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Invisible Occupation: Turkey and Russia in Libya

Megatrends spotlight 35, 10.07.2024

Western governments have castigated Russia and Turkey for destabilizing Libya with their military deployments. But in daily life, their military presence is hardly noticeable – even in the immediate vicinity of their bases. In this Megatrends Afrika Spotlight, Wolfram Lacher (SWP) argues that both states have adopted a low profile in order to stay in Libya for the long term – and so far, their approach appears to be working.

On successive visits to Tripoli over the past two years, I repeatedly drove to a military base on the capital’s western outskirts for meetings. The base is located in a dead end that is set back a few hundred metres from the coastal road. To reach it, I would first pass by another compound just next to it, called Sidi Bilal – one of several bases hosting Syrian fighters whom Turkey has been deploying to western Libya since 2020. On my first visits, the Turkish flag fluttering at the top of a mast inside the base was clearly visible from outside the base’s walls. Syrian fighters would keep a wary eye on me as I drove past. But on my last two visits, in late 2023 and mid-2024, the flag had been lowered so that it was no longer visible from beyond the walls. I could only catch a glimpse of a Syrian guard’s face peering out from a narrow gap in the gate. It was obvious that measures had been taken to make the Syrians’ presence as discreet as possible.

These changes reflect a broader pattern of how both Turkey and Russia have adapted their military deployments in Libya to the local political context while settling in for the long term. After initial episodes illustrated the explosive potential of troops having contact with local society, both states and their proxies have made their presence increasingly invisible and progressively reduced their interactions in the environments surrounding their bases. For now, this strategy appears to have been by and large successful in gaining a modicum of acceptance for the foreign military presence and thwarting attempts to politicize it.

Settling In

Led by the United States (US), Western states frequently point to the Russians’ presence as destabilizing Libya. Except for France, they rarely portray the Turkish deployment in similarly negative terms. Calls for all foreign forces to withdraw have become a routine talking point of Western states concerning Libya.

In fact, the balance of power created by Russia’s and Turkey’s military presence has been instrumental in freezing the Libyan conflict since the defeat of Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli in June 2020. Both states gained their military foothold during that conflict after Western governments adopted a hands-off approach to Haftar’s offensive, with the US and France deciding to give war a chance. Since the end of that conflict, Haftar has relied on Russia – initially under the guise of the Wagner Group – to deter social unrest and protect him from potential attacks by his opponents based in western Libya. The latter, in turn, have relied on Turkey to prevent another offensive by Haftar. Both sides have paid their foreign backers for their assistance, allowing them to build a permanent presence in Libya at little cost. Western states, having already proven to Libya’s rival factions that they could not be relied upon, have been short of practical ideas for how to make their recurrent calls for foreign forces to leave a reality.

When both states first began intervening in 2019, their irruption into Libya was a striking illustration of how rapidly the international order was changing – and it heralded new patterns of foreign intervention in African conflicts. It also startled Libyans and observers of the Libyan conflict. Both Russia and Haftar’s forces denied that they had deployed the Wagner Group – which, at the time, did not officially exist. Visual evidence of Wagner’s presence first came in the form of documents and photos captured by Haftar’s enemies on the battlefield.

Turkey, by contrast, officially announced its intervention, but its deployment of Syrian fighters in December 2019 embarrassed the anti-Haftar forces. Whereas the latter kept quiet about the mercenaries and restricted journalists’ access to them, the Syrians shared videos of their first battles. When the Turkish intervention finally forced Wagner into a hurried retreat, the Russian’s stealth intervention was briefly caught in the spotlight. Images of Russian fighters being evacuated through the streets of a western Libyan town on uncovered trucks in broad daylight stunned Libyan social media.

Becoming Invisible

When the war ended but the foreign forces remained, early events appeared to underline the explosive potential of the foreign military presence. In Sirte, near the new frontline, Wagner terrorized the population by shelling a residential area to forcibly displace its inhabitants before occupying their houses and mining the surroundings, thereby potentially killing anyone who might approach the area. In Misrata, Syrian fighters occupied the houses of displaced residents in a southern suburb, fuelling latent tensions with neighbours. When protests erupted in Tripoli in August 2020 amid an economic crisis and defunct public services, those protesting expressed anger that Syrian fighters were being paid in precious US dollars, whereas Libyans barely received their public-sector dinar salaries.

As rivalries among Haftar’s western Libyan adversaries resurfaced, some sought to damage their opponents by falsely accusing them of using Syrian fighters in local conflicts. Pro-Haftar propagandists, meanwhile, tried to stoke fear and anger by spreading fabricated stories of Syrian fighters abducting Libyan women.

The foreign presence seemed all the more likely to provoke a backlash, as contact between foreign forces and the local population was not uncommon, and largely unregulated. In Sirte and Jufra, Russians frequently turned up in shops and restaurants, at times openly carrying weapons. Sudanese fighters, whom Haftar was no longer able to pay, became an even more vexing presence, as they began demanding tolls at checkpoints along overland roads, and as their ventures into fuel smuggling caused shortages for Libyan consumers. In Tripoli, Syrians also regularly ventured out of their bases on foot to shop for groceries, and in August 2021 they openly protested in front of a base about delayed salaries.

Since then, however, the Turkish, Syrian, and Russian presence has gradually become largely invisible. In Sirte, Wagner fighters withdrew from the areas they had occupied to a dedicated area in the Qardhabiya airbase in 2021. Their visits to local shops in Sirte and Jufra, often together with their Syrian translators, have become much less frequent. On the rare occasions that they do appear in public, they now invariably wear civilian clothing, signalling that they are on their day off.

In the southern bases of Brak and Tamanhant, where the Russians also have a presence, it is even less common to encounter them outside the bases, local residents say. Interlocutors from the far south occasionally report hearing about Russian visits to remote sites such as gold mining areas or military bases, but they rarely describe seeing them with their own eyes.

