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Russia dominated Syria’s war. Now it’s sending mercenaries to Libya

After four years of behind-the-scenes financial and tactical support for a would-be Libyan strongman, Russia is now pushing far more directly to shape the outcome of Libya’s messy civil war.

By: New York Times | Tripoli | Published: November 6, 2019 10:26:22 am
Russia dominated Syria’s war. Now it’s sending mercenaries to Libya Military vehicles move in convoy along a road in Sevimli, Mardin Province, Turkey, Friday Nov. 1, 2019. (AP Photo)

Written by David D. Kirkpatrick

The casualties at the Aziziya field hospital south of Tripoli used to arrive with gaping wounds and shattered limbs, victims of the haphazard artillery fire that has defined battles among Libyan militias. But now medics say they are seeing something new: narrow holes in a head or a torso left by bullets that kill instantly and never exit the body.

It is the work, Libyan fighters say, of Russian mercenaries, including skilled snipers. The lack of an exit wound is a signature of the ammunition used by the same Russian mercenaries elsewhere.

The snipers are among about 200 Russian fighters who have arrived in Libya in the last six weeks, part of a broad campaign by the Kremlin to reassert its influence across the Middle East and Africa.

After four years of behind-the-scenes financial and tactical support for a would-be Libyan strongman, Russia is now pushing far more directly to shape the outcome of Libya’s messy civil war. It has introduced advanced Sukhoi jets, coordinated missile strikes, and precision-guided artillery, as well as the snipers — the same playbook that made Moscow a kingmaker in the Syrian civil war.

“It is exactly the same as Syria,” said Fathi Bashagha, interior minister of the provisional unity government in the capital, Tripoli.

Whatever its effect on the outcome, the Russian intervention has already given Moscow a de facto veto over any resolution of the conflict.

The Russians have intervened on behalf of militia leader Khalifa Hifter, who is based in eastern Libya and is also backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, at times, France. His backers have embraced him as their best hope to check the influence of political Islam, crack down on militants and restore an authoritarian order.

Hifter has been at war for more than five years with a coalition of militias from western Libya who back the authorities in Tripoli. The Tripoli government was set up by the United Nations in 2015 and is officially supported by the United States and other Western powers. But in practical terms, Turkey is its only patron.

The new intervention of private Russian mercenaries, who are closely tied to the Kremlin, is just one of the parallels with the Syrian civil war.

The Russian snipers belong to the Wagner Group, the Kremlin-linked private company that also led Russia’s intervention in Syria, according to three senior Libyan officials and five Western diplomats closely tracking the war.

In both conflicts, rival regional powers are arming local clients. And, as in Syria, the local partners who had teamed up with the United States to fight the Islamic State group are now complaining of abandonment and betrayal.

The United Nations, which has tried and failed to broker peace in both countries, has watched as its eight-year arms embargo on Libya is becoming “a cynical joke,” as the U.N. special envoy recently put it.

Yet in some ways, the stakes in Libya are higher.

More than three times the size of Texas, Libya controls vast oil reserves, pumping out 1.3 million barrels a day despite the present conflict. Its long Mediterranean coastline, just 300 miles from Italy, has been a jumping-off point for tens of thousands of Europe-bound migrants.

And the open borders around Libya’s deserts have provided havens for extremists from North Africa and beyond.

The conflict has become a bipolar combination of the primitive and futuristic. Turkey and the Emirates have turned Libya into the first war fought primarily by clashing fleets of armed drones. The United Nations estimates that during the past six months, the two sides have conducted more than 900 drone missions.

But on the ground, the war is between militias with fewer than 400 fighters typically engaged on both sides at any time. The fighting happens almost exclusively in a handful of deserted districts on the southern outskirts of Tripoli, while in neighborhoods just a few miles away, streets are clogged with civilian traffic and espresso bars bustle amid heaps of uncollected garbage.

“There is a huge discrepancy between the Libyan fighting on the ground and the advanced technology in the air from the meddling foreign powers,” said Emad Badi, a Libyan scholar at the Middle East Institute who visited the front in July. “It’s like they are different worlds.”

On a recent tour of the front-line district of Ain Zara, a Tripoli militia officer, Muhammad el-Delawi, passed out stacks of cash to fighters in T-shirts or mismatched camouflage uniforms, some in tennis shoes or sandals, others only with bare feet. The twisted wreckage of an ambulance hit by a drone missile sat by the side of the road.

The arrival of the Russian snipers is already transforming the war, el-Delawi said, recounting the deaths of nine of his fighters the previous day — one of them shot in the eye.

“The bullet was as long as a finger,” he said.

One European security official said the absence of exit wounds, a mark of hollow-point ammunition, matches injuries inflicted by Russian snipers in eastern Ukraine.

By the beginning of April, the conflict had largely died down and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres arrived in Tripoli to try to finalize a peace deal. But the next day Hifter launched a surprise assault on the capital, restarting the civil war.

Officials of the Tripoli government say Russia is now bringing in more mercenaries by the week.

“It is very clear that Russia is going all in on this conflict,” said Gen. Osama al-Juwaili, the top commander of the forces aligned with the Tripoli government. He complained that the West was doing nothing to protect that government from the foreign powers determined to push Hifter into power.

“Why all this pain?” he said sardonically. “Just stop this now and assign the guy to rule us.”

Russia had previously stayed in the background while the United Arab Emirates and Egypt took the leading roles in military support for Hifter. But by September, his assault on Tripoli seemed to have stalled and Russia apparently saw an opportunity.

Given the amateurish nature of the ground fighting, some diplomats said, the arrival of 200 Russian professionals could have an outsized impact.

A spokesman for Hifter’s forces did not respond to a request for comment.

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