Norland: Turkey is Ready to Negotiate Withdrawal of Syrian Mercenaries from Libya - Al Marsad

US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland praised in an interview the efforts of the interim Government of National Unity (GNU) headed by Abdul Hamid Dbaiba to organize elections on 24 December, and discussed the opportunity to end 10 years of chaos that followed the “overthrow of the rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.”

(LIBYA, 25 April 2021) – In an interview to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Saturday, US Ambassador Richard Norland said that there are many challenges before the new Libyan authorities, the interim GNU headed by Abdul Hamid Dbaiba and the new interim Presidential Council headed by Mohamed al-Menfi. He said the issue of mercenaries is one of these major problems facing the new interim government.

During the interview Norland revealed details of his contacts with the Russians on the issue of “Wagner mercenaries” in Libya, and explained that Russian officials are now acknowledging their presence after they had previously denied that they had nothing to do with the Russian government.

He stressed that the Turks are ready to negotiate the withdrawal of the Syrian mercenaries they sent to Libya.


Norland said Libya has witnessed important developments since late last year when a ceasefire was agreed between the two warring parties in the east and west of the country, with the ceasefire at the “red line” set by Egypt from Sirte to Jufra.

He explained that the armed conflict had largely ceased, and Libyans began to focus on restoring their normal lives and securing basic services such as electricity, and addressing COVID-19. The political process for achieving these goals in the longer term was among the priorities before, and after the ceasefire it improved in a distinctive way.

He said the he Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) was a real achievement, but it was not solid. This process was carried out through the Libyan leaders themselves and at their initiative, but facilitated by the UN. Ghassan Salamé and Stephanie Williams put this process on track and it now continues with Ján Kubiš. He said process achieved a miracle, and that one of the important factors that contributed to its success was “transparency”.

He said they had heard that as many as 1.7 million Libyans were following the voting process on the selection of the new Libyan authorities in Geneva, which created a dynamic because the participants in the LPDF knew that people were watching them and that they had to show responsibility and leadership and achieve something for Libyans.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you think elections will be held on time?

Ambassador Richard Norland: I am reasonably optimistic. The ongoing process has so far achieved results that surprised many. I think some people will try to obstruct the holding of elections, but I am prepared to be surprised that this process will succeed. I can’t guarantee its success of course, but the most important factor is that Libyans want it to happen. It’s not enough to have an interim temporary government. There is a need for a fully empowered government that can regain Libya’s sovereignty and territorial unity and rid itself of foreign forces. The way to do so is through elections. Whether the Parliament and the President are elected at the same time, the Parliament and then the President, or whether the President is elected by Parliament, these are still questions to be resolved.

The next key step is to put in place by 1 July the constitutional and legal rules on which these elections will be held. Emad al-Sayeh, head of the High National Electoral Commission (HNEC), publicly said that this is a key date for him, so that these things must be ready to be able to hold elections. The House of Representatives (HoR) must now approve the constitutional and legal basis for the elections. The HoR progresses slowly, if it failed in approving it, the mechanism of the LPDF, which remains alive, can be used in the event that the HoR does not do what it should do.

Is there a need for a popular referendum on constitutional amendments before the elections?

I expect that there will be no referendum on these procedures, the constitutional and legal basis for voting. There is no time for that, al-Sayeh himself said that there is no time to hold a referendum and then have elections in December. What is happening is that those who argue that the referendum should be held are themselves the ones who don’t want the elections. It’s an excuse not to hold elections. Experts say—as well as most Libyans who support this process—that there is enough consensus on the constitutional foundations, based on previously prepared drafts. There is a basis for holding elections. What is required is the political will to hold elections.

Is it feared that the interim government will become permanent in Libya, as has been the case before?

I am impressed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbaiba’s continued affirmation that the goal is to hold elections on 24 December, and he has provided funding to the HNEC to support that operation. The Presidential Council said the same thing. So I think we should take them according to what they say, and I think Libyans themselves expect that from them.

What do you think of the efforts to unify the Libyan Armed Forces?

This is still in the process of being done, but the situation in Libya creates unaccounted surprises on the road. What happened recently in Chad is an example of this, some of the members operating from Libyan territory received training from the Wagner Group and the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Haftar. This recalls that the government is required to create a unified military structure that can hold the country’s borders and does not allow such things to happen, such as an attack by an armed group on Chad from Libya.

What happened in Chad points to the need to establish a national army, but this is still in the process of negotiation. In fact, I spoke to Dbaiba yesterday, he is now making his first visit to Benghazi to speak with Haftar. What decision will Haftar make on this issue? This will be negotiated, but I cannot predict the result.

However, this is not confined to the Libyan National Army (LNA), there are also armed militias in Tripoli, there is an urgent need to create a structure for national police and army. People appreciate the need for this, but can this happen before reaching a fully empowered government? I don’t know the answer to that.

You were in contact with former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to unite armed groups in the west of Libya under the auspices of the government. What have these steps achieved?

We are still in what is known as the strategic phase;, there was a strategy that was developed under the leadership of Bashagha and Sarraj. There was a freeze (for this operation) with the transfer of power to Dbaiba’s government. The strategy is still being prepared but consists of identifying the different militias that can be brought to join the government, which groups there are questionable and whether they can be joined or not, and which groups cannot be part of this process. This is what Bashagha called a red, orange and yellow system. Those who must be brought to join government forces join in an individual form, not as groups. Everyone must be examined to ensure that he has not committed terrible human rights abuses, this is the principle but putting it into practice will be a big challenge and will take time.