Much of the same goes for the Syrian fighters deployed by Turkey. In Suq al-Khamis, south of Tripoli, residents had complained that Syrian fighters would often come out of a local base on foot. But for the past year at least, their sorties were restricted to a single weekly trip by car to local shops, suggesting that a regime regulating interactions with locals had been introduced – thus turning boredom into a major challenge for the Syrians.

The formal Turkish military presence itself has been even less visible, confined to a few military bases between Misrata and the Tunisian border. It is extremely rare to encounter Turkish military personnel outside of these bases.

It’s Not about Deniability

This self-isolation from Libyan society is not – or at least no longer – about deniability. Turkey has never made a secret about its troop deployment. Russia did (implausibly) deny that it had forces in Libya for a long time. But since the rebellion and death of the founder of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia has slowly moved towards acknowledging its presence as the Russian defence ministry takes over Wagner’s previous role. The Russian ambassador in Tripoli has publicly stated in several interviews in 2024 that Russian “elements”, rather than forces, are cooperating with Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya. The much noted delivery of weapons by Russian vessels via the port of Tobruk in April 2024, and the visit to Tobruk by several Russian warships in June, both reinforced the message that the Russian presence was becoming more overt and official.

Instead, the modus operandi of Turkey and Russia in Libya offers clues to the purpose of their presence. In Mali and the Central African Republic, Wagner pursued objectives that required far greater interaction with the population: It conducted brutal counterinsurgency campaigns that resulted in many civilian victims, but also business ventures and public relations campaigns that heroized Russians as champions of national sovereignty against French neocolonialism.

In Libya, by contrast, the Turkish and Russian presence has involved very few armed interventions against local actors since the end of the Tripoli war. Nor have they used their deployments to take control of resource extraction – although the presence itself offers opportunities for profit, such as through the exploitation of Syrian fighters.

Rather, the point of having a presence in Libya seems to be to keep it. For Turkey, a Libyan commander with close ties to Turkish officers argued that the purpose of the Syrians’ presence is to secure Turkey’s foothold. One day, it may be possible to convert that military muscle into political influence and economic profit in ways that have broadly been elusive for both states thus far. For Russia, the presence also serves as a hub for deployments in sub-Saharan Africa, and potentially for maritime power projection in the Mediterranean. To serve those goals, keeping a low profile appears to be the right approach.

… And It’s Working

In cases where interactions between foreign troops and local populations are expected to provoke conflicts, they are often curtailed to the extent possible. This logic also appears to inform the Russian and Turkish postures in Libya, where two factors make deployments particularly prone to controversies: First, Libyan public opinion is particularly averse to foreign troops; second, the legitimacy of Libyan government institutions is at best dubious, meaning Russia and Turkey both lack solid relationships on which to found their presence.

By and large, it appears this posture is working as intended. The foreign military presence is now rarely the subject of controversy, and the public appears to have gotten used to it. There have been two major exceptions to that rule: drone strikes that thwarted an attempt by a political-military alliance in August 2022 to install a new government in Tripoli, and another campaign of drone strikes in May 2023 that targeted opponents of the incumbent Prime Minister in Tripoli, under the guise of fighting smugglers. In both cases, those at the receiving end of the strikes publicly accused Turkey of involvement. Public and private denials by Turkish diplomats and military officers did little to convince Libyans. A senior politician who had welcomed the Turkish intervention against Haftar told me after the August 2022 strikes that he could not accept a foreign state deciding who ruled in Tripoli.

But such controversies have rapidly blown over, while the general absence of incidents has kept the issue of this foreign presence out of everyday political debates. One resident of the Jufra region even went as far as to claim that people were “happy about the Russians, because they keep to themselves, they mind their own business” and did not do anything that would destabilize the local situation. Of course, that view may not be representative, and it brushes over the fact that the fear of repression by Haftar’s forces effectively rules out any expressions of opposition to the Russian presence.

Adopting a low profile doubtlessly also helps Russia and Turkey, as they are reaching out to their former Libyan opponents. Turkish companies now operate in Haftar-controlled eastern Libya, having scooped up contracts in the reconstruction bonanza controlled by Haftar’s sons. The Russian embassy returned to Tripoli in mid-2023, led by a new ambassador who is fluent in Arabic and has gone on a charm offensive. More broadly, the polarization among the foreign backers of Libya’s rival forces has long given way to ambiguity: The Tripoli-based government has relentlessly courted two other key foreign powers in Libya – Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – that have traditionally supported Haftar. For Libyan actors, multipolarity implies juggling competing foreign interests rather than choosing between them.

In other contexts, the secrecy surrounding the foreign bases and the self-isolation of troops from their social environs have at times backfired by encouraging the spread of rumours about allegedly hidden motives and malign activities by foreign forces. This, for example, applied to the French and US presence in the Sahel states, before the leaders of military coups forced them to leave.

Interestingly, the Russian and Turkish presence in Libya tends to be much less of an object of speculation than the activities of Western states – in particular those of the US, the United Kingdom (UK), and France, despite the fact that all three have a far more limited military presence in Libya than Russia and Turkey. Over the past two years, the US, the UK, and Italy have each made separate efforts to build relationships with selected western Libyan commanders by training small numbers of their troops. These modest undertakings have fuelled recurrent – but, to the best of my knowledge, wholly unfounded – rumours that Western states are training and equipping a Libyan force with the objective of attacking the Russians. Ironically, then, even Libya’s rumour mill sees aloof Western powers as a more likely source of instability than the Turkish and Russian military presence.

Dr Wolfram Lacher is a Project Director of Megatrends Afrika and a Senior Associate in the Africa and Middle East Division at SWP.