Libya: The Disasters Are In The Details


August 25, 2017: The July 25 th peace deal is unravelling. A month ago the GNA (Government of National Accord in Tripoli) and HoR (House of Representatives in Tobruk) governments both agreed to a nationwide ceasefire, elections in early 2018 and UN recognition of the LNA (Libyan National Army). The original GNA prime minister (Fayez al Serraj) and the head of the HoR armed forces (Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar) were at the July 25 th talks and openly supported the agreement. These men are the most prominent leaders in the country and that gives this agreement the best chance of succeeding. While there is something of a ceasefire going on between GNA and Hiftar forces the rest of the agreements are at risk more because of disagreements outside North Africa.

The July deal came apart over the issue of what to do about the illegal migrants who have been flooding into Europe via Libya since 2012. The key point of difference is how Libya should deal with the millions of illegal migrants, most of them from countries south of Libya. These travelers are largely male and rely on people smuggling gangs that specialize in getting the illegals into Libya and to the coast where other groups, usually in partnership with European gangsters, get the illegals into boats and to Europe. This is not a new problem.

It is possible to stop the movement of smuggler boats. Up until 2011 Italy and France had a deal with the Kaddafi government to shut down the coastal people smugglers. Between 2008 and 2010 Kaddafi reduced the flow of illegals to Europe (from Libya) from 40,000 to 5,000 a year. He also persuaded the smuggling gangs to stop moving people from all over the Middle East and Africa into Libya. Then came the 2011 uprising that overthrew Kaddafi and Libya has been trying to form another national government ever since. In the meantime the smuggling gangs went back to work because moving illegal migrants was very lucrative and the chaos along the Libyan coast provided ample opportunities to set up an operation that was soon worth over a billion dollars a year to the criminals) and by 2016 about 15,000 of these illegals were getting to Europe each month by crossing the Mediterranean, nearly all of them from Libya to Italy.

A key point of disagreement now is what happens to the illegal migrants that are prevented from moving via sea to Europe. The Libyans want all these illegals stranded in Libya to go home, or at least be forced out of Libya. Many European states do not want that but instead propose the EU pay for massive refugee camps in Libya. This proposal ignores the fact that this approach does not work and Moslem nations in general, especially Arab ones, avoid (or turn back by force) any refugees, even Moslem ones to get across their borders. Refugee camps, especially those supported by foreigners tend to become permanent and all the problems those refugees cause become a something host nation has to deal with while the foreigners paying for this criticize how the host nations is behaving.

To make matters worse, the Europeans suggest that Libya, with its low population density (most of the country is desert) and large oil income simply absorb the refugees. That is also something oil-rich Moslem countries do not do, ever. Oil rich Moslem nations prefer to spend all the oil income on hiring foreigners to do the work locals would rather not (or cannot) to do while the rest of the oil money goes to corruption and providing the locals with enough amenities to keep them from rebelling. That sometimes breaks down, as it did in Libya, but that was an exception and now Libyans want to get back to normal with the six million native Libyans continuing to live mainly on the coast with qualified foreigners brought in (without their families) to do most of the work. Illegal migrants would be, as was the case during decades of Kaddafi rule, kept out by any means necessary. Moreover the Libyans see most of the illegals as economic migrants not refugees fleeing for their lives.

Some EU (European Union) suggestions are acceptable to the rival GNA and HoR Libyan governments that control the Libyan coast (but not much of the land borders. GNA is already cooperating with EU efforts to assist and expand a Libyan coast guard that will halt, or at least reduce, the flow of illegal migrants to Italy. This effort is hobbled by the small size of the current coast guard and the rampant corruption in Libya, which makes it difficult to find Libyans that will serve in this coast guard and refuse bribes from the criminal gangs that control the illegal migration. The EU proposes to restore the coast guard to its pre-war size and capabilities. This would include lots of European trainers and advisors, both of which would accompany the Libyan coast guard crews on their patrols to observe their performance and discourage cooperation with smugglers. Italy has already started reviving the coast guard forces operating out of Tripoli.

Italy is also leading the effort to provide naval patrols that would not (usually) get closer than 22 kilometers from the coast (which would put them in Libyan territorial waters) but would help maintain a smuggler free environment northward towards Italy. Already the existing Libyan and some EU patrol boats are also preventing anyone else from assisting the pirates. The “anyone else” is the growing number of European NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are sending rescue boats to meet smugglers off the Libyan coast and escort them to Italy. This is done to prevent some of these smuggler boats from sinking in bad weather or simply because the smuggler boats are not fit for the journey. It has gotten to the point where the NGO rescue ships will take up position just outside (or even inside) Libyan territorial waters to do this. The smuggler boats head right for the NGO ships and then any smugglers on board return to Libya while the NGOs see that the illegal migrants reach Italy. Some of the NGOs are demanding that the EU stop supporting the Libyan coast guard, which increasingly stops smuggler boats full of illegal migrants before they reach the NGO rescue ships outside (or even inside) territorial waters. The Libyans want the NGO boats gone and most EU nations agree. What little there is of the Libyan coast guard is chasing NGO ships away from the Libyan coast and sometimes chasing them even further and threatening to open fire if they are encountered again. This is having an impact because the smuggling gangs are forced to shift to other Libyan ports where they can bring the illegals and the boats the smugglers use for the trip (usually one-way) towards Italy along routes the Tripoli based patrol boats have a hard time reaching. As long as the Libyan coast guard has limited resources the smuggling gangs can adapt and keep the illegals going to sea and heading for Italy.

