Concerns arise as ‘foreign mercenaries’ mobilise to  Libyan battlefield 

Fatma Lotfi
11 Min Read

Turkey is moving toward possible military intervention in Libya as part of its two accords with the Tripoli-based UN-backed government, as Ankara struggle to rally support from Mediterranean nations ahead of Berlin conference expected early 2020.  

In the meantime, the leaders of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece are planning to meet in Athens on the second of January to sign an agreement for the construction of EastMed pipeline.

The project, which will be completed in 2025, aims to export gas from Israel to Europe and is expected to satisfy about 10% of the natural gas needs of the European Union.

Afterwards, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and France are gathering in a summit in Cairo on the fourth or fifth of January. The details of the summit are not released yet, but it is expected to address Turkey’s activities in the region, in particular, the maritime border accord with the Government of National Accord (GNA).


The situation in Libya is getting more complicated as concerns rise that the North African country moved towards an out of hand war between the two Libyan factions in Tripoli, Benghazi, and their international supporters. 


The UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Syrian mercenaries loyal to Turkey are mobilising to Tripoli to support the GNA in exchange for money. The organisation said on Friday that Turkey offered from $1800 to $2000 monthly for every fighter in addition to other benefits.

These Syrian mercenaries will be face to face against Russian mercenaries who allegedly backed the eastern-based Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), headed by Khalifa Haftar.

There are also reports of 3,000 Sudanese mercenaries who are now fighting in Libya, according to a report by the Guardian which cited leaders of two different groups of Sudanese fighters active in Libya and fighting with the LAAF.


Two weeks ago, Haftar ordered to advance toward the centre of Tripoli as part of the “final battle” to control the capital which was launched in April this year. However, since he launched the offensive, the forces failed to control the capital as they confront GNA allied militias, especially the groups in Misrata.


Haftar is backed by the UAE, Egypt, France, and allegedly by private security forces from the Wagner Group of Russia, while Turkey is the GNA’s main supporter.


“Currently, there is a race to put boots on the ground to gain a troop-size advantage. Towards this goal, Sudanese mercenaries are flooding into Libya to bolster the forces of Haftar’s LAAF,” Micha’el Tanchum, a senior fellow for the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) remarked the Daily News Egypt.  


Tanchum said, “Turkey needs to insert sufficient forces to prevent a LAAF victory. Using Turkish-allied jihadist fighters from Syria, in addition to regular forces from the Turkish army could be an expedient measure for Turkey to fill the gap.” 


“The GNA’s need is immediate and Ankara deploys the Syrian rebels without a troop authorisation from Turkey’s parliament, which will not resume until January 7, 2020. With the parliament’s authorisation of a Turkish troop deployment possible no earlier than January 8, Haftar’s forces have about a 10-day window from December 28 through January 7 to advance their campaign against Tripoli,” Tanchum said.

Meanwhile, Tanchum pointed out that Turkey’s objective is to halt the fight with Haftar’s forces to a stalemate and thereby protect the GNA from being toppled. 


“Having done so, Turkey could then engage Russia as a partner in the management of Libya as it has done in Syria,” he noted. 


On November 27, Turkey signed its mormaerdoms of understanding (MoUs) for military and security cooperation and on the maritime border with GNA. Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece condemned the accord. Greece expelled the Libyan ambassador for failing to send the content of the GNA and Turkey maritime and military agreements.


Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the GNA already resorted to Turkey, his main backer, to fend off Haftar’s military offensive. According to the UN, Ankara has previously provided Al-Sarraj’s government with military equipment, including armoured vehicles and drones, but it would be a major escalation if it sends ground troops to defend Tripoli under its new deals with the GNA. 


For the UAE, it also provided Haftar with drones, according to the UN. The UN has already denounced the UAE and Turkey and accused the two governments of violating the arms embargo imposed on the parties to the conflict in Libya.

Tunisia surprise talks


Earlier on Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that lawmakers will vote on the eighth or ninth of January on a measure to send troops to Libya in support of the GNA.


A report by Reuters also cited an official from Tripoli who said that GNA officially requested an air, ground, and maritime military from Turkey.  


As part of Turkey efforts to rally support from Mediterranean nations, Erdogan made on Wednesday a surprise visit to Tunisia to hold talks with Tunisian President Kais Saied. 


During his visit, Erdogan said that he called on Germany and Russia to make Tunisia, Algeria, and Qatar take part in Berlin peace conference on Libya which is expected early in 2020. He also noted that he supports resolving the Libyan crisis through “internal negotiations between Libyan factions.”

The Turkish president also talked about an agreement with Tunisia to support the GNA, without giving details on the nature of the deal. 


However, the Tunisian Presidency rapidly said in a statement that it will not accept to be a part of any coalition with any party in the conflict of Libya. It also said that the issue of the GNA-Turkey accords has not been raised during talks between the two leaders. 


The Interior Minister of Libya’s GNA Fathi Bashagha said in a press conference in Tunisia that there is a coalition between Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, and the GNA “for economic cooperation and political and security stability,” in Libya.

“Erdogan’s surprise visit to Tunisia to meet the president needs to be seen in this light. While sympathetic to Turkey, the Tunisian government cannot afford to alienate France and Italy, Tunisia’s top two export markets. Turkey ranks only as Tunisia’s 14th largest export market,” Tanchum said. 


“Turkey ultimately would like to station troops on Tunisia’s border with Libya – opening a two-front war with Haftar. Ankara will probably attempt to draw Tunisia gradually into Libya with smaller measures. One of these may be the use of Tunisian port for Turkey’s naval and resupply vessels,” Tanchum pointed out, saying “Turkey also is seeking Tunisia’s participation in the upcoming Berlin conference on Libya to be held in early 2020 so as not to be completely isolated in the negotiations.” 


“Although Turkey has become a major player in Libya, its isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean is only likely to deepen,” Tanchum said. 


Turkey has been condemned over its unauthorised drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Greece denounced Ankara’s accords with the GNA and emphasised its sovereignty over its maritime zones, which are also European maritime zones under international law, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Last week, Israel Foreign Minister Israel Katz officially opposed the accords between Turkey and GNA. However, he said that the deals will not lead to a confrontation between the two countries. 


Early this year, Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, Greece, Jordan, and Italy founded the East Mediterranean Gas Forum to establish a gas market in order to export to Europe. Turkey opposed any agreement of exploitation of gas resources by Cyprus without its participation. 

Ankara’s accords with the GNA were viewed as an attempt to break its strategic isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean, but the deals rattle the region and escalate tension in Libya.
“Turkey’s agreement with the Tripoli government on the delimitation of maritime zones stands only as long as the Tripoli government does,” Tanchum said. 

He added, “Turkey lacks a land border with Libya, Russia may be less inclined to accede to Turkey’s strategic ambitions. Egypt, a close Russian partner, is committed to preventing such an outcome.”  

Meanwhile, Tanchum said that if Turkey succeeds in stymieing the advance of Haftar’s forces, it “will become the security guarantor for the Tripoli government.”

 “Turkey will become one of the primary players in the upcoming 2020 Berlin conference on Libya. And it would also likely construct a base in Libya, enhancing its power in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Maghreb, and in the wider Middle East,” Tanchum concluded. 

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A journalist in DNE's politics section with more than six years of experience in print and digital journalism, focusing on local political issues, terrorism and human rights. She also writes features on women issues and culture.