The UN sponsored unity government known as the GNA (Government of National Accord) has been in Tripoli since early April is slowly uniting the many factions that have been keeping the country in chaos since 2012. GNA controls all the government ministries located in Tripoli and has a lot of more popular support than anyone else. Not all factions of the two former governments have recognized the GNA. This disunity is being solved one faction at a time. But there is one really dangerous dissenter who could disrupt all this progress. This is the commander of the Libyan Armed Forces (general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar) who is attempting to settle this dispute by advancing on Tripoli from the west using troops supplied by the ZRMC (al Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council). The ZRMC has been working with Haftar since 2014 and is based in the mountains southwest of Tripoli in and around the Berber town of Zintan. The Berbers have always been hostile to Islamic terrorist groups and early on cleared them out of Zintan and kept them out. The ZRMC attracted new recruits from all over the country because it was seen as a force that could eventually be used to defeat Islamic terrorist groups in Tripoli. But since the GNA showed up some factions of the ZRMC have allied themselves with the new government. That did not prevent pro-Hiftar forces from advancing to within ten kilometers of Tripoli and demanding that the GNA cooperate with Hiftar. The GNA does not believe the pro-Hiftar forces would actually fight their way into Tripoli because there are many more pro-GNA militiamen there than there are pro-Hiftar forces from Zintan.
This dispute is mainly about terms for transferring power (now held by tribes, militias and powerful men like Hiftar) to GNA. This sort of thing is common in Libya and is a problem that won’t easily be done away with. It began with the first post-Kaddafi national government. This was the General National Congress (or GNC), formed after the 2011 revolution to create a new constitution for the voters to decide on. The GNC was to rule until the constitution was approved and government elections held. Progress was slow and in late 2013 the GNC illegally extended its power for another year. Despite that elections were held in 2014 but the GNC did not like the composition of the new House of Representatives (HoR). The UN recognized the HoR but most of the GNC members (who tended to be more tribal and religiously conservative) refused to give up power, took control of Tripoli (and became known as “the Tripoli government”). The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk (and became known as “the Tobruk government”) and rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC. Now the UN only recognizes the GNA. The Tobruk government is now the biggest obstacle to unity. It was initially believed that by the end of April a majority of the Tobruk House of Representatives would vote to transfer their allegiance (and power) to the GNC but that has not happened yet. Some of the Tripoli based GNC members also refuse to recognize the GNA and insist that the GNC still exists. The reality is that the GNC has lost all the government facilities it controlled and now exists in name only. The HoR is in a similar situation except for one major difference, the Libyan armed forces and its commander. The possibility that Hiftar’s forces could gain control of the oil fields and ports in the east is a long shot but the only chance the HoR has of surviving. Even then there is UN opposition and an effective embargo of illegal oil exports. What to do with Hiftar and widespread distrust of the West (and everyone else) in Libya and throughout the Middle East is preventing an end to the chaos in Libya.
The problem with Hiftar is that he wants to remain head of the armed forces and many factions in the GNA oppose that. The UN and the West want to limit Hiftar’s authority. Thus another former officer (and recent subordinate of and rival to Hiftar) was named GNA Defense Minister. Since 2014 Hiftar has had the support of many Arab nations who see him as the kind of “strong man” who could unify Libya. But many Western nations (and the UN) disagree and fear that Hiftar intends to become another dictator like Kaddafi. Most Libyans feel this is absurd as while Hifar was once a general in Kaddafi’s army he turned on Kaddafi in the late 1980s and was forced to flee the country. After that he was openly critical of Kaddafi and risked his life to return after the 2011 revolution to rally the eastern tribes against the Islamic terrorist groups that were blocking formation of a national government. Unfortunately the same qualities that make Hiftar an effective military leader are interpreted by many militia leaders as a threat to their power. Then there is the fact that many Libyans accuse the GNA of being “imposed on Libya by the UN and the West”. While this is all theoretical (as are most of the conspiracies Libyans use to blame their problems on) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and a growing economic crises are very real and immediate threats and is doing more to unite Libyans than anything else.
General Hiftar was recognized (by the HoR) as head of the Tobruk military in early 2015 and was expected to continue under the GNA. Before 2015 Hiftar was, technically, just another self-made warlord. Because he was a former Kaddafi general and long-time Kaddafi opponent Hiftar managed to create a coalition of tribal militias and army units in late 2013 and proved to be very effective fighting the Islamic terrorists in eastern Libya. Since early 2014 Hiftar has managed to get most of the post-Kaddafi armed forces under his control and backed Tobruk pleas for foreign assistance in obtaining more weapons and other military supplies. Hiftar has been effective but not as much as he could have been, at least according to some Western military officials. He is a career military man and one big advantage Hiftar has is that he takes care of his troops and uses tactics that minimize casualties among his followers. This makes Hiftar very popular with forces he controls and makes it easier to attract new factions (usually tribal militias). Hiftar has launched a new offensive to destroy the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) base in Sirte but is not attacking any pro-GNA factions.
