The war in Ukraine can change the balance in the Libyan stalemate

(To George Armento)

More than twelve years after the fall of Gaddafi, the Libyan question remains far from a solution. In the hearing held on February 27 at the United Nations Security Council, the representative at the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (Unsmil) Abdoulaye Bathily has admitted the inadequacy of the Libyan institutions in charge of leading the country to a normalization process, speaking explicitly of the lack of legitimacy on the part of the political class (Libya: the UN envoy "commissioned" the Parliament and launches a new plan for the elections - Agenzia Nova). While relaunching, with the announcement of a new UN initiative to bring the country to elections, through the establishment of a "high-level committee", in fact Bathimy's words bring the Libyan political situation back to the starting point with respect to the possibility peaceful settlement of the dispute for control of the country.

A stalemate has reappeared between the two main factions which does not necessarily herald détente. On the one hand, with the failure of the blitzes on Tripoli attempted last year by Bashaga, yet another initiative by the LNA to impose itself militarily on the Tripoli government has proved fruitless. On the other hand, the inability of the GNU to pacify the country by leading it to new elections was sanctioned.

To the framework of political uncertainty is added theworsening of the economic and social conditions prevailing in the North African area. Like the whole region, in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, Libya saw the addition of the food crisis following the reduction of supplies from the Black Sea ports to an already ruined economic situation. In this context, it is likely that both sides are preparing to face a protracted stalemate, which could lead to a rekindling of the armed conflict. Therefore it would come as no surprise that both the government in Tripoli and the LNA in Tobruk are preparing to consolidate their positions, seeking support from their respective external partners. Both factions are in fact still heavily dependent on the political, diplomatic but above all military support provided by various powers in the region. Interested in extending their influence over the Libyan area, these have been able to exploit the space left empty by the Italian-French-American coalition after the outbreak of civil war in the country.

Although in fact Italy has never withdrawn its support for the government in Tripoli, keeping the embassy open and offering its diplomatic services to the Western world, it is only thanks to the determined Turkish military intervention in 2019 that General Haftar has not conquered the country. Similarly, the LNA, based in Cyrenaica, remains a threat to the legitimate government thanks to the military power that is guaranteed by the support not only of Egypt and the gulf monarchies, but also and above all of Russia. One year after the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the relationship between the Russian Federation and the faction represented by General Haftar has not broken. The same company Wagner it still remains deployed in Cyrenaica in support of the LNA. But the Libyan civil war in recent years has accustomed us to a certain ambiguity in the relationships between its protagonists and their respective supporters. Particularly considering the stalemate in which the country finds itself again.

USAF activity in Benghasi

There has recently been an unusual activity at the Benghasi airport. As reported by the air-naval monitoring site Italmil radar (US Libyan missions – ItaMilRadar), the Cyrenaic airport would have been visited on 21 February by some C 17s Globemaster USAF took off from the NATO base in Ramstein, where they would return after a stopover of a few hours. Sufficient time for large transport aircraft to perform a material loading-unloading operation and return to Europe. Although there is no information available about the nature of the cargo, the compatibility between the equipment available to the LNA and the ammunition that the Ukrainian armed forces desperately need at this stage of the conflict allows some assumptions to be made. The LNA has in fact enjoyed, especially in the initial phase of the Libyan civil war, substantial military supplies from its sponsors. Among the paraphernalia in possession of the Cyrenaic forces, 200 stand out Humvee donated by the USA, several specimens of Soviet T 72 tanks, as well as Western and Soviet artillery pieces, including the impressive G6 self-propelled guns of South African production, supplied to the LNA by the United Arab Emirates, which adopt the same 155mm ammunition as the howitzer employed by both sides in Ukraine. Furthermore, in the first years of the conflict, numerous portable anti-tank weapons would have been supplied to Haftar's forces Javelin, which have proved to be extremely important in the Ukrainian scenario both on the ground and in the imagination linked to the conflict.

