Thousands of foreign mercenaries — "private military contractors" — are flocking to Libya, adding fuel to the fire of the civil war while further complicating the efforts to resolve the bloody conflict. In recent years, the North African state has become a paradise for hired guns from all over the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey and Russia.
While the use of such contractors has been common practice since the 9/11 attacks across the Middle East, their utilisation has been particularly popular in Libya, which falls into that class of countries in which distances are huge, the population density is low, political power is local, and the troops-to-space ratio makes decisive military victories difficult. That is the view of Dr David Chuter, a lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, and a former defence and security advisor of the British and French governments in the area.
Foreign powers like Russia, Turkey and the UAE have also realised the benefits of using the services of mercenaries. Hiring fighters allows them to lower the political and military costs of achieving their objectives, and they can easily distance themselves if things go wrong. According to Chuter, the countries involved in Libya want to make sure that they have a voice in any future arrangements: "The point here is not to win a military victory, but to qualify for a seat at the table, and because of the forces you control or influence, you can obstruct a peace settlement, so your wishes have to be taken into account."
He added that there's a tendency to assume that a unit of military contractors is uniform across all theatres of operation, but in his experience he has noted several different types fighting in Libya.
Since the 1990s, the trend has moved towards contractors as specialist trainers and advisers. This came from the realisation that even quite small groups of well-trained and properly equipped troops can defeat very large numbers of poorly-trained combatants, although the impact of other types of contractor units should not be underestimated, he explained.
Ideologically-driven combatants, who engage in war tourism, such as European jihadi volunteers, have played an important role in the region, he pointed out, although experience in Syria and Iraq suggests that most of these combatants, with very little training, are simply cannon fodder.
Chuter adds that the numerous militias deployed in areas where the central government can't or won't go, have been used increasingly in Libya. Sudanese militias, for example, fight essentially for money on a contract basis; they seldom have advanced military skills, and usually just dominate an area by having arms when nobody else has.
Verifiable data on the numbers of private military contractor units in Libya is hard to come by. Since late last year, many reports have confirmed the presence of Wagner, a notorious Russian paramilitary unit, supporting renegade General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army. Sergey Sukhankin, a researcher at the Jamestown Foundation, told me that the "number of Russian mercenaries might be between 1,500 and 2,500, although the higher figure might be a Turkish exaggeration."
According to Nathan Vest, a Middle East specialist at the RAND Corporation, "It's important to keep in mind that they are not solely serving a tactical frontline purpose, Russian contractors are also providing logistical support and force protection, and bring with them anti-access/area denial equipment to hinder Turkish drones' ability to operate."
There has been much debate about the extent to which this group is controlled by the Kremlin and its Libyan strategy, or if it is a more autonomous corporation chiefly controlled by the owner of the Wagner company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has private deals with Haftar. Sukhankin is convinced that "neither Wagner nor Prigozhin are independent players; all their actions are (and have always been) coordinated from above." Nevertheless, the Kremlin denies any connection between private military contractors and Moscow.
However, John Rugarber, a former US Army Captain and analyst at Encyclopaedia Geopolitica, pointed out that similar denials could be heard in the case of Russian troops fighting in Ukraine when Russian officials said that they were there "on vacation". He told me that it is hard to imagine that Wagner could operate logistically without purchasing arms and material from Russia, whether directly or indirectly.
The fact that Russia chose to support Haftar shows that the "siloviki" faction not only includes the Ministry of Defence, but also the oligarchs and tycoons with a KGB background, apparently lured by economic promises from Haftar, and so Moscow has decided to bet on him. By doing so, explained Rugarber, Russia seeks to strengthen its foothold in Libya and thus the Mediterranean, preclude other — primarily European — players from capitalising on Libyan resources, and expand its export capabilities.
Prior to Turkey's own injection of thousands of Syrian mercenaries into the battle for Tripoli, speculation was that Russian contractors would prove to be the decisive factor in Haftar's offensive. In Sukhankin's opinion, though, it looks highly dubious that Russian mercenaries – at least in their current number and capabilities – are able to tip the balance in Haftar`s favour. This appears to be even more unlikely given the increasing involvement of Turkey.
Recent reports also claim that some 2,000 Syrian fighters, mainly from the Free Syria Army have been sent to Libya to join pro-government forces. Some of these reports highlighted close links between the Turkey-backed forces and Islamic radicals, raising the question of their motives and the ideological impact that they may have in Libya. Nathan Vest thinks that financial incentives are the prime motivation for Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries in Libya: "The reported salary of $2,000 per month and promises of Turkish citizenship are huge incentives for fighters who have few prospects and a bleak future in Syria." For Chuter, the Turks may simply have wanted to get them out of Syria and let somebody else worry about them. In Vest's opinion, though, there's no indication that the Syrian fighters are driven by the same ideological factors that saw more than 40,000 individuals travel to join Daesh.
Dr Chuter shared an interesting comment made by a Turkish diplomat a few years ago, who suggested to him that, "Erdogan sees himself as restoring the Ottoman Empire, at least in the immediate region." He noted that we don't need to believe that this is Ottoman Empire 2.0, so much as that, by sending fighters to Libya, the Turks are sending a message that they are important players with an interest in the region and will not be kept out of any peace negotiations if and when they happen.
Besides Russian and Turkish contractors, Sudanese and Chadian armed groups have also sent thousands of combatants to fight in Libya. According to Vest, African mercenaries are primarily driven by economic interests — salaries and benefits from Libya's lucrative smuggling and extortion economies — although the Sudanese fighters' importance in the Libya conflict is often understated. They provide essential force protection for Haftar's oil facilities and serve as a force multiplier on the ground, freeing the general's eastern Libyan fighters, who are limited in their coverage, numbers and capacity to fight in Tripoli.
Without stronger official international involvement, the use of private military contractors is likely to continue, and so is human suffering. War is, after all, big business.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.