At the start of this year, French officials announced the completion of the first phase of a withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from eastern Libya.
According to diplomats, these guns for hire were from Chad. The news came against the backdrop of UN-backed efforts to lead the beleaguered North African country into elections in late 2021 proving futile.
Libya’s electoral commission decided that no such vote could take place for numerous reasons. The presence of foreign forces on Libyan soil was unquestionably one of the delicate factors, adding complexity and controversy to the now-postponed election scheduled for December 24.
Yet even with some mercenaries from countries in the Sahel departing from Libya, nothing suggests that either Turkey’s military or Russia’s Wagner Group will leave the country in the foreseeable future. There are two main reasons why.
First, the Turks and Russians have too much to gain from staying in Libya. Second, they have little incentive to leave under current circumstances because the only power in the world that could potentially use its leverage to pressure Turkish and Russian forces to depart is the United States.
It is unlikely for the US to play its cards in such a manner.
“Washington is not interested in Libya, especially at this time when there are far more pressing problems – from Donbas to North Korea, to China and, above all, to the enormous internal problems that the Biden administration is facing,” said Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy programme at the Brookings Institution.
“This is why up to now there has not been the commitment that one would have expected, and I am sorry for Brussels, there will not be tomorrow either,” she told Al Jazeera.
Other experts agreed. “Biden doesn’t have a strategy [for Libya],” said Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “The Biden administration is not serious enough to have a strategy. So, when it talks about addressing the issue of foreign actors’ presence in Libya, it’s not to be taken seriously because it’s not doing anything really.”
Potential Russian expansion
Within this context, there is every reason to expect armed Turkish and Russian personnel to remain part of Libya’s security architecture unless and until circumstances become significantly different. From Washington’s perspective, this is not necessarily problematic so long as the Wagner Group’s presence does not expand. Because of such concerns about the Russian force enlarging its footprint in Libya, the US sees the Turkish military’s presence in the polarised North African country as the best outcome that Washington could realistically expect.
“Because the United States is aware of its own lack of determination in its efforts to force Russia to leave because it knows that Russia is going to stay, you need a mechanism to contain potential expansion of the Russian presence,” explained Harchaoui.
“The only mechanism that the United States has is the Turkish presence. When the United States looks at Turkey it sees a NATO member. It’s a form of a presence that is not bad, it’s effectively desirable [from the American perspective] … In the meantime, [the US] needs some kind of a device to prevent Russia from expanding its presence. As a result, [Washington] ends up being in favour of a continued presence on the part of Turkey.”
Perspective from Europe
Member states of the European Union, especially Mediterranean ones, have high stakes in Libya’s future. The presence of both Turkish and Russian forces in the North African country is deeply unsettling to European powers, unlike Washington that has taken a far more favourable stance towards Ankara’s role in Libya.
France is particularly at odds with the US perspective on Turkish and Russian forces in Libya. Paris sees the Turkish role there as more problematic than the Wagner Group’s presence.
“The presence of Turkish forces there is of course considered detrimental to France’s interests, given the strategic alignment of Paris to Abu Dhabi and its support of the Eastern forces of General Khalifa Haftar in the 2019-2020 Tripoli offensive,” said Umberto Profazio, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Maghreb analyst at the NATO Defence College Foundation.
Yet France is not the only European country that has considerable objections to the Turkish military’s role in Libya.
“Resentment towards Turkey’s presence in Libya has also increased in Italy too, especially in the far-right political movements that consider Libya as Italy’s back yard, also through a neo-colonial perspective,” according to Profazio.
“Economic competition must be also factored into these considerations, which help explain why after many years of a worrisome intra-European spat, Paris [which backed Haftar] and Rome [which backed the Government of National Accord] decided to come together, set aside their differences, and face outsiders expanding their influence in the Libyan arena.”
Fasanotti agreed that such economic competition is a critical variable in this equation. “[Turkey and Wagner Group’s] presence [in Libya] collides with European interests for various reasons … Every order signed [in Libya] with Russia or Turkey is one less economic agreement for the European partners.”
Beyond issues stemming from economic competition, there are security issues that give EU members reason to perceive the Turkish and Russian hard power in Libya as threatening national interests of European powers. “Finally, whoever controls the Libyan coast controls migration flows and this is a strategic issue that Brussels should not underestimate,” said Fasanotti.
Tensions in and over Ukraine’s crisis add to such concerns. If this Eastern European country’s crisis spirals out of control, NATO officials would need to consider how Russian forces in Libya could interdict flights over the North African country. Although this would not necessarily directly threaten any EU member’s national security, it would be an unacceptable scenario for Western governments because such a situation would violate a NATO doctrine.
“For Russia instead, the presence of the Wagner Group in Libya must be seen in a broader perspective that takes into account Moscow’s expanding military foothold in North Africa and the Sahel,” according to Profazio.
“Given the confirmed presence of Wagner assets into Mali as well, Libya could well serve as a bridgehead in North Africa from where Russia can disturb European powers using hybrid means such as private military companies and contractors in the soft underbelly represented by the Sahel, diverting Europe’s attention from other fronts.”
In the final analysis, Turkey and Russia have proved to be the main external kingmakers in Libya. But their presence has provoked major divisions among Western states.
If the US remains unwilling to throw its weight around in Libya and maintains its own perspectives on Turkish-Russian rivalry for influence that leads Washington to be more accommodating of Ankara’s Libya foreign policy than several of the US’s close European allies, these divisions could deepen.
Finding strategies for contending with geopolitical risks and potential security challenges stemming from the actions of Turkish and Russian forces in Libya will prove no easy task for EU officials. Yet Brussels must contend with new realities in North Africa at a time in which this volatile section of the Arab world is off the White House’s radar.