An exclusive from The Guardian newspaper reports that 2000 Syrian militia fighters have made the trip from Syria, through Turkey and to Libya, or are en-route, according to multiple sources in all three countries.
The fighters are being deployed on behalf of Turkey, who late last month committed to increase its military aid to the Tripoli based GNA. So far, Turkey, which has supported the GNA since its inception, and has provided military support since Haftar launched his offensive in April of 2019, has relegated its support mostly to advisory and technical roles. Even as it committed to an increased military presence, the lack of public support for such a move combined with the Turkish military's logistical limitations have led it to send Syrian mercenaries instead of Turkish combat troops. Turkey has supported various Syrian opposition militias since the civil war began, especially some of the more Islamist elements within the coalition.
A Libya analyst working with the International Crisis Group, Claudia Gazzini, pointed out that the anti-Turkish sentiment in Libya is already strong, and this could drive up Haftar's popularity even more.
300 fighters from the Syrian National army have already been deployed, followed by 350 more in late December. They are currently on the front lines of the battle over Tripoli. Another 1350 fighters moved into Turkey on January 5, in preparation for the deployment. More fighters from the Islamist Sham Legion are considering joining the fight.
According to The Guardian, fighters sign 6-month contracts with the GNA (and not with the Turkish military) and receive a payment of $2,000 a month - significantly more than they earned fighting in Syria. Turkey has also reportedly offered the fighters Turkish citizenship, something it also did with Syrian fighters. Additionally, Turkey commits to paying all medical bills for the injured and to repatriate the dead to Syria. The Guardian confirmed at least 4 Syrian fighters have died so far in Libya.
However, both Ankara and Tripoli continue to deny the presence and use of Syrian fighters deployed to Libya by Turkey, and the fighters in Libya are banned from posting to social media.
Just a month ago, the Guardian reported that 3,000 Sudanese fighters along with around 600 Russian contractors, had been sent to Benghazi to back Haftar and the LNA.
Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, said that Italy’s Ministry of Defense is drafting a bill that would allow Italy to increase its military presence in Libya, as reported in Libyan media. There are currently around 250 Italian military personnel in the country, primarily to secure a field hospital in Misrata and a mission to support the Libyan Coast Guard to fight human trafficking and limit the migrant flow to Europe.
It seems that ahead of the Berlin Summit and as Russia and Turkey have upped their activity in Libya, Italy also seeks to increase its profile. Reportedly, the Berlin Summit could result in the various foreign powers agreeing on a peacekeeping operation, in which Italy would want to partake, according to the newspaper.
The Guardian describes Russian president Putin arranging a surprise visit of al-Sarraj and Haftar in Moscow as a “diplomatic coup” that shows “Russia’s growing importance in the conflict”, something Putin was able to pull off as Europe remains divided and has so far failed to end the conflict in Libya.
Sarraj agreed to Putin’s initial draft, which reportedly included a withdrawal to the two sides’ positions as of April before Haftar’s renewed push to take Tripoli. However, Haftar rejected the draft and left without signing anything.
The ceasefire talks are a necessary precursor to holding political talks. The two leaders have met previously twice, but both times failed to reach an agreement and returned to fighting. Russia has worked to increase its leverage in the conflict in recent months, especially through dispatching mercenaries to prop up the LNA while maintaining contact with the GNA.
Several foreign powers are now jockeying for influence – including various European powers, Russia, Turkey and a number of Arab states. Whichever power manages to bring a peace settlement will reap economic benefits the day after. Still, its not clear if the Putin intends to try to push out the Europeans from the process or is willing to work with them. Italy, which traditionally was the dominant European power in Libya, seeks to regain “lost ground” and recently proposed a “tri-lateral” peace process along with Russia and Turkey.
The drama continues in Berlin, Sunday the 19th, as Erdogan and Italian PM Conte will join Putin in Berlin, and where German Chancellor Merkel will host the various international powers to discuss how to move forward in Libya.
The new EU foreign policy head and council president are also all seeking to increase the EU’s role in the conflict. President Charles Michel met in Cairo over the weekend with Egyptian president al-Sisi, seeking to prevent a western vacuum that is already being filled by Ankara and Moscow in the region.
A senior American delegation met with GNA and LNA representatives in Rome last week. According to the report, Deputy National Security Advisor for the Middle East Victoria Coates, Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Maghreb and Egyptian Affairs Henry Wooster, reportedly met with GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha and separately with LNA head Khalifa Haftar.
The American delegation stressed the importance of reaching a “durable political solution” and deescalating the military activity. "The United States welcomes all genuine efforts to end this violence and achieve a peaceful, secure, and prosperous Libya." Furthermore, an embassy statement “encouraged both parties to heed calls for de-escalation and to seize this moment to return to intra-Libyan political talks, which can establish a common basis for progress on the issues that divide them.”
The embassy further stated that, "The United States stands ready to support UN-facilitated political dialogue and to reinforce concrete efforts to dismantle militias, achieve a just distribution of resources, and prevent extremist elements that seek to exploit Libya's transition from gaining political power."
