Why Is A Renewal Of Libya-Russia Relations In Benghazi Happening Now? – OpEd


The Russian Deputy Defense Minister, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, arrived in Benghazi this past week to discuss joint cooperation between Libya and Russia in various fields, including energy, defense, and infrastructure. This cooperation includes discussions on potential arms deals, energy investments, and support for infrastructure projects in Libya.

It has been reported that this is the third visit of Yevkurov this year. The visit aims to discuss prospects for cooperation in combating international terrorism and other issues of joint action.

The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company that provides security services to protect military and oil infrastructure in Libya. The group has been reported to be operating in support of the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar, who has been backed by Russia in the ongoing conflict in Libya. The Wagner Group has also been reported to have a presence in other conflict zones around the world, including Syria and Ukraine.

Previously, a Russian delegation, led by Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov, discussed the future role of the Wagner Group in the country on August 22. After that, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that his company was operating at full capacity with the purpose of “making Africa freer.” On August 23, Prigozhin and some of his loyalists were killed in a plane crash close to Moscow.

Moscow needs the Wagner Group not only for strategic and economic reasons to continue operating in the Central African Republic, but also to maintain its presence in other African countries.

During the Cold War and following decolonization, Africa played a significant role in the Soviet Union, providing ideological and economic opportunities. Moscow sought to spread the Soviet-era communist creed, expand its influence in strategic areas, and capitalize on the African market, particularly in the arms sector. Russia now supplies arms to 21 African nations, with a focus on Algeria, and has maintained a presence in Libya with approximately 11,000 Russian operatives since the 1970s.

The Wagner Group’s presence in Libya became evident during the siege of Tripoli in April 2019, but it had been active there since at least 2018, controlling strategic oil fields and providing support to the LNA. During the third Libyan Civil War, the Group, backed by Russia, fulfilled various roles, including controlling infrastructure, advising local security forces, providing intelligence, and influencing public opinion through social media.

In the 1970s, Russia and Libya signed economic agreements worth billions of dollars, and this economic partnership has continued. The Kremlin aimed to stabilize the country and pursue collaborations, with the Russian government preferring a pragmatic approach through the activities of the Wagner Group, in contrast to the diplomacy favored by many European governments.

In recent months, there have been multiple meetings between Haftar and Russian officials, discussing joint cooperation between Libya and Russia. Reports emerged in November about Russian authorities cooperating with “Libyan authorities” to establish a Russian military corps in Africa, leading to US warnings against reliance on Russian support. The US State Department expressed concerns about the harmful impact of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner in Libya, emphasizing their destabilizing activities in the region.

UN Envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, highlighted the lack of a unified army in Libya, with militias exerting control in different regions and mercenaries adding to tensions in the south. Moreover, Bathily stressed the need for elections to establish a unified authority and warned of increased fragmentation without progress. He extended invitations to key parties in Libya for a meeting to address disputed electoral laws and reach a political settlement.

Various Mercenary Groups Operating in Libya

Since the security agreement concluded by the Turkish President with the head of the previous Government of National Accord, the issue of mercenaries has once again become a focal point in Libya. Thousands of mercenaries of different nationalities have been flowing into Libya, specifically to the western regions of the country controlled by the Government of National Accord, which is supported by Turkey.

Turkey has established 10 training camps to rehabilitate fighters and transport them to Libya. These fighters are first transported through two camps on the Syrian-Turkish border via Turkish military aircraft to Istanbul and Ankara, and then they are transported to Libya via Libyan civil aviation. The Turkish company “Sadat” supervises this process. Turkey has transferred over thirteen thousand Syrian mercenaries from Syria to Libya during the ongoing conflict. The United Nations estimates that there are more than 20 thousand foreign mercenaries in Syria, including 13 thousand Syrian fighters.

In early 2017, Wagner Group mercenaries were present in Libya. The leaders of the private military company Wagner stated that they would soon send forces to Libya. Detailed reports emerged showing the presence of 3,000 men, with some estimates reaching 3,500 fighters. These mercenaries from Wagner were stationed at a base in Benghazi and participated in various operations of the Libyan National Army.