Italy and the rest of Europe want peace and a unified government in Libya mainly because Libya is the source of most of the illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean and landing in Italy where, because of EU treaties and European sensibilities, Italy must absorb these illegal migrants or allow them to move on to other EU countries that offer better economic opportunities. In 2016 181,000 of these illegals reached Italy but nearly three percent of those who tried died along the way. So far in 2017 the death rate of illegal migrants coming by sea is down a bit but the migration will continue as long as Libya and EU nations cannot agree on what will happen to the illegals stranded in Libya. Overall the number of illegals reaching Italy is down by about 60 percent so far in 2017 (compared to 2016) and hundreds of thousands of them are stranded in Libya and not doing well at all.

Until 2016 about half the illegal migrants entering Europe were coming in via Italy. With the land route via the Balkans largely blocked this year, most of the illegal migrants now get to Italy via Libya. The criminal gangs (and some Islamic terror groups) that control the Libya based people smuggling are getting rich off this business and can afford to bribe local militias to leave them alone. If that fails, the gangs try intimidation. The gangs consider the NGOs allies and the EU military ships patrolling the Libyan coast harmless if you don’t fire on them. The Libyans want to change that but the obstacle now is the EU refusal to allow Libya to force illegals to leave Libya and using force to keep them out.

The peace deal is basically about money. Libya expects to be paid billions of dollars in military and economic aid to seal their maritime border. After all the EU paid Turkey $6 billion to halt the flow of illegals via Turkey. Hiftar points out that it would cost $20 billion or more to seal the southern border over the next 20 years and shutting down most of the smuggling could not be done quickly. Neither can getting agreement among EU members about how to proceed. That may take a while and while waiting the formation of a unified Libyan government is on hold as well. Meanwhile Hiftar is cooperating with French military experts to determine how much special equipment (vehicles, structures, sensors and other electronics) would be needed to seal the border. This is how, in spite of the stalemate, Italy and France are moving ahead with some of the proposed military aid. Not weapons, which are still banned, but with maintenance and logistics.

And then there is the issue of autonomy. Libya expects EU nations to stop trying to interfere with the way Libya takes care of Islamic terrorists and illegal migrants. The EU nations are trying to comply but realize that as democracies they cannot control what their media or minority (not in power) political parties and NGOs say. Libyans are as concerned about bad publicity as they are with the EU unable to agree on the details of a deal they pushed.

The major EU nations (Italy, France and Britain) have senior officials talking to the Libyan factions and each other to try and work out acceptable (to the EU and Libya) guidelines on how the illegal migrants stuck in Libya will be handled. Germany is the leading proponent of leaving the NGO boats alone and not using force to keep the illegals out of Libya or to remove them. The Libyans are not impressed by any of the German alternatives. Key neighbors Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt vigorously (loudly and repeatedly) supported the unexpected late July peace agreement but are dismayed at how disagreements in the EU are now a major cause of delays.

These delays matter because major reason for Libyans supporting the July agreement was the need to avoid mass starvation. Since 2011 oil exports had shrunk and the Central Bank cash reserves are nearly gone. If peace and unity were not achieved soon no government would be able to buy and import food and other essentials. Even by Middle Eastern standards Libya was setting a new records in self-destructive behavior. By 2017 more Libyans were agreeing that the situation was indeed becoming desperate and a lot more compromise was the only solution. Even with the current national compromise the tribal (Arab, Berber and black African) and religious differences (Islamic radicals versus everyone else) plus epic levels of corruption and entitlement still threatened to keep peace and prosperity out of reach. The neighbors also agree that foreign military intervention should still be avoided and that it was up to the Libyan factions to work out their disputes and make peace. The neighbors see this as essential if Libya is to cease being a refuge for Islamic terror groups. The more remote parts of Libya (especially in the south near the borders) will remain accessible to outlaws of all sorts until a rebuilt Libyan military can concentrate on clearing out those sanctuary areas. At that point the neighbors, as well as some foreigners (like the French and the Americans) will be welcome to enter Libya and openly provide aid.

Oil Production Steady

The National Oil Corporation (NOC) has managed to increase production this year to record (since 2011) levels. As of June about a million BPD (barrels per day, including natural gas equivalents) were being produced. That was up from 250,000 BPD in mid-2016, 800,000 BPD in April 2017 and 880,000 BPD in May 2017. There was a three day interruption in August when the largest oil field (called Sahara and producing 280,000 bpd) had to deal with a local militia problem. Despite that the NOC still expects reach the end of 2017 producing 1.25 million BPD. After that work will continue to reach 1.5 million BPD by the end of 2018 and 2.1 million BPD by the early 2020s. This is far in excess of pre-2011 levels (1.6 million BPD) but is necessary because of the need to finance reconstruction and adapt to the fact that the world price for oil keeps falling, despite OPEC (the Arab dominated oil cartel) efforts to reduce overall production and drive up the price. The problem is that the United States and Canada are producing a lot more due to new technologies (like fracking) that open up huge new sources that were long known but not reachable.