The Hiftar problem is more complicated because many Arab government have been unofficially supplying him with military equipment and weapons. The main supporters (since 2014) are Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The most recent shipment consisted of about a hundred armored and unarmored trucks delivered via Egypt. Although there is a UN arms embargo on all factions in Libya the UAE (and some other Arab states) have always backed the more secular Libyan rebels and recognized (along with Egypt and the UN) the HoR government. But these Arab states also back the GNA while still believing that Hiftar is best suited to continue as military commander. Despite an internationally recognized government the arms embargo the UN never made much noise about the UAE and Egyptian shipments because the vehicles, weapons and ammo go to what is left of the Libyan Army, which Hiftar has turned into the most effective counter-terror force in Libya.
Disunity is still a problem major problem in Libya and it is mostly about greed, tribal loyalty and corruption. Many members of the GNC and HoR did not want to lose power and income (largely because of the opportunities for corruption). The GNA and the UN is brokering deals with major GNC and HoR factions to gain their support, or at least prevent armed opposition. This nasty business continues as quietly and discreetly as possible and may take some time to be completed. Failure to bribe (convince) enough holdouts to switch could lead to another civil war because most Libyans have made it pretty clear that they support the GNA.
The Siege Of Sirte
Meanwhile the campaign against ISIL in Sirte is showing progress with anti-ISIL forces moving closer to Sirte and surrounding the city to cut ISIL off from supplies and reinforcements. In the last few days ISII has been forced out of Nawfiliyah (130 kilometers east of Sirte) and Bin Jawad (158 kilometers east of Sirte) by the militia from nearby Es Sider. Bin Jawad is and 30 kilometers west of the oil export facilities at Es Sider and its facilities for loading oil tanker ships. ISIL seized Bin Jawad in January as part of their effort to seize oil facilities like Es Sider and Ras Lanuf. Both of these have been closed since December 2014. In normal times Es Sider and Ras Lanuf (21 kilometers further east) can ship 600,000 barrels a day but remain shut down until the fighting in the area stops. Another oil shipping port at Brega (115 kilometers further east) is still operational and nearby are still functioning oil fields producing most (60 percent) of the 300,000 barrels a day Libya is still able to export. ISIL has been going after oil facilities south of Sirte as part of a strategy to conquer functioning oil fields and ports to ship oil from. That advance was halted and reversed by May with the help of the militias that are paid to guard the oil facilities. These local militias are designated as Petroleum Facilities Guards and if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs. Most of these militias agreed to join the effort to defeat ISIL and liberate Sirte from ISIL rule. The problem is that the three attacking forces (pro-GNA militias from Misrata, tribal militias around Sirte and Libyan Army forces from the east) are not acting together. The Petroleum Facilities Guards, while paid by the GNA don’t want to fight nearby pro-Hiftar forces.
West of Sirte pro-GNA militias from Misrata have pushed ISIL forces back to within 15 kilometers of Sirte. Some of these militiamen were among those ISIL forced out of Sirte in mid-2015 but now they are advancing on Sirte from the south and west. ISIL has used suicide car bombers to cause over a hundred casualties among the advancing militias but that has not slowed the advance. ISIL casualties are unknown but refugees from Sirte indicate there are fewer ISIL men there and it is believed that ISIL strength in Libya has dropped by over a third so far this year. As they have done in Syria, Iraq Afghanistan and elsewhere harsh ISIL rule has enraged many of the locals. In Sirte ISIL punishes or executes people for minor infractions of what ISIL considers proper Islamic lifestyle. ISIL definitely believes that if you can’t be loved by your subjects than fear is an acceptable substitute.
While most ISIL men are in Sirte, several hundred are also in Sabratha, a coastal city 66 kilometers west of Tripoli and about the same size as Sirte. ISIL has controlled parts of Sabratha since mid-2015 but no one has controlled all of Sabratha since 2011. There has been constant fighting, especially between ISIL and local forces. The various local militias united in 2015, got reinforcements from other militias in Tripoli and have so far stopped ISIL from taking over the entire city. Sabratha is important to ISIL because it is where most of the people smuggling activity takes place and ISIL gets a slice of that income as long as they can protect the gangsters moving the illegal migrants to Europe via Libya. Most of the boats loaded with illegal migrants headed for Europe leave from Sabratha and other coastal towns in the area. It costs these illegals thousands of dollars each for the smugglers to get them to the Libyan coast and then on a boat that will get them to Europe or close enough for the EU (European Union) naval patrol to rescue them and take them the rest of the way. The smuggling gangs took in over a billion dollars from this in 2015 and ISIL is believed to have received up to ten percent of that. This is a major source of income for the Libyan branch of ISIL which, since late 2015, has had to pay its own way. ISIL headquarters in Syria is under heavy attack and no longer able to send cash or much in the way of reinforcements.
