals and control energy sources. That same month, Nicole Kirschmann, who then headed the public relations department of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), said that 2,000 Russian mercenaries were deployed to Libya between 2019 and 2020 to fight for Haftar during his 14-month offensive against the government in Tripoli.
According to Kirschmann, the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-connected private military company, played a role in destabilizing Libya.
Russia has denied that Wagner mercenaries are in Libya, but the U.N. confirmed the group is operating there. The U.N. Panel of Experts’ report on Libya said that Wagner has been present in Libya since 2018, initially to provide technical support and maintenance for armored vehicles.
In 2019, however, Wagner’s mission was broadened to include “more specialized military tasks such as acting as artillery forward observation officers and forward air controllers, providing electronic counter-measures expertise and deploying as sniper teams,” the panel reported.
The Wagner Group is accused of committing human rights violations in several African countries, including the Central Africa Republic and Mali.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Wagner Group used banned landmines and booby traps in Libya during 2019-2020 in violation of international law. During a March visit to Tripoli, HRW identified 35 mined locations. It reported that between May 2020 and March 2022, 130 people were killed and 196 injured in Libya by mines and explosives.
“The mines and booby traps found at the 35 coordinates were hidden inside homes and other structures, in some cases inside furniture and were often activated with a tripwire that was not visible,” HRW said. “Mine experts told Human Rights Watch that the mines and booby traps apparently constructed by Wagner operatives were more sophisticated and lethal than those laid by Libyan, Sudanese, or Syrian groups.”
Foreign Policy magazine said that Russia scaled down the number of Wagner mercenaries in Libya and sent 1,300 fighters to Ukraine. Still, it reported that hundreds of Wagner personnel remain stationed around military bases and oil facilities to protect Haftar’s territory.
“Wagner’s dug-in posture in Libya is consistent with Russia’s broader resolve: to pressure European NATO member states into different political outcomes by controlling proximate energy sources and sowing instability on their borders,” FP said.
Meantime, Turkey has sent mercenaries and other forms of support to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
In July 2020, the Pentagon said Turkey had deployed 3,500 Syrian mercenaries to Libya. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (a sister U.S.-funded news agency to VOA) cited a Pentagon report that month as saying Turkey had “paid and offered citizenship to thousands of mercenaries fighting alongside Tripoli-based militias against Haftar's forces.”
The Washington Post reported in February 2021 that Turkey had enabled the GNA to regain command of the western Libyan skies with the help of “surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft guns, armored troop carriers, and sophisticated electronic systems that jammed Haftar’s transmissions.”
“Turkey’s motivations mirror Moscow’s: It has billions of dollars in revenue it wishes to recoup for construction contracts interrupted by the war. But Erdogan also secured new maritime agreements from Tripoli before sending help, and relished the chance to outmaneuver rivals including Egypt and the UAE that are hostile to Ankara’s brand of political Islam,” the Post said.
In October 2021, the warring sides in Libya agreed on a roadmap for the departure of foreign fighters. However, little progress has been made. Turkey considers its presence in Libya to be legal, Giorgio Cafiero and Emily Milliken wrote in The New Arab news in January 2022.
In October 2020, the U.N. estimated that more than 20,000 mercenaries were fighting in Libya for both sides, and that both sides had committed human rights violations.
Under a U.N.-backed process, Libyan political actors formed a Government of National Unity in March 2021. That has not resolved the military standoff.