Ninety two days: How Mercenaries Shape Libya’s Conflict and its Resolution
This commentary was originally published with Sadeq Institute in Tripoli. [Link to the PDF]
In June 2020 a UN Panel of Experts called out the extensive use of mercenaries by Russia, the UAE and Turkey in the already highly protracted and complex multipolar conflict in Libya - an issue the UN still views as an integral obstacle to building lasting peace in Libya. The estimate of the Russian mercenary contingent alone suggested that the Russian private military and security company (PMSC) Vagner Group had recruited somewhat between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries in Syria to fight for their protégé Haftar. The dark figure is likely to be much higher when considering that the UAE and Turkey have partially outsourced their military operations to mercenaries themselves.
How foreign powers shaped Libya’s conflict
While the extensive use of guns-for-hire in direct combat constitutes a breach of an arguably globally weakening anti-mercenary norm in favour of training and equipping local forces, in Libya the consequences of delegating military combat services to a growing external mercenary force, are catastrophic for the course of the conflict. Mercenaries now add another layer to a multipolar conflict where there is no effective civilian control over those under arms, and a need for both parties to guarantee a ceasefire in order to advance through political talks. Moreover, many of these mercenaries fight on the behalf of the Libyan factions, but are controlled by international actors, who must be accommodated in any local political deal in order to guarantee an end to the conflict. Addressing the mercenary issue has therefore become an integral element of the UN-brokered ceasefire deal reached in October 2020, calling on all mercenaries and foreign fighters to depart Libyan territories.
Why do international actors use mercenaries and not armies?
For nearly a decade external sponsors have pumped in money, arms and operational support to loose networks of local militias, whilst failing to seize control over them, and instead, contributing to the growth in strength and number of coercive actors on the ground, and weakness of civilian authorities. The notion that mercenaries are a more controllable variable as they are contracted by Private military contractors either in Turkey, Russia or the UAE, is thereby an illusion. Just like their local Libyan counterparts, those hired and flown to Libya to fight are for the most part just as unprofessional, untrained and uncontrollable, swapping the Syrian battlefield for one along similar ideological divides in Libya.
Although the political motivations to externalize the burden of war in Libya to mercenaries vary, there is a common denominator between sponsors in Moscow, Ankara and Abu Dhabi: they are all engaged in a protracted conflict with no near term achievable strategic objectives that could easily develop into a forever war in Libya and an everywhere war for all of them. Mercenaries have provided their clients with an apparent panacea to the dilemma of remaining engaged in a conflict indefinitely while keeping political and reputational costs low, both domestically and internationally. In a country under a UN arms embargo, conducting an expeditionary military operation with your own country’s emblems and boots on the ground, does not only entail high political costs domestically but also high reputational costs internationally as the conflict in Libya is under tight global public scrutiny. To be exact, aside from additional capacity and new military capabilities, mercenaries have provided their patrons with the vital discretion at home and plausible deniability internationally, which allows international actors to sustain the burden of conflict in Libya indefinitely.
However, discretion and deniability have a cost of their own. In order to achieve the desired degree of dissociation between sponsor and surrogate, mercenaries are operating at a political arm’s length from their political sponsors with a degree more operational autonomy that make them hard to control. Mercenaries are guns-for-hire who sell their services to the highest bidder. Unlike Western private contractors working within a corporate environment with contractual checks and balances, these mercenaries are hired by companies that possess only a thin enough veneer of corporate appearance to acquire contracts. Although the Russian Vagner Group, owned by a Putin confidante and supporting the Emirati war effort in Libya, offers a veneer of corporate and commercial appearance, fighters are not really integrated into a corporate structure, are not subject to due diligence and screening, but are loosely assembled militias from Syrian regime control territory that join for individual not corporate profit. On the Turkish side, where companies such as Sadat and Abna'a al-Umma at least have vetting, screening and training in place, recruits also lack the professionalism that most Western contractors display. And the mercenaries on the UAE’s payroll, although not Syrian militia men but Australian and South African war privateers, promised to deliver hunter-killer teams and helicopter pilots to Haftar, yet abruptly pulled out after arriving in Libya and disappeared.
Hence, the idea that mercenaries might be easier to control than local militias are an illusion. As remote means of warfare, mercenaries do not provide sponsors with effective tools to seize, hold and build as uniformed boots on the ground might. Mercenaries are means for patrons to delegate, disrupt and protract but they do not constitute a lever of power that brings about strategic objectives.
As all sponsors in Libya are looking for plausible deniability and means to outsource casualties in a conflict where constituencies at home would not tolerate large numbers of body bags returning home, Russia and the UAE additionally seek to enhance inhouse capacity and capability that they are unable and unwilling to mobilize on an expeditionary campaign in North Africa. Unwilling to bear the burden of full-out war, all patrons in the Libyan conflict, chose mercenaries in the hope that the other side would eventually wear out under the weight of prolonged attrition– a strategy Russia has been using in Syria and the UAE has employed in southern Yemen. Thus, while mercenaries might win battles, they cannot win wars.
Precarious peace and protracted negotiations
What this means for the conflict in Libya is that mercenaries may prolong an already protracted conflict. The presence of mercenaries could be used to extend the current military stalemate in Sirte, even if local armed groups choose to leave and demarcate. Russian mercenaries currently deployed to Libya’s oil fields could maintain a presence there even if the blockade is lifted as a result of negotiations between the LAAF and GNA. Mercenaries may even return to discrete military barracks in Western or Eastern Libya to be redeployed if the negotiations break down. Keeping mercenaries on standby can be a policy maintained throughout Libya’s new UN political process without increasing the burden of war for their external sponsors who are unlikely to engage in meaningful political negotiations to end the conflict, unless significant concessions are made.
Mercenaries have given international actors on both sides substantial leverage in the negotiations and a hand in determining the final political settlement, dangerously putting them on par with Libyan actors in their bargaining power. Mercenaries keep the illusion alive that a military solution to the Libyan conflict can be brought about coercively even though their track record of operational successes on the ground are only short-lived and so far, have not translated into successes on the strategic level, only further stalemate. Hence, external actors are likely hesitant to surrender a discrete and potentially very effective lever of power to keep the balance in a surrogate standoff, making it harder for the UN to supervise the departure of mercenaries, which can remain in the theatre with plausible deniability.
In the end it is ordinary Libyans who bear the burden of conflict, as foreign sponsors do not only pour arms into the conflict but have found a sheer endless supply of human capacity willing to fight even as Libyans become increasingly tired of this seemingly endless war. The fact that this helps foreign players to shape the political outcome in today’s political negotiations is a dangerous byproduct of the international community’s ambivalence to foreign meddling in Libya for years. The fact that they may remain in Libya throughout the negotiations and potentially after a political deal is mindless and means this may not be Libya’s last war or its last political process shaped by foreign powers and their mercenaries.