The illegal migrants risk their lives getting to Europe, especially when crossing the Mediterranean. In 2015 nearly 4,000 illegal migrants and a few of the people smugglers died at sea. This was about 20 percent more than in 2014. Most of the 2015 deaths occurred early in the year because by mid-2015 there was a major effort by European nations to find and rescue smuggler boats that were sinking, or already sunk, and rescue the passengers and crew and take them the rest of the way to Europe. If smugglers could be identified they were usually arrested but otherwise the rescue service made the smugglers a lot more money because they could use cheaper and less reliable boats for the trip and raise their fees because the trip was now safer (fewer than four out every thousand people on the boats died in 2015). The smugglers got about a million people into Europe via the sea route during 2015. That traffic has increased by at least a third so far in 2016 and so have the deaths. In Libya itself the death toll has been much lower, with fewer than a hundred civilians killed during May and about three times as many people from organized and armed organizations.
May 29, 2016: East of Sirte another senior ISIL leader (Abu Islam al Sarta) was killed during a failed effort to prevent pro-GNA militias from moving closer to Sirte. Sarta was one of several ISIL leaders who, before 2012, worked for the Kaddafi government, often in senior positions. This is not unusual as many of the founders of ISIL were once senior officials in Saddam Hussain’s government.
May 24, 2016: In the west, just across the border in Tunisia local security forces shut down another Libyan weapons smuggling operations. The raid in Ben Guerdane resulted from a tip and over a ton of weapons and ammunition was seized and an unspecified number of arrests made.
May 23, 2016: Just west of Sirte a known ISIL commander, Tunisian Khaled Al Shayeb, was killed while trying to stop the Misrata militia advance on Sirte. It was believed that Shayeb had been killed in late 2015 while in Tunisia. But the proof of death was not definitive. This time several ISIL prisoners identified the body, as did several documents seized during the battle.
May 20, 2016: Following several months of investigation the Algerian security forces identified the key members of a weapons smuggling gang bringing guns and ammo in from Libya. The gang was based at Wadi Souf, a town near the Tunisian border and moved the weapons to customers all along the coastal zone (where most of the population lives) and the capital. In the past week two Algerian members of the gang have been arrested while several more Algerians and Libyans are being sought. In addition large quantities of weapons and ammo have been seized. The gang sold to criminals, Islamic terrorists and individuals.
May 19, 2016: Oil exports resumed from the port facility at Hariga (near the Egypt border and some 808 kilometers east of Sirte). The GNA and the Tobruk (HoR) agreed to allow this in order to get oil exports going again while the two governments worked out their political differences. This agreement is increasing oil shipments back to 360,000 barrels a day, where it was before production hit an all-time low of only about 200,000 barrels a day in mid-April. That was about 13 percent of what production was before the 2011 revolution. Without increasing oil production Libyans face widespread starvation within a year or two as cash reserves are exhausted. While some factions (especially the Islamic terrorist ones) don’t care (because they are on a Mission From God) the majority of faction leaders can do the math and noted the adverse impact of the economic and social collapse over the last few years.
May 18, 2016: In late April the United States confirmed that there have, since late 2015, been two teams of American Special Forces troops stationed in Libya. Locals have now confirmed that. Totaling 25 operators, the American commandos are split between the coastal cities of Misrata in the west and Benghazi in the east. Unofficially there have been American commandos in Libya since 2011. Initially all the United States would admit to was a few CIA operatives in Libya collecting intelligence. But when the CIA sends people in into situations like this, each group (usually a pair) of agents are accompanied by 6-12 U.S. Army Special Forces, often wearing civilian clothes. In addition to Special Forces troops there are also former American special operations troops working in Libya to provide security for diplomatic personnel or other American officials making visits for negotiations or to collect information. The two Special Forces teams now in Libya are there to monitor the activity of ISIL. Most of the two thousand ISIL members in Libya are in the coastal city of Sirte, which is between Misrata and Benghazi. Local Libyan forces based on those two cities are advancing on Sirte and the American Special Forces could also act as ground controller for NATO air strikes.
May 16, 2016: United States, Italy and some Arab countries have agreed to supply arms to the GNA for use against ISIL. Egypt and some Arab Gulf states have been doing this, in violation of a various international arms embargoes imposed on Libya since 2011.