Surge in Mercenaries Threatens Attempt to Stop War in Libya

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As world powers back a cease-fire in Libya to end months of fighting, a recent injection of mercenaries by rival foreign backers threatens to unravel efforts to establish a long-term truce in the oil-rich North African country.

At a summit in Berlin on Sunday, Russia, Turkey, France, Italy, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates agreed to support a cease-fire and uphold a previously existing arms embargo in an attempt to quell the fighting. The eruption of a full-blown civil war last year in a country less than 200 miles from the closest European shores has alarmed Western powers.

Underscoring the challenges to any durable peace, leaders of the two main forces—a United Nations-backed government in the capital of Tripoli and militias loyal to a former commander in the Libyan army who is based in the country’s east—didn’t meet or talk directly at the gathering, though their representatives contributed to the discussions.

Inside Libya, tensions have grown in recent months with the arrival of thousands of mercenary fighters sent by Turkey and Russia in support of the opposing sides.

In recent weeks, some 2,000 Syrian fighters have been enlisted by Turkey in Syria and sent to Libya to fight on behalf of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, according to both a commander in a Turkish-backed group and another person with close ties to the groups and in contact with the fighters.

Several thousand others are in a recruiting pipeline set up to bring them from Syria via Turkey, according to a Western official.

Turkey’s deployment, drawn from rebel factions it has backed in the Syrian conflict, came after as many as 2,000 Russian military contractors arrived in Libya late last year to support the forces of Mr. Haftar, who has carried out a nearly nine-month assault on the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

U.N. Special Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salame, left, Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, second left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, and Foreign Minister of Germany Heiko Maas, right, at a summit in Berlin to discuss Libya on Sunday.


Photo:

Michael Kappeler/Zuma Press

Those Russian and Syrian fighters are now the focus of international efforts to de-escalate the conflict in Libya following Sunday’s signing. The agreement calls for outside powers to comply with a U.N. arms embargo that has been in place since 2011.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief,

Josep Borrell,

said Monday he supported reviving a naval mission in the Mediterranean sea to help enforce the weapons ban, a proposal also being supported by other European governments.

The Berlin agreement itself contains few specifics about how the ban on supplying arms will be enforced. Without that, dialing back the violence is difficult, according to observers and participants.

“They are preparing for war,” said

Wolfram Lacher,

a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, referring to the foreign backers of the Libyan factions.

Intermittent shelling by forces loyal to

Khalifa Haftar,

the former Libyan army commander, has continued in Tripoli since the Berlin conference, according to Libyan officials, although the violence appears to have slowed in recent days following a separate Turkish-Russian call for a cease-fire that preceded the conference.

Mr. Haftar’s allies also shut down oil facilities cutting the country’s production by more than half on the eve of the conference, squeezing an important source of funds for the U.N. backed government.

Earlier this month Turkey’s parliament authorized the government to send troops to Libya to support the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord. Turkish President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

has said that Turkish military personnel have already been sent to Libya, but wouldn’t take part in any fighting.

Turkey’s deployment of allied Syrian fighters as well as its own soldiers has helped Ankara gain a larger role in negotiating a future settlement to the Libyan conflict, including a central position in talks sponsored by both the German summit and separate talks in Russia this month, say experts and those involved in the conflict.

“Turkey wasn’t able to get to the negotiating table without being on the ground,” said the commander in the Turkish-backed armed group.

The program mainly recruits among Syrians already fighting in Turkish-backed factions and living in opposition-held northern Syria where millions have been displaced by its continuing civil war. They are motivated primarily by the offer of a $2,000 salary, a rarity in war-torn Syria, according to the commander and the person with close ties to the armed groups.

“They don’t even know what is happening there,” said the person.

For the Tripoli government, which has accused Mr. Haftar of enlisting mercenaries, the decision to accept Syrian fighters came at a crisis point. The Russian military contractors supporting Mr. Haftar’s forces threatened to turn the tide of the war in his favor after months in which he made few significant gains. The U.A.E. has also provided Mr. Haftar’s forces with air support, according to a U.N. committee that monitors the arms embargo.

Libyan interior minister

Fathi Bashagha

declined to comment directly on whether Syrian fighters were supporting the government.

“We have more than 4½ million people in the Western area [of Libya]. We have to defend those people,” he said of the security agreement with Turkey.

The current battle in Tripoli began in April 2019 when Mr. Haftar ordered his forces to attack Tripoli, triggering some of the worst fighting in Libya’s long crisis since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

The Syrian fighters were sent in several waves starting in late December. After entering Turkey through a military border crossing in northern Aleppo province they were then bussed by Turkish intelligence to the airport in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. From there they were flown to Istanbul and then on to Libya.

Write to Jared Malsin at [email protected] and Raja Abdulrahim at [email protected]

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