How the eruption of violence in Sudan could impact Libya

7 min read
20 April, 2023

Ongoing violence between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has raised concerns about the possible ramifications for Libya, both politically and in terms of the country's fragile security situation.

Observers are particularly concerned about how the fighting could affect the issue of foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya, many of whom have strong links to Sudan, in the event that the conflict becomes protracted.

None of Libya's leaders has taken a clear stance on the conflict that has erupted in Sudan. The Government of National Unity (GNU) has sufficed in urging Libyan citizens in Sudan to be careful and has declared the establishment of an official committee to monitor their situation and prepare for their evacuation if it becomes necessary.

"Observers are particularly concerned about how the fighting could affect the issue of foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya, many of whom have strong links to Sudan"

One figure who stayed silent as fighting erupted is retired Major General and military strongman Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces control vast swathes of eastern and southern Libya, although not the southeast part of Libya which borders Sudan.

However, the chairman of the Military Organisation and Administration Authority in southern Libya, Abdelsalam Al-Busaifi, who is affiliated with Haftar, has called for chiefs of staff in the east and west to close the border with Sudan and assign "military forces to guard it and prevent infiltration, and to use reconnaissance planes at Kufra Airport", which is near the Sudanese border.

According to Al-Busaifi's statements, as reported by Libyan media channels on Monday, the clashes in Sudan "will affect the situation in Libya unless swift and serious steps are taken to avoid their repercussions".

He warned that the clashes could evolve into a protracted war, adding: "We must follow Chad's lead, which closed its borders as soon as the clashes started in Sudan".

On Thursday, an LNA spokesman said that the group's General Command "categorically denies reports of providing support to one party against the other,” according to a statement.

The LNA is ready to play a mediating role between the parties in Sudan, it added.

Janjaweed militants have been in southern Libya for years as allies of Haftar. [Abdullah Doma/AFP via Getty]

As well as sharing a border with Sudan, southern Libya suffers from a severe security vacuum and from the complete absence of official institutions and services.

As a result, many African armed groups have been able to exploit this vacuum and consolidate themselves in south Libya, organising their opposition and launching attacks on the official authorities in their countries.

One of the armed groups whose militants have a presence in south Libya is the Janjaweed, the militia that gave birth to the RSF, which is under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.

Janjaweed presence in southern Libya

Janjaweed militants have been in southern Libya for years as allies of Haftar, battling alongside his forces multiple times, notably in his prolonged offensive on Tripoli in 2019-2020. Additionally, they have also helped Haftar's forces secure key military and strategic positions in southeast Libya.

However, Musa Tehusay, a Libyan researcher specialising in African affairs, doesn't believe Haftar and Hemedti have a particularly deep relationship. "The bond between them is essentially pragmatic, and Haftar no longer really needs Hemedti's forces in the same way he used to".

Notably, a few weeks ago, the Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya Abdoulaye Bathily conducted a tour including Sudan, Chad, and Niger – to discuss the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya, an issue which is posing an increasing serious security threat to the country.

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"If the Janjaweed withdraw from south Libya to fight in the current battle in Sudan this could be embarrassing for Haftar," Tehusay told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition.

He explained that Haftar still deflects claims by the international community that he has links to Wagner by pointing out that they are not alone and many other mercenary groups also operate in south Libya.

Tehusay says the battle raging between the Sudanese generals will inevitably have negative ramifications for Libya due to the shared border and "the presence of armed Sudanese elements directly connected to Hemedti … [who] have been in southern Libya for years, moving freely between the two countries".

In terms of Libya's security, Tehusay thinks that whether Hemedti succeeds or fails, it will cause problems for Libya.

"If he is defeated, south Libya will become a haven for his fighters and the Janjaweed presence there will grow, and if he wins, it will also strengthen his forces in south Libya," he said. They will then form a serious obstacle to any efforts to remove foreign fighters from Libya, he added.

"In the event of increasing chaos, militias operating outside the law will find a vast space of over 2,000 km stretching from Sudan to Niger for their activities, which will also raise concern over the security of Libyan oil facilities"

A protracted conflict would also pose problems. "South Libya will likely become a rear base for the RSF, especially for logistical support, like the provision of weapons, food, and most importantly, fuel, for which the Janjaweed know the smuggling routes - encouraged by Libya being among the cheapest countries for fuel," Tehusay said.

He says that at the very least, this will hurt the population of southern Libya, because prices will likely rise as goods are siphoned off to supply the battlefield.

The conflict in Sudan will also have serious ramifications for Libya politically, stresses Tehusay, because whatever the outcome of the clashes it will be difficult to hold elections in the light of the severe security threats generated in south Libya.

"In the event of increasing chaos, militias operating outside the law will find a vast space of over 2,000 km stretching from Sudan to Niger for their activities, which will also raise concern over the security of Libyan oil facilities, over 60 percent of which are situated in the south [...] All of these are huge challenges for the political situation in Libya as well as complicating the issue of the withdrawal of the foreign fighters," he says.

Members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitaries secure the place for a rally for supporters of Sudan's ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) in the village of Abraq, about 60 kilometres northwest of Khartoum, on 22 June 2019. [Getty]

Links between Libya and Sudan's conflicts

Tehusay says the foreign parties linked to the conflict in Sudan are almost the same as those who were involved in the Libyan conflict. He believes Russia is the most important of these countries, with Moscow viewing Hemedti as a "cornerstone" of its influence in the wider region.

"Moscow won't let Hemedti be defeated, as he is an incubator for Wagner in Central Africa and Sudan, and so his defeat would mean Russia's defeat. At the least, they won't let him be defeated completely, [maybe] by shifting the situation to one of political negotiation, where Hemedti will be a key player," he said.

Abdelmawla Hadiya, a professor of international relations at the Libyan Academy, believes it is still unclear who is behind the outbreak of clashes in Sudan, but believes that "even if Moscow is fuelling the current fighting in Sudan, Libya is not safe".

However, he adds that Haftar, who has links to Russia, and Hemedti, will have to clarify their positions to the West, which is opposed to Moscow and fears its penetration deeper into Africa.

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Swifter mobilisation of a Libyan joint force

One possibility he envisions is that in response to the violence Washington and its allies will pressure the Libyans to establish a proposed military joint force more rapidly.

"The clear intention behind forming the Libyan joint force and sending it to the south, for Washington and its European allies, is to put pressure on the Wagner group and target Russian interests," Hadiya said.

"The situation in Sudan may speed the process up, which could force the Libyan parties to enter into armed conflict with Wagner, and perhaps the Janjaweed and others, and if this happens, no one can predict the result."

Hadiya thinks it is too early to know how events in Sudan will affect Libya. However,"the silence of Haftar, the UN Mission [...], and most Libyan and regional leaders, reflects that they are waiting to see what happens before positions are adopted".

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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