There is also a group of Sudanese mercenaries fighting in Libya, represented by elements of the Sudan Liberation Army Movement, the Transitional Council of the Sudan Liberation Movement, and the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement. It is estimated that 3,000 Sudanese mercenaries are fighting in Libya, stationed in Umm al-Aranib, al-Qatrun, Sebha, and the vicinity of Kufra, reaching the areas south of the Oil Crescent.

Regarding the arming of mercenaries, Libyan military reports indicate that Syrian mercenary groups are using weapons that came as part of a shipment from Algeria. Airports in western Libya are open to transport mercenary terrorists under international supervision, and Turkish weapons are transported through sea ports to arm foreign fighters. The Libyan National Army forces have monitored this and arrested some mercenaries. Some countries exploit their good relationship with Iran to smuggle large quantities of weapons to Libya, coordinating with the Turkish side and leaders of mercenaries inside Libya.

A ceasefire with the departure of all mercenaries and foreign fighters

At the end of October 2020, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya published a copy of the permanent ceasefire agreement, signed by both parties to the Libyan conflict at the meetings of the Joint Military Committee. The agreement includes the evacuation of all military units and armed groups from the lines of contact, returning them to their camps, and the departure of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from Libyan territory within a maximum period of 3 months.

The Berlin International Conference was held on January 19, 2020, through the “Berlin 1” conference. It was attended by the governments of Algeria, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Congo, the Emirates, Britain, and the United States, along with representatives of the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, and the Arab countries. The main objectives of the conference were to reach consensus among the participating countries and secure an international umbrella to protect Libyan dialogues about the future of the country. The conference outcomes also supported the arms embargo, a ceasefire, a return to the political process, reform of the security, economic, and political sectors, and respect for human rights and humanitarian law.

The “Berlin II” conference in June 2021 called on the Libyan authorities, including Parliament, the Presidential Council, and the Government of National Unity, to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections on December 24. It also emphasized the need to clarify the constitutional basis for the elections and enact necessary legislation. The conference stressed the importance of withdrawing all foreign forces and mercenaries, completing the process of unifying military institutions, reforming the security sector, and initiating a comprehensive national reconciliation process based on rights and justice.

In June 2020, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced a new initiative called the “Cairo Declaration” to resolve the Libyan crisis. The declaration emphasized the unity of Libyan territories, respect for international efforts and Security Council resolutions, and the commitment to a ceasefire and the completion of the work of the Military Committee (5+5) process in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations. The declaration also called for the removal of foreign mercenaries from Libyan territory and the dismantling of militias, allowing the armed forces to cooperate with the security services in their military and security missions in the country.

What hinders the removal of mercenaries from Libya?

All parties, whether local or foreign, are not serious about removing the mercenaries. The current situation only leads to a reduction in their numbers. As of the end of February 2021, the United Nations estimated that there were between 17 to 20 thousand Syrians supporting the forces in the west of the country, while Sudanese and Chadians support the national army forces. The General Command of the National Army announced the removal of 300 mercenaries as the first batch in coordination with neighboring countries.

The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General to Libya, Abdullah Batili, called for a renewed commitment to fully support the implementation of the ceasefire agreement in Libya that was signed in 2020. This call was made at the conclusion of the meetings of the Joint Military Committee (5+5) in Sirte in 2023. Batili urged the government to allocate appropriate resources and intensify political efforts to end the political impasse and restore legitimacy to Libyan institutions through elections.

Furthermore, it is crucial to reunite the military and security institutions, as well as remove mercenaries and foreign fighters in accordance with an action plan. This is necessary to preserve the sovereignty and unity of the Libyan state. Neighboring countries should be involved in ending the presence of these mercenaries on Libyan lands. Additionally, meetings with all parties, including actors, youth, women, and civil society, should be intensified to ensure a desire to reach elections and complete the constitution. The constitution represents a cornerstone for Libyan society in building the state and providing space for freedom of opinion and expression to citizens.

Prof. Miral Sabry AlAshry

Prof. Miral Sabry AlAshry is Co-lead for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at the Centre for Freedom of the Media, the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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