Libya: America And Russia Choose A Side

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February 24, 2017: The UN sponsored unity government known as the GNA (Government of National Accord) has been in Tripoli since early 2016 but has been unable to placate or unite the many factions that have been keeping the country in chaos since 2012. GNA controls all the government ministries located in Tripoli but the rival HoR (House of Representatives) government based in Tobruk controls eastern Libya and, more importantly, most of the oil production facilities. HoR is better organized, united and hostile to Islamic radicals and terrorists of any sort. The GNA made a major mistake early on by underestimating the Libyan Armed Forces and its leader general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar. HoR and Hiftar have gained allies in western Libya while the GNA has done little of that in eastern Libya. For example, Hiftar has the support of many of the Berbers. Who tend to live in western Libya. Thus the ZRMC (al Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council) been working with Hiftar 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 when the GNA showed up some factions of the ZRMC allied themselves with the new government. That did not last and more militias in western Libya are reconsidering their loyalties. This dispute is mainly about terms for transferring power (now held by tribes, militias and powerful men like Hiftar) to a new national government.

This lack of unity has long been a problem in Libya and is not easily solved. The current round 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 tried to illegally extend 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”. HoR rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC.

In late 2015 the UN declared that it only recognized the GNA, which it helped form. The support is weakening even though the West, and especially the United States, still recognize the GNA. It was American air support that helped pro-GNA militias take the coastal city of Sirte from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in late 2016. But while the GNA was concentrating on Sirte the HoR had already rid itself of ISIL and most other Islamic terror groups and was able to take control of most oil production and shipping facilities in eastern Libya. HoR also gained the support of the other North African nations. HoR also gained the very public support of Russia. In addition to regular visits from general Hiftar Russia has agreed to sell HoR weapons. The GNA has asked NATO to provide assistance in recruiting and training a new military. 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 long before 2011.

The state controlled Russian oil company has agreed to work with the Libyan NOC (National Oil Company) to repair, upgrade and expand Libyan oil facilities. One thing the GNA and HoR eventually agreed on was to cooperate when it comes to the Central Bank and NOC. Both these institutions are essential to pay for needed imports. With this understanding, and the more capable Hiftar forces controlling most of the oil facilities the NOC sees an opportunity to get production from 650,000 barrels a day at the end of 2016 to a million barrels a day by the end of 2017 and double that by 2022. Pre-2011 production was 1.6 million barrels a day. One thing that all Libyans can agree on is that the standard of living has declined sharply since 2011. Per capita income is about 30 percent of what it was in 2011 and that will further decline until oil shipments get back to pre-2011 levels. Mass starvation is no longer a theoretical threat or conspiracy theory. It is happening and that is causing many factions to become cooperative, for now.

Oil income, and who controls it, is the main reason why the GNA is losing its mandate and the HoR is now a contender, not a rebellious holdout. HoR has also shown itself to be more effective at dealing with the smugglers, especially the gangs that are getting rich moving illegal migrants and stolen (from Libya) oil across the Mediterranean to Europe. The HoR, partly because they have a more professional security force (led by Hiftar), also suffers less fighting between militias. Such armed squabbles are becoming more common in GNA territory.

The problem with Hiftar began when he insisted on remaining head of the armed forces after the GNA was created. Many factions in the GNA opposed that. The UN and the West wanted 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) disagreed and feared that Hiftar wanted 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) the lack of unity and growing economic crises are very real and immediate threats and are 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).

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) who have sent over a hundred armored and unarmored trucks 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.

Egypt gained something important because of its support of Hiftar and that was law and more order on its western border with Libya. Egypt is particularly important to the HoR because Egypt is again run by a former general and feels Libya needs the same kind of leader. But Egypt is under a lot of pressure from the UN to get behind the GNA, which Egypt sees as too cozy with Islamic conservative groups. Algeria feels the same way as do many Tunisians.

