Libya analysis: 35 monthly military trips in support of Wagner group

©The Middle East Monitor

About a week after Moscow denied the presence of soldiers in Libya, a plane crashed and its pilot, who sent a video in Russian to seek help, survived, raising questions about weapons and mercenaries that Russia sends to Libya to establish its presence in the region, Anadolu Agency reports.

The United Nations (UN) managed to count 70 military cargo flights that landed at airports in eastern Libya supporting the militia of General Khalifa Haftar, between 8 July and 2 September, at a rate of 35 flights per month.

Military support to Haftar was not restricted to air routes, as the countries backing him sent three cargo ships during the same period, according to the briefing of UN Acting Envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams to the UN Security Council.

However, the Russian delegate to the UN responded strongly to reports accusing his country of being involved in Libya, declaring: “We have repeatedly confirmed that there is not a single Russian soldier in the combat zone in Libya at the moment. There has been no information about their involvement in armed clashes or about any deaths.”

However, Al-Jazeera, based on undisclosed diplomatic sources, announced that a confidential report by the team of experts of the international sanctions imposed on Libya: “Documented Russia’s build-up of the Wagner group in Libya, which supports Haftar with direct logistical support.”

The report revealed that Russia sent 338 military cargo flights that took off from Syria between November 2019 and July 2020.

This calls into question the reason behind Russia’s insistence on sending mercenaries and weapons to Wagner, and the pursuit of other Russian security companies contracting with Haftar’s militia, despite the cessation of fighting last June.

The UN and several countries headed by Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, the US and Germany have stepped up their diplomatic efforts to establish a ceasefire and begin a comprehensive dialogue to end the war in Libya.

The answer is one of the two possibilities, or both – either Moscow seeks to strengthen the defence capabilities of the Haftar militia and prepares for a new attack against the capital of Tripoli, the seat of the legitimate government, and the town of Misrata, whose inhabitants represent more than half of the Libyan army.

Another possibility is that Moscow wants to establish a permanent presence in the southern wing of NATO, by strengthening the defence capabilities of the Al-Jufra airbase and the Ghardabiya airbase in Sirte.

This explains the sending of specific Russian weapons to Libya, such as the multi-role fighter MiG-29 and the Sukhoi 24 bomber, in significant quantities of at least 14 aircraft.

This is in addition to the Pantsir missile systems, of which the Libyan army destroyed a large number last May, leading to the unveiling of the Haftar militia in front of the Bayraktar Turkish drones, and contributing to their defeat of southern Tripoli and western Libya in early June.

However, local media reported that Haftar’s allies recently backed him with the S-300 anti-aircraft system, which has a longer range compared to Pantsir, but is less sophisticated than the S-400.

A UN report stated that the Wagner mercenaries numbered about 1,200 in Libya, but other sources estimated their number was close to 2,500.

Wagner also recruited Syrian mercenaries who were loyal to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, their estimated number was 5,000, while waiting to send a thousand more a monthly salary of $2,000.

Although some accounts loyal to the legitimate government have spoken of the withdrawal of Wagner mercenaries from Sirte to the oil fields, this information was immediately denied.

In addition, the Libyan army tracked on Tuesday the movement of a convoy of 80 military vehicles of the Haftar militia heading to the governorate of Al-Jafra towards Wadi Al-Lud, southeast of the city of Misrata.

This indicates that there are manoeuvres or redeployments of mercenaries to deceive, especially in light of international pressure led by the US on the Haftar militia to expel foreign mercenaries, mainly Russians, from Libya and make Sirte and Al-Jufra a demilitarised zone.

This was included in the two statements issued by Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the Presidential Council, and Aguila Saleh, president of the Tobruk Parliament, simultaneously, in order to withdraw the mercenaries.

Though Moscow seemed closer to Saleh than to Haftar, it has continued to supply the latter’s militia with arms and mercenaries with 35-40 military cargo flights per month over the past ten months.

On the edge of war and peace

Libya is currently on the sidelines of war and peace, caught between the mobilisation of Haftar’s militia to return to fight in Sirte and difficult negotiations in Geneva and Bouznika in Morocco.

The balance of peace has recently tilted, but there is no guarantee that Haftar will not embark on his latest adventure to govern Libya by force, especially since those who negotiate with the legitimate government and the Supreme Council of State in Geneva and Bouznika have no effective authority over the Haftar militias.

This is the weak point of the Skhirat Agreement, signed in late 2015, which could not give power to the National Salvation Government in the west, and failed to overthrow the government of Abdullah Al-Thani in the east.

Even after most of Tobruk’s representatives sided with the reconciliation government in the west, this did not weaken Haftar, insofar as he gained the loyalty of Saleh.

As a result, voices were raised in western Libya, calling for the withdrawal of Haftar’s militia and Russian and African mercenaries from Sirte and Al-Jufra, before the positions of the sovereign institutions in Tripoli were agreed upon.

The continued mobilisation of all these mercenaries and weapons in Sirte and Al-Jufra, and the launching of rocket-propelled grenades at the Libyan army, do not give the negotiators in Bouznika and Geneva sufficient trust to guarantee the commitment of Haftar’s militia to what will be decided in the future.

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