TRIPOLI, Libya — Russia has sent hundreds of mercenaries to back militias laying siege to Libya’s capital. The United Arab Emirates has sent jets and drones, while Egypt has provided logistical support.
To stop them, Turkey has sent dozens of military advisers and is now shipping in hundreds of Syrian militiamen.
Walid Khashib, a 35-year-old Libyan bank clerk, just wishes they would all leave.
“We Libyans don’t want Turkish or Syrian or Russian or any other foreign troops,” said Mr. Khashib, who had taken advantage of a temporary cease-fire to visit the rubble of his bombed-out home in eastern Tripoli. “We just want the issue to be resolved.”
The conflict in oil-rich Libya has become one of the Middle East’s most intractable proxy wars. Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are backing the former Libyan army general Khalifa Hifter, who is laying siege to the capital, Tripoli. Turkey is defending the United Nations-backed government there.
Most of the international powers with an interest in Libya will gather in Berlin on Sunday in the latest effort to find a way out of what has become a multinational free-for-all.
Mr. Hifter, a 76-year-old would-be strongman, began an assault on the capital last April. As his advance stalled out last fall, Russia and Turkey jumped in on opposing sides, establishing themselves as potential kingmakers. But their effort to broker a cease-fire in Moscow this week ended Monday when Mr. Hifter walked out, refusing to sign the agreement.
The United States and Europe, who have largely stood on the sidelines, now hope that the Berlin conference will allow them to wrest back control of the discussion of Libya’s future. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the leaders of more than a dozen other countries plan to attend.
But in Tripoli expectations are low.
None of the foreign powers engaged in Libya — motivated by commercial interests, geopolitical games or regional and ideological rivalries — have so far shown any willingness to back off.
Mr. Hifter has said he would participate in the conference, but has never shown a willingness to accept any deal that gives him less than full control of the country.
His main foreign sponsor, the United Arab Emirates, had urged him to keep fighting rather than accept a cease-fire, according to three diplomats familiar with the discussions.
Leaders of the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli have also shown a recent distaste for the need to compromise with Mr. Hifter, claiming that the new influx of Turkish support gave them the potential for military victory.
“Turkey will help us as much as they can to defeat the advance of Hifter’s forces,” Khalid Elmeshri, a top official of the provisional government, said in an interview on Thursday.
And Libyans fear that even if the international summit meeting produces a new cease-fire, it may be no more than a pause before a new escalation of the war.
Renewed fighting could be even worse, many Tripoli residents said, because it would be between professional soldiers and trained mercenaries, not Libyan amateurs.
Libya has struggled to emerge from chaos since NATO forces ousted the dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi nine years ago. The power vacuum made Libya a tempting target for ambitious foreign powers eyeing its vast oil reserves and long Mediterranean coastline. Its permeable desert borders have also made it a pressure point for the West, as both a haven for extremists and a jumping-off point for thousands of Europe-bound migrants.
For years, Washington exerted little public pressure to stop regional partners like the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar or Turkey from fueling the chaos by supporting rival Libyan militias.
And the messages from Washington have been mixed. Days after Mr. Pompeo urged Mr. Hifter to stop his assault on Tripoli in April, President Trump called Mr. Hifter to commend him. The next day, Mr. Hifter began shelling civilian neighborhoods of the capital for the first time.
“The United States has not been paying any attention to the Libyan file, and it is a big problem,” Mr. Elmeshri said. He said that the United States could have used its influence to force Mr. Hifter to the negotiating table. Mr. Hifter, he noted, is a former C.I.A. client and an American citizen.
Europe’s Libya policy has been stymied by division. French special forces have sometimes aided Mr. Hifter as an ally against extremists, while Italy has paid rival militias to help reduce the flow of migrants.
Now, though, what had long been an indirect contest among regional powers, has escalated toward a more direct conflict between Russia and Turkey.
Last fall, after Mr. Hifter’s forces had stalled out for six months on the outskirts of Tripoli, Moscow surprised the West by intervening to tip the balance, dispatching as many as 1,500 Russian fighters — mainly mercenaries from the private, Kremlin-linked Wagner Group — to restart his advance. They brought skilled snipers, guided artillery, and better coordinated air support.
By early this month, their assistance had helped Mr. Hifter advance several miles on multiple fronts around Tripoli and to capture the strategic coastal city of Surt.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia may have been motivated by a desire to revive lucrative weapons deals and other commercial contracts that Russia had enjoyed under Colonel Qaddafi. But he also appears to simply to relish embarrassing the West at a very low cost to Russia, several foreign diplomats said.
For his part, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey may have intervened in part to counter the influence of Mr. Hifter’s other chief backer, the Emirates, a regional foe of Turkey in an ideological cold war over political Islam.
But Mr. Erdogan has even greater financial interests. Turkish businesses had as much as several billion dollars in contracts with Libya before the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi, and Turkish construction firms stand to profit heavily from the country’s future reconstruction.
In December, Mr. Erdogan signed an agreement with the Tripoli government that could give Turkey rights to exploit mineral and other resources under a broad section of the Mediterranean — an agreement that would lose all value if Mr. Hifter took over.
When Mr. Hifter refused to sign the proposed Russian-Turkish cease-fire, Mr. Erdogan talked about “teaching a lesson” to the Libyan commander and said Thursday that he was sending troops.
Mr. Elmeshri said about 1,000 Turkish troops were already there.
But Libyan fighters and Western diplomats said that they had seen no sign of such a large contingent of Turks.
Instead, Mr. Erdogan appears to have shipped over Syrian fighters from some of the same Syrian militias that Turkey recently deployed in northern Syria — transferring battle-hardened fighters directly from one intractable Middle East proxy war to another.
Two Libyan fighters defending Tripoli on Friday said they had recently fought alongside as many as 200 members of a Turkish-backed Syrian militia. Two Western diplomats said that, in private conversations, Tripoli government officials acknowledged the presence of the Syrian fighters. One diplomat said at least 400 Syrians were fighting, and the other said the number could be as high as 1,200.
Embarrassed by the use of mercenaries — an accusation the Tripoli government’s supporters often hurl at Mr. Hifter — the authorities there may be seeking to hide their presence. Tripoli has cut off the previously easy access to the front lines for visiting journalists. Some Western diplomats said the Tripoli government had also taken away the smartphones of the Syrian fighters to prevent them from posting their Libyan exploits on social media.
Mr. Elmeshri denied Turkey has sent any “Syrian nationals.” But he acknowledged that Turkey might have sent fighters who could pass for Syrian. Some were Arabic-speaking ethnic Turkmen, he said, “who live by the Syrian border and came here to facilitate the translation and other things.”
Militants in northern Syria, reached by phone, said Turkey was conducting a concerted effort to recruit young fighters to the Libyan war. Several fighters said that in the last week hundreds of men had been drawn by promises of a $2,000 monthly salary.
“You could call them mercenaries,” said a fighter named Khatab, who asked to be identified by his surname only. “They are not making enough money at home, so it’s really tempting to go to Libya.”
As rumors of the Turkish and Syrian newcomers circulated through Tripoli, some residents said they feared that foreign powers would now shape Libya’s future.
“If one of the international powers presses with its iron hands for something, either side will do as it’s told,” said Muattasim Billah, 30, who was selling toys from a cart in the capital’s main square. “Something could happen in the blink of an eye.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, and Declan Walsh from Cairo. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.