In addition to the progress made by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), the co-chairs of the International Follow-Up Committee for Libya Security Working Group (SWG) — comprising the African Union, France, Italy, Turkey, the UK and the UNSMIL — met the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) on 20 January. They reiterated their full and continued commitment to the implementation of the 23 October 2020 ceasefire agreement. The latter’s deadline for the departure of all foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya is drawing very close. The co-chairs urged Libya’s political leaders to take all necessary measures to accelerate the implementation of the ceasefire and to prioritise the opening of the Abu Grein to Sirte coastal road and the immediate repatriation of all foreign fighters and mercenaries.
The Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries’ construction of a major 70 kms trench in eastern Libya — as documented in an extensive reportage last week — shows, however, that there is a major disconnect between pledges being made by the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) and its international backers on the one hand, and the activities of foreign mercenaries on the other. A US intelligence official quoted in the report notes that the trench is a sign that Wagner is ‘settling in for the long haul’ and thereby providing Moscow with influence at a fairly low cost. It said that the trench, is another reason ‘we see no intent or movement by either Turkish or Russian forces to abide by the UN-brokered agreement. This has the potential to derail an already fragile peace process and ceasefire. It will be a really difficult year ahead.’ The US officials are also worried about the dangers of poorly-trained mercenaries operating very sophisticated equipment. ‘Fourth generation fighter jets and Pantsir missile systems are being operated by a less capable, poorly-trained Wagner mercenaries’, one official told the media. He added that ‘There are complex challenges in Libya, including al-Qa’ida and Islamic State (IS), and mercenaries with their poor level of training, experience, and lack of respect for human rights and international law, make those weapons systems in those hands the most concerning.’
The 70 kms trench extends south from the populated coastal areas around Sirte towards the Wagner-controlled stronghold of al-Jufra. It is visible on satellite imagery and is bolstered by a series of elaborate fortifications designed to stop a land attack on the LAAF-controlled areas in eastern Libya. The GNA has previously posted images of excavators and trucks creating the ditch and berm that runs alongside it. GNA Defence Minister Salaheddin al-Namroush said in response to the reports and imagery: ‘I don’t think anyone digging a trench today and making these reinforcements is leaving anytime soon.’ The LAAF spokesman, Major General Khaled al-Mahjoub, confirmed the existence of trenches but described them as ‘temporary’ sand barriers and trenches, in ‘an open area… for defence and fighting’, and denied the presence of any Wagner mercenaries. Last year, President Vladimir Putin also denied that there were Russian mercenaries affiliated with Libya’s eastern government.
In reality, while these fortifications are apparently designed to stop or deter an eastward GNA attack, they may be more about Russia’s geostrategic goals than its support for Khalifa Haftar. On the other hand, the latter has long used conflict — or at least a threat of one — as his raison d’être and the Russian presence provides him with just that.
By contrast, Turkey is much more transparent about its desire for a permanent military presence in Libya. Last week it posting images of its forces providing the GNA with military training. The latter has openly admitted the Turkish presence but stated it is part of an official legal agreement between two governments. Moreover, Turkey has repeatedly flown in soldiers and equipment. ‘It’s a comprehensive effort’ one US official told the media last week, and added that ‘they are constructing facilities, bringing in personnel and equipment. They’ve got the HAWK air defence missile batteries, 3D [KALAKAN] radar.