OPEC had exempted Libya from production limits but this will only last until pre-2011 levels are reached and Libya hopes to get permission to exceed that limit because of hardship. That will be difficult because most of the OPEC members are suffering, politically if not economically, from the new normal for oil prices.

August 24, 2017: The Libyan Army announced that it would not turn over one of its officers to the ICC (International Criminal Court). The man in question is a close associate of Hiftar and long involved fighting Islamic terrorists in eastern Libya. The man is accused of ordering the killing off Islamic terrorists who had surrendered during the Benghazi fighting. The Libyans have always insisted that the ICC can only demand extradition of those charged with international crimes. This dispute goes way back. In mid-2012, less than a year after the Kaddafi government fell, ICC officials who came to Libya to try and force the issue but were themselves arrested. After a month of imprisonment two members of an ICC team (an Australian lawyer and Lebanese interpreter) were released. They had been were arrested when they showed up in Zintan (a largely Berber city south of Tripoli) to discuss having the ICC prosecute Seif al Islam Kaddafi, the son of the former dictator. The local militias want to prosecute Seif, not trusting anyone else to do it right. The ICC has not made itself popular in Libya by claiming superior authority to prosecute Seif. The ICC personnel were accused of spying and were not released until senior ICC officials came to Libya and apologized.

August 23, 2017: In south central Libya (770 kilometers south of Tripoli) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gunmen attacked a checkpoint outside Jufra manned by Libyan Army soldiers and killed, via beheading, nine soldiers and two civilians. Army forces have been fighting various Islamic terror groups in the Jufra are since late 2016 in an effort to gain control of the area. General Hiftar saw Jufra turning into a battle with the Misrata militias (that side with Islamic conservatives but oppose ISIL). Hiftar accuses the Jufra militias and their Misrata allies of becoming a “Third Force” in Libya and tolerating or even supporting Islamic terrorists. That’s sort of true but this is mostly about Misrata warlords looking to expand their power from the coast (where Misrata is). Problem is there is no unity among the Jufra factions. Some of the groups from Benghazi still call themselves the Benghazi Defense Brigades while those from other coastal cities have similar affiliations with where they came from. There are some local militias who will tolerate Islamic terrorist groups but are wary of exactly what the coastal militias are up to. The presence of ISIL remnants in Jufra encourages army units, and some pro-army militias from the coast, to keep fighting down there. The recent mass beheading led army leaders to promise vengeance. There are still believed to be at least a thousand armed ISIL members in Libya and this beheading incident reminds everyone of that.

August 12, 2017: General Hiftar visited Russia once more to discuss Russian help for the Libyan military and Russian-Libyan relations in general. Russian officials told Hiftar they supported the proposed (July) peace deal but that Russia could not help with EU disagreements over how to deal with illegal migrants stuck in Libya. Hiftar has made several such visits since 2016 and established good relationships with Russian political and military officials. Most of what was left of the pre-2011 Libyan armed forces was rebuilt by Hiftar, who was a Libyan Army officer who turned against Kaddafi in the 1980s and received asylum in the United States. But Hiftar was unacceptable to some of the factions the UN had united to form the GNA national government in 2016 and that turned out to be a bad decision. The rival HoR government in eastern Libya asked Russia for economic assistance and state controlled Russian oil firms agreed to work with the Libyan National Oil Company to repair, upgrade and expand Libyan oil facilities once peace was achieved. Hiftar also visits Egypt regularly and has managed to keep Egypt and a few other Arab states providing support. Egypt allows banned goods (like weapons and ammo) cross the border unhindered. Russia and many Arab states have pressured the UN to rethink its Libyan strategy and its support for the GNA.

August 8, 2017: An Italian Navy maintenance ship (with a crew of 50) arrived in Tripoli to repair Libyan coast guard vessels that had become inoperable because of a lack of spare parts and personnel trained to carry out such repairs. Italy is also supplying the GNA with ten refurbished Italian patrol boats. Four were delivered in May and the rest will arrive by the end of 2017. These boats are unarmed (because of the weapons embargo) but they only carried one heavy (30mm autocannon) and two 7.62mm machine-guns. There are plenty of suitable substitutes available in Libya. Each patrol boat requires a crew of twelve and the EU is willing to train crews as well.

August 4, 2017: General Hiftar warned Italy to keep its warships out of Libyan territorial waters. Italy has been working with the GNA to spot and stop smuggler boats before they reach international waters (more than 22 kilometers from the coast). The threat was for show because Hiftar has not got the naval or aviation resources to enforce his threat. He went to Egypt later in the week and discussed the matter with senior Egyptian military commanders and was told Egypt would not go to war with Italy over this. He later got the same response from Russia.


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