Are the Turks making efforts to unite these groups?

The Turks are aware that they do not want to be governing all those different groups which has the potential to lead to a clash between them. They do not want to be in the middle of this problem and do not want to be the arbitrator between these groups, I think they’re searching for the best way to follow. Dbaiba faces the same challenges as al-Sarraj; these militias are powerful and he must find a way to manage the transition period.

What did you say to the Russians about Wagner mercenaries?

I went to Moscow in November and met with Bogdanov and General Zorin of the Ministry of Defense. They do not deny that Wagner is present in Libya, there was a time when the Russians said: Wagner? These are ordinary people, VIP citizens with whom we have nothing to do with. I think they have now gone beyond this argument of denying their relationship. What I wanted to tell them is that Wagner’s presence and the sophisticated weapons they bring could lead to the potential for strategic competition on NATO’s southern side. This is not what the US wants, they said that’s what Russia doesn’t want either. But what matters is not what Russia says, but what it does about Wagner. Although Wagner’s forces withdrew slightly from Sirte and Jufrah, they are still in Libya and have not left and there are no indications that they intend to leave.

This issue is not only a point of disagreement between the US and Russia, but ultimately weakens Russia’s position in Libya. Russia wants to have legitimacy in Libya, wants commercial contracts and business and this cannot happen when you have 2,000 fighters who were attacking Tripoli and could do the same thing tomorrow. Discussions by the Libyan government, when Dbaiba was in Moscow, aimed at convincing the Russians that their desire to have a legitimate presence in Libya is better served by withdrawing these forces, while assuring them that this will also be accompanied by the withdrawal of other foreign troops on the other side.

In my opinion, Russia is looking at this issue from a strategic perspective, it is currently withdrawing its troops from Ukraine’s border after it wanted to make a power show. For them, I think that having a foothold in Libya is a way to challenge NATO, if they feel that there is a need to do so. What we need is to keep Libya out of this strategic rivalry and remind the Russians that their interest is better served by normalizing their presence in Libya and not by these mercenaries, that is what we urge them to do.

Do you think Russians would like to have a base in Libya and not just trade contracts?

I think they see a military value in their presence in Libya, how this military value looks like, according to their thinking, I don’t know. However, what the Wagner Group is doing gives an idea of what’s going on in Russia’s mind, and this includes bringing sophisticated military weapons, air defense systems and many armed men.

Do the Turks do the same? Do they have a military presence, mercenaries and bases in the west?

It must be admitted that they have established their presence in western Libya, but did not do what we feared. Once there was concern that they would bring in F-16 planes, as far as we know, that hasn’t happened yet, I think the two sides are watching each other. They no longer mobilising, but they do not leave at the same time.

There has been a change in Turkey’s policy through openness to Egypt and other Arab countries, has this change reflected on their policy in Libya as well, have they started withdrawing their mercenaries?

I think they are willing to negotiate this issue seriously, starting with withdrawing Syrian fighters. The Turks believe they should be given the right to special security arrangements with the Libyan government, which I also believe wants normal security cooperation with Turkey, but also with a number of other countries. There are those who believe that Turkey wants to be Libya’s sole partner, Turks are wise enough to make sure that this is not the case. Turkey’s behavior is now pragmatic, which helped contribute to the progress of political negotiations.

What do you think about the rumors say that Field Marshal Haftar getting an American “green light” to attack Tripoli, especially after he contacted President Trump?

I started this post in August 2019 and I don’t know what happened in those phone conversations. What I know is that from the first day I started my job I considered my mission is to end this attack. We tried in different ways to convince Haftar to stop the attack, we made proposals that we knew Tripoli authorities were ready to discuss, such as the issue of militias and distribution of state revenues, the armed Muslim Brotherhood and militants. But Haftar ignored all those opportunities for negotiation. What ultimately changed the scene was the Turkish intervention that stopped the Wagner and Haftar attack. In my view, there was no justification for Haftar to launch that attack and we are glad that his attack is over.

Didn’t you feel uncomfortable when members of the Trump administration spoke to Haftar and moved to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, while you stand in the opposite line?

Several people accused the US of sending contradictory signals, it was a challenge to say: No, on the contrary, we have a clear policy of ending this attack and producing a negotiated solution. We must not forget that many problems were facing Tripoli, militias were a problem, some believed that there was a justification for military action. For whatever reason, someone may have seen that there are contradictory messages from Washington, but it is clear that over the last two and a half years our effort has been focused on ending Haftar’s attack.

Should a new US policy on Libya be expected after Biden’s administration?

Under President Biden’s administration, the US strongly believes that there is now a chance in Libya to reach a positive outcome. Ten years of chaos can now end and begin a democratic process. There are people in the administration who were engaged in this process ten years ago and feel that there is a personal responsibility to make progress. You will see a more active US role and by working with partners, but now there are no plans to reopen the Embassy in Tripoli.

Was the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) attack in northern Chad that killed President Idriss Déby?

I don’t know for sure whether FACT was part of Chadian fighters alongside Haftar but that is my impression. There were some Chadian mercenaries brought to help fight alongside the LNA, I think some of these were definitely part of the group that launched the attack in Chad.

Do you think some of them were trained by Wagner?

Yes, I believe that the Wagner group also had people involved in the attack inside Chad. This has not yet been confirmed, but I heard that the Wagner group was escorting the Fact’s convoy inside northern Chad.