18/01/2020- Ahead of fresh talks in Berlin this weekend to broker a peace deal for Libya, a key issue on the table will be the divisive influence of foreign militias and actors. The fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan has been particularly destabilising, explain Nina Pouls and Umberto Profazio.
Since Libya’s civil war began in 2011, foreign meddling and intervention have contributed to the intractability of the conflict, eroding the state’s authority, accelerating the country’s fragmentation, and increasingly posing a threat to regional security. As efforts to negotiate a ceasefire continue, with high-level meetings taking place in Moscow and Berlin, addressing the divisive role of regional actors should be central to discussions about Libya’s future.
The conflicting agendas of the main regional powers became more apparent in 2014, when the second phase of the civil war that produced the current polarisation between authorities in Tripoli and the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) began. It was exacerbated by the regional divide between revolution-backing, Islamist-leaning Qatar, Sudan and Turkey and the counterrevolutionary front composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
General Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli since April 2019 has broadly solidified the regional divide and intensified external interference. In a report presented at the end of October to the United Nations Security Council, the Panel of Experts confirmed multiple violations of the current arms embargo, documenting the extent of the arms supply to conflict parties, and the proliferation of foreign militias and mercenaries operating in Libya.
What does the fall of Bashir mean for Libya?
There have been significant changes in the Libyan conflict and the wider regional equilibrium since 2014, particularly on the pro-Government of National Accord (GNA) side. Before its collapse in April this year, Sudan was, together with Turkey and Qatar, closely linked to revolutionary and Islamist militias in Tripoli and backed the Government of National Salvation first, then the GNA. However, the 2017 Gulf crisis (which put serious constraints on Doha’s outreach abroad) and the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime last year left the burden of sustaining the GNA in Tripoli almost exclusively on Ankara’s shoulders, which recently announced that it would send troops to Libya in support of the GNA.
Recent reports also suggest that Ankara facilitated the transfer of 2,000 Syrian fighters to the crowded Libyan battleground, where Sudanese rebel groups from Darfur and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were already shoring up the LNA, together with Wagner, a Russian private military company. Even before Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, militants affiliated to the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Minni Minawi (SLM/A–MM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army–Abdel Wahid (SLM/A–WW) were believed to have been operating not only in the remote south, but also in other parts of Libya, confirming the extensive use of foreign forces by Libyan actors.
The presence of foreign militias has severe implications for Libya’s social fabric, especially in the south, where there is an increasingly uneasy co-existence between Arab tribes and the Tebu and Tuareg minorities. Local elders have frequently protested against the presence of foreign militants, who often clash not only with local militias but also with other foreign militias. Tensions were further exacerbated when Haftar launched his early-2019 military campaign in southern Libya, leading to frequent clashes with Tebu communities. Skirmishes were also reported between militants of the SLM/A–MM, fighting alongside the LNA, and the so-called Conseil du commandement militaire pour le salut de la république, a Chadian opposition group active in southern Libya previously targeted by Haftar’s forces.
From a regional point of view, the unrest in Sudan and the consequent fall of Bashir represent a major turning point. Reports about the presence of the Sudanese paramilitary, the RSF, whose commander Hemeti is currently part of the Sudanese transitional government, first emerged in Libya in July 2019, a few months after the arrest of the former Sudanese president. The RSF has previous experience of operating abroad, most notably in Yemen, and the reports served to confirm the mercenary nature of the Sudanese armed groups’ activities in Libya.
While the UN Panel of Experts on Libya stated that about 1,000 RSF militants are already in Libya backing Haftar’s forces, Sudanese official military sources have refused to confirm this. If RSF fighters are indeed operating within the LNA’s ranks, this raises serious questions about how their relations with militants from Darfur will unfold. Formerly known as the Janjaweed, the RSF was instrumental in the Sudanese regime’s crackdown on armed groups such as the SLM-MM and the JEM in the Darfur war. Additionally, the RSF has strong ties with the government in Abu Dhabi, which has reportedly facilitated the transport of RSF fighters to LNA-held territory. Given the RSF’s role in the current transitional government, this shifting regional scenario also casts doubt on the ability of the new authorities in Khartoum to adopt a coherent policy on Libya.
However, it remains unclear whether the RSF in Libya is acting on behalf of the Sudanese government, as seems the case in Yemen, or acting independently of it, underlining the fragmentation of Sudan’s security sector.
Power rests in the hands of paramilitaries
The contribution of Sudanese mercenaries to Haftar’s war efforts has significant implications, with the groups reportedly playing a substantial role in protecting and maintaining Haftar’s control over oil infrastructure. It also poses risks to Sudan itself and threatens the overall stability of the region.
While in recent years the Sudanese JEM and SLM/A–MM have not posed a significant armed threat to Khartoum, the resources and training earned in Libya in exchange for their mercenary services will enable these groups to continue their armed struggle upon their return to Darfur. However, the establishment of a framework agreement that provides a foundation for peace negotiations by the armed groups and the transitional government is intended to make such a scenario less likely.
Regionally, the activities of the armed groups, particularly those of the RSF, feed into larger criminal networks engaging in human trafficking and smuggling across the region. Hemeti’s troops have been reported to be facilitating human trafficking across the Kufra border. Their presence on both sides of the border (as well as their contacts with militias affiliated with the LNA, which is also accused of human trafficking and smuggling along the border with Sudan) enhances such networks.
The extensive use of mercenaries not only from non-state armed groups, but also from private military companies, is a powerful illustration of the abysmal weakness of fragile states across the region – they lack a monopoly on the use of force and must engage more powerful paramilitaries and rebel forces. In Libya, both the GNA and the LNA rely increasingly on foreign armed groups for manpower, thereby amplifying foreign meddling and exacerbating the crisis.
At the same time, the trans-border use of paramilitaries and rebel groups is not specific to the Libyan arena, but part of a worrying regional trend that, in the medium to long term, could contribute to the further erosion of the central state’s authority, a fragmentation of the security sector and increasing instability in an already volatile area.
Nina Pouls & Umberto Profazio /The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)