Pressure from the CIA

The C-17 episode took place just over a month after the meeting between General Haftar and CIA Director William Burns (CIA chief visits Libya after Lockerbie suspect handover | Khalifa Haftar News | Al Jazeera ; Takeaways from William Burns' Surprise Visit to Libya | The Washington Institute). Local sources report that among the contents of the talk there would be Washington's invitation to downsize the activity of the Wagner in the areas controlled by the LNA (US seeks to expel Wagner Group from Sudan, Libya | The Libya Observer).

The US intentions to oust Russia from the Libyan match would have been repeated by Burns himself in the context of a visit that took place a few days later to the Egyptian authorities (CIA director in Egypt after Libya and Ukraine, meets Sisi - Al-Monitor: Independent, trusted coverage of the Middle East), main supporters of General Haftar. Pressure on Haftar and his allies was accompanied last month by an intensification of sanctions directed at the group Wagner. In parallel with the talks supported by the director of the CIA, on 26 January the US Treasury Department designated the status of the group Wagner at the level of Transnational Criminal Organization (Treasury Sanctions Russian Proxy Wagner Group as a Transnational Criminal Organization | U.S. Department of the Treasury), and there is currently debate about the proposal to designate it as an international terrorist group, with similar initiatives underway in Europe (Parliamentary question | Designation of the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization | P-000194/2023 | European Parliament). It therefore seems that we are witnessing a recovery of the US initiative in the Libyan area, after the long years of distraction that have allowed other regional players, in particular Turkey for one part and Russia for the other, to carve out large spheres of influence . The repercussions of the war in Ukraine on this scenario could consist not only in the rekindling of Western interest in the fate of the region, but also in the retreat into which Russia has been forced by circumstances.

Russian troubles

In fact, it is legitimate to believe that the federation had to divert huge resources from the Libyan theater to dedicate them to a conflict for which, at the celebration of the first anniversary, it is far from seeing a solution. Just as it is likely that the company itself Wagner, formally still deployed in support of Haftar's forces, may have significantly reduced its commitment on the Libyan theater in favor of the Ukrainian one. The latter sees it directly deployed on the front line on the hottest front of the conflict, that of Donbass. The press releases with which Prigozin expresses his dissatisfaction with the leaders of the Russian armed forces, guilty according to him of lacking in supplies of support and ammunition to the company, date back to these days Wagner. Beyond the instrumentality of such statements, it remains a testament to how hard it is for the Wagner the commitment to taking Bakhmut, in material and above all human terms.

Ukrainian estimates claim that the company has lost up to 10.000 men in the advance on Bakhmut's front, rumors partially confirmed also by informal sources of the same Wagner.

It should not be forgotten that, however expert and well trained, the company has a limited number of fighters, and that the commitment required of them has always been in well-limited operations, such as support activities for national armies in anti-terrorism operations , private security for industrial activities in high risk areas, special forces or police training. Quite different from the current commitment which sees them in charge of advancing on a fortified front, in a war of attrition, moreover against an armed force of all respect in terms of quality and quantity of equipment. Therefore it is difficult to imagine that the company's difficulties in Ukraine do not translate into a lesser commitment in other scenarios in which it is involved, such as Libya. Above all in terms of personnel, even net of the extraordinary recruitment that took place last year. In fact, they were mostly former soldiers of the CIS republics and former convicts from the Russian suburbs, more suited to the reserve of a regular army than to replace the losses of veterans with many years of combat experience, gained in years of war in Syria and in Africa by mercenaries fielded by Prigozhin.

Does the war in Ukraine reopen the Libyan game?

It is therefore possible that, faced with the prospect of a Russia unwilling to support its initiatives, General Haftar is looking for other supporters. Not necessarily to replace the current ones, but it is clear that at this moment it would not be wise for anyone who is not forced to put all their eggs in the Russian basket.

If confirmed, the supply of munitions or other war material to NATO could be a symptom of an ongoing change in the Libyan balance. It seems clear that the ongoing conflict in Europe is destined to have repercussions on the Libyan scenario and to renew US interest in the Mediterranean region.

The impact on the balance of power in our near abroad could offer our country the opportunity to play a more active role in a region that is now more vital than ever for Italy's strategic interests, after years in which the initiative has passed to far more unscrupulous players.

Image: Itamilradar