The Islamic State Heads South

By the end of 2016 most of the remaining ISIL members and their families (a thousand or so people, most of them armed) fled south from their former bases in Sirte and Benghazi. In eastern Libya the Hiftar forces are following the ISIL remnants to Derna (200 kilometers southwest of Benghazi). In early 2016 ISIL was driven from Derna, which they had been unsuccessfully trying to take since late 2015. Derna is about the same size (100,000 population) as the ISIL “capital” Sirte. The ISIL reverses at Derna were the result of stubborn local militias and the recent arrival of Hiftar forces. Hiftaris not popular with some of the Derna militias, especially those composed of Islamic conservatives and these groups eventually fought back. Now they are being pushed out of the area. The GNA accuses Hiftar of illegally attempting to take control of Derna while Hiftar says he wants to remove any Islamic conservative or terrorist militias still in Derna. Meanwhile the pro-GNA militias that drove ISIL out of Sirte are much less enthusiastic about chasing ISIL remnants south into desert. That is one reason GNA is calling on NATO for military assistance. Aside from the occasional airstrike and a hundred or so special operations troops on the ground, NATO prefers to keep its people out of Libya. Russia has a similar attitude as do the neighboring countries. All of these openly support Hiftar and note that Hiftar is able to keep up the pressure on ISIL in eastern Libya while the ISIL refugees from the central Libya coastal city of Sirte find that the GNA forces are not nearly as effective in dealing with potentially hostile militias in the south.

Cause And Effect

Not surprisingly Libya is one the ten most corrupt nations on the planet. Libya is 170 out of 176 countries ranked in 2016 for ability to resist corruption. Africa and the Middle East have long been the most corrupt regions in the world and staying clean is difficult even in the best of times. For example Somalia was rated the most corrupt nation in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while for the least corrupt (usually Denmark) it tends to be 90 or higher. The current Libyan score is 14 compared to 34 for Algeria, 34 for Egypt, 41 for Tunisia, 35 for Niger, 37 for Morocco, 47 for Italy, 17 for Iraq, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 28 for Lebanon, 41 for Kuwait, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 29 for Iran, 29 for Russia, 40 for China, 28 for Nigeria, 45 for South Africa, 40 for India, 72 for Japan, 53 for South Korea, 12 for North Korea, 11 for South Sudan, and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge and Libya was corrupt even when Kaddafi was in charge.

February 23, 2017: In the west (Tripoli) pro-GNA militias began fighting after one militia kidnapped four members of a rival group. Such violence has become more obvious since mid-2016 and much worse in 2017.

In the east the HoR government has banned anyone age 18-45 from leaving the country without receiving written permission from the government. This is a temporary measure to reduce the movement of Islamic terrorists or Libyans wanting to go join an Islamic terrorist group elsewhere. Such people can still get out of the country but it is more expensive and riskier as it usually involves a people smuggler.

February 22, 2017: Italy is working with the HoR to open a consulate in Tobruk. This comes after Italy reopened its embassy (to the GNA) in Tripoli on January 9th. Italy had shut down the embassy in February 2015. Back then Italy warned its citizens to stay away. But Italian companies and individuals will work in Libya, at least anywhere the locals can provide security. Growing violence, especially by Islamic militias caused more embassies to close in 2014 and 2015. Similar violence between pro-GNA militias is now making Tripoli less safe. Italy has noted that Tobruk is much safer, which is why it is negotiating with the GNA to allow a “consulate” in HoR controlled Tobruk. That consulate will act as an embassy to the increasingly powerful HoR government.

February 14, 2017: HoR and GNA officials met in Egypt to seek a way to unite the country. This meeting did not achieve that but everyone did agree on more such conferences. Another development was everyone there noting the the fact that the HoR was gaining support in Libya (and internationally) and the GNA was losing it. Egypt has long, and quite openly, supported Hiftar.

February 3, 2017: In the east (Benghazi) the army suffered several dozen casualties (and at least nine dead) as they cleared another neighborhood of Islamic terrorists who had long operated there. When the army clears a neighborhood it tends to stay clear of Islamic terrorists or gangsters. Benghazi used to be full of Islamic terrorists and unruly militias. But since 2014 the Hiftar forces have cleaned out one area after another.

February 1, 2017: In the southwest, across the border in Algeria (Illizi Province) Algerian troops patrolling the Libyan border had a tip about a route from Libya that was being used by Islamic terrorists and smugglers. The troops spotted and ambushed three Islamic terrorists coming from Libya and killed them. The three were smuggling 33 kg (73 pounds) of hashish.

January