It was the mortar rounds that worried Muhammad the most. They fell with a frequency he’d never encountered. “Like rain,” he said.

Then there were the snipers. Their shots were terrifyingly accurate and used a type of bullet new to the Libyan battlefield.

It was an overcast evening in November 2019. I sat with Muhammad, a militia commander and former engineer in his late forties, in a farmhouse outside the Libyan capital of Tripoli. For months, he and his men had been waging a grinding war against forces led by a renegade general named Khalifa Haftar, who was trying to topple the country’s internationally recognized government.

It had been a static battle whose frontlines barely moved. But in September, Haftar had gained momentum. His firepower became more lethal. His emboldened men seized new territory.

The sudden shift was the handiwork of hundreds of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group who had arrived to bolster Haftar’s troops.

An ostensibly private military company, Wagner has, in fact, served as an important tool of power projection for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It has been deployed across the globe, from the Central African Republic and Mozambique to Syria and Ukraine.

The results of these adventures have been mixed. In Libya, however, the Wagner Group made a difference. Morale among the government forces plummeted. Capturing Tripoli appeared within Haftar’s grasp.

This wasn’t the first time that Russia had helped Haftar. Drawn by the promise of energy control and arms deals in this oil-rich state, Moscow had courted and aided the Libyan general for years. All the while, it kept open channels to his government rivals.

To counter the Wagner deployment last fall, the Libyan government turned to Turkey for help. In December, Ankara deployed thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Tripoli—along with advisers, air defenses, artillery, and drones. Aided by this influx, government troops pushed Haftar’s forces out of the capital region.

Moscow quickly pivoted, dispatching advanced combat jets to Haftar’s territory in the east. In tandem, Wagner forces were redeployed across the east and south, including to strategic oil fields.

These moves were part of a broader Russian strategy to gain leverage for a political settlement with Turkey that would establish economic and military spheres of influence while undercutting Europe and the United States. And they starkly illustrated how an opportunistic and scalable military intervention could yield modest strategic gains for Russia.

But the Libyan conflict has carried incalculable human costs. Haftar’s forces are responsible for indiscriminate attacks on civilians, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, Western powers have largely stayed on the sidelines. The U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has tacitly endorsed the Libyan general’s assault. Washington is growing frustrated with Haftar’s blockade of oil facilities and alliance with Russia, yet the White House continues to downplay the destructive role of U.S. allies—including Egypt, France, and the United Arab Emirates—in fueling his campaign. France has admonished Turkey for intervening while ignoring the Emirates’ longstanding interference, but Europe as a whole has been too divided and distracted to engage.

For Muhammad, the progovernment Libyan commander, U.S. ambivalence has been especially bitter.

Several years ago, he and the Tripoli government forces received U.S. military aid during a campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Now they feel abandoned.

“Russia gave Haftar mortars,” he said. “What did Trump give us?”

Progovernment militia fighters on the Tripoli frontlines, during a lull in the battle against forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar. November 2019.
A fragment of a missile fired from a Chinese-made Wing Loong drone, reportedly operated by the United Arab Emirates in coordination with Russian Wagner personnel to assist Haftar’s Tripoli campaign. June 2019.
The smoldering wreckage of a biscuit factory outside Tripoli, struck several hours before by an alleged Emirati drone on behalf of Haftar’s forces. Ten civilians died in the attack, which the United Nations called a possible war crime. November 2019.
An airstrike by an alleged Emirati drone on a target outside Tripoli. November 2019.
A detention center for irregular migrants in Tripoli. Libya’s thousands of detained migrants face dangers from airstrikes, torture, forced labor, poor sanitation, and now the coronavirus. June 2016.
A progovernment commander on a rooftop during a firefight on the Tripoli frontlines. November 2019.
A progovernment militia fighter fires a recoilless rifle at Haftar’s forces’ positions near the Tripoli International Airport. Like many anti-Haftar fighters hailing from the east, he covers his face because his family is vulnerable to retribution by Haftar’s soldiers. June 2019.
The aftermath of an alleged Emirati airstrike in Tripoli. January 2020.
A progovernment militia fighter works as a mortar spotter against an Islamic State sniper several hundred yards away, during the Battle of Sirte. Many of these same Libyan fighters, who enjoyed U.S. military support during the campaign against the Islamic State, are now battling Haftar’s forces. June 2016.
The rain-soaked frontlines of Tripoli. Many civilian structures have been shelled and thousands of families displaced. Before withdrawing, Russian Wagner forces left booby traps and explosive devices in civilian homes. January 2020.
Photo source: Frederic Wehrey
By:
  • Frederic Wehrey