The US voiced its concern about “toxic foreign interference” and “reaffirmed the United States’ full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya.”
Following LNA head Khalifa Haftar’s refusal to sign the ceasefire agreement in Moscow earlier today, Turkish President Erdogan, the main foreign backer of the GNA, said he would “teach a lesson” to Haftar if he breaks the initial ceasefire talks and resumes the fighting.
After hours of talks Monday, in which GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj signed the ceasefire document, Haftar asked for time to consider the terms, and left Moscow Tuesday morning without signing the document.
In a televised speech, Erdogan called Haftar a “putschist” and blamed him for changing his mind and “fleeing” Moscow. Erdogan went on to say that “Despite this, we find the talks in Moscow were positive as they showed the true face of the putschist Haftar to the international community.” Erdogan said he would continue to discuss the matter in Berlin Sunday, where he would represent Turkey along with leaders from various EU countries, Russia, Middle Eastern countries, the African Union, Arab League and the UN.
The initial ceasefire between the GNA and LNA that came into effect at midnight Sunday morning will be difficult to maintain, according to analysts, as fighting escalates around Tripoli and Sirte.
Despite rejecting the Turkish/ Russian ceasefire call on Thursday, Haftar’s spokesman said the LNA would abide by the ceasefire if the GNA accepted it. “Any breach will be met with a harsh response”, said the spokesman. For its part, the GNA said it would also accept the ceasefire.
Despite this, Al Jazeera, reporting from Tripoli, said that did not mean an end to hostilities. The GNA is demanding Haftar pull the LNA militias out of Tripoli first. Moreover, the fractious nature of the militias will make enforcing a ceasefire complicated.
Libya analyst Anas El Gomati – told AL Jazeera that "When we think that there is so much disunity in the international community, they have to have a conference about finding a unified position amongst themselves before they can even bring Libyans to the table. That's the main issue here."
The efforts were backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who seeks to hold peace-talks in Berlin, and welcomed by the UN envoy to Libya, who called on all sides to abide by the ceasefire.
Looking to build on the momentum started by the Turkish-Russian appeal for a ceasefire, German chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing for the much-anticipated peace talks to be held in Berlin.
After meeting with Putin in Moscow over the weekend, Merkel said, “we hope that the joint efforts by Russia and Turkey will lead to success, and we will soon send out invitations for a conference in Berlin,” Merkel’s aim is to offer Libya the chance to “become sovereign and peaceful”. Putin, supporting the process, said the idea was “timely”.
At the press conference, Putin was asked about the presence and role of Russian mercenaries and said “if there are Russian citizens there, then they are not representing the interests of the Russian state and they are not receiving money from the Russian state.” Putin said Russia has many mercenaries operating in many conflict zones, including those who were previously operating in Syria.
GNA prime minister Fayez al-Serraj welcomed the Russian and Turkish efforts with a stipulation- “the condition is the withdrawal of the attacking party, which does not seem willing to do so”. Serraj said this after meeting with Italian PM Conte in Rome over the weekend. In a previous meeting, Conte expressed “consternation” to Haftar after meeting him in Rome earlier this week.
A GNA commander reports that Russian mercenaries have begun to withdraw from front line fighting near Tripoli, as Russian president Putin and his Turkish counterpart called for a ceasefire.
Nasir Ammar, who commands GNA forces, reported to Turkish media that some 250 Wagner fighters from each front had withdrawn, along with 1000 Sudanese RSF fighters (formerly Janjaweed).
EU leaders warn GNA prime minister al-Sarraj against allowing Turkish troops to come to Libya. A day after the foreign ministers of the UK, France, Germany and Italy condemned Turkey’s plan to send troops to the aid of Tripoli, al-Serraj met with EU officials and German foreign minister Maas in Brussels.
The EU is seeking to avoid being sidelined as various foreign powers, including Turkey and Russia, are fighting for influence and access to lucrative energy sources, and are pressing al-Sarraj for a ceasefire. For Europe, the cost of continued fighting is high – the chaos disrupts oil flow, pushes African migrants to Europe and allows for Islamist extremists to operate close to the European continent.
German FM Maas noted “we want to avoid Libya becoming the scene of proxy wars” while EU president Michel told Serraj in their meeting that the EU sees the maritime agreement has having no legal basis. It “infringes upon the sovereign rights of third states and does not comply with the (United Nations) Law of the Sea.”
Turkey’s President Erdogan said his country has begun moving troops into Libya. There are few details about the scale of the intended deployment. Thus far, Turkey’s objective seems to be to remain in a supportive role and not conduct front-line combat. Turkey already provides drones and armoured vehicles. But it seems that it will rely on Syrian militia mercenaries instead of sending its own combat forces.
Erdogan confirmed there will be an operations centre in Libya commanded by a Turkish Lieutenant General. The “goal of the Turkish armed forces not to fight but to ensure a cease fire in Libya” he said.