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Libya: Why are there more than 20,000 fighters from Russia, Syria and Chad?

By Sofiane Orus-Boudjema
Posted on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 09:35

Members of the LNA in Benghazi, Libya, in July 2017 (illustration) © Esam Omran Al-Fetori/REUTERS

At the last summit in Berlin, the international community demanded that the 20,000 or so Russian, Syrian and Chadian mercenaries present on Libyan territory leave the country. But who are these fighters, where do they come from and who is financing them?

The countries that met in Berlin under the auspices of the UN unanimously declared that “all foreign forces and mercenaries must be withdrawn from Libya without delay.” The latest conference, which took place on 23 June, on the crisis that has been tearing the country apart since 2011 aimed to resolve the issue of mercenaries present on Libyan territory.

“We hope that in the coming days the mercenaries will have withdrawn from both sides,” said Najla Mangouch, Libya’s foreign minister. On 23 March, during his meeting with Libya’s President Mohamed el-Menfi at the Élysée Palace, France’s President Emmanuel Macron had called on the Turkish and Russian mercenaries to “leave Libyan soil as soon as possible.” And yet, these statements – however firm – do not seem to have had much effect.

In fact, the first Berlin summit held in January 2020, was already anticipating the departure of foreign mercenaries. Then, in March, the UN Security Council called for their withdrawal.

This doesn’t seem to have had any real impact on the ground, despite UN estimates that there are more than 20,000 foreign fighters in Libya, including 13,000 Syrians and 11,000 Sudanese, both in the service of the Tripoli government and Marshal Haftar. Which forces are present in Libya today? Who are they fighting for? We have compiled our findings in the table below.

The figures used are from the 2019 UN experts’ report, which have been updated with data from the report published in 2021.

Darfur rebel forces

Many mercenaries from Darfur – who have been mired in inter-ethnic conflict since 2003 – are present in the Libyan theatre. They are Sudanese (over 11,000 according to the UN) and Chadian fighters.

According to sources on the ground, less than 2,000 foreign Syrian fighters are supporting Marshal Haftar’s operations.

Their allegiances are constantly shifting and are not necessarily of a political nature. In its 2019 report, the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, a body of the Security Council, located most of these forces – including factions of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) – within Marshal Haftar’s area of influence.

But the Juba Agreement for Peace in Sudan, which was signed on 3 October 2020 between the Sudanese transitional government and a coalition of armed groups, may change the situation. Through this agreement, members of opposition groups would be granted amnesty and their leaders would be allowed to take part in the political transition process.

The prospect of suspended sanctions is pushing the Sudanese rebels to return to the country. Already, some 50 vehicles have crossed the 1,400km border between Libya, Chad and Sudan. For its part, the Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT) has alternately fought for and against Haftar. It was also responsible for the death of Chad’s former president Idriss Déby.

Wagner, the Russian armed group

Russian forces are present on Libyan territory through the private armed group Wagner, which was created in 2013 by a former military officer and is now led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is very close to Vladimir Putin.

It has intervened, alongside Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in Syria, Ukraine, CAR, Sudan, Mozambique and Madagascar. According to the UN, Wagner has been present on Al Jufra’s airbase, in the centre of Libya, since October 2018.

When asked about the presence of Russian armed forces in Libya in January 2020, Putin said Moscow had not hired any mercenaries. Nevertheless, the UN estimates that between 800 and 1,200 members of the Wagner group are supporting Marshal Haftar’s forces. Africom, the US Africa Command, believes that this figure is closer to 2,000. The UN report states that “despite the 25 October 2020 ceasefire agreement, there is no indication that the Wagner group has withdrawn from Libya.”

Syrian fighters

Syrian fighters are present within both the government and Haftar’s national unity camps. Their numbers have risen from 4,000 in December 2019 to 13,000 today, according to the UN. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) believes they have increased to 18,000.

Many are from the Syrian National Army (SNA), a group of rebel groups that are defying Assad’s authority and which are supported by Turkey. These Syrians agreed to leave the rebel retreat in northeastern Syria and go to Libya after Haftar’s offensive, in exchange for a $2,000 monthly salary and Turkish nationality, a promise that has not always been kept.

Turkey, with which the Tripoli government signed a military aid agreement in November 2019, also employs fighters in Libya from the Sultan Murad Division, a Turkmen group that it funds and which has fought against Assad. The Turkish group Sadat International Defense Consultancy, which has trained Libyan military personnel to fight for the Tripoli government, is involved in supervising and paying nearly 5,000 Syrian fighters, according to the UN. The OSDH also reports that Ankara sent an additional 380 Syrian fighters to reinforce Libya’s prime minister Abdelhamid Dabaiba’s ranks in April 2021.

The UN panel of experts’ latest report indicates that the Russians are also recruiting soldiers in Syria. “According to sources on the ground, less than 2,000 foreign Syrian fighters are supporting Marshal Haftar’s operations,” it says. The Russian-language media outlet Meduza reported that Marat Gabidullin, a former member of the Wagner group, had been asked to send Syrians to Libya for the first time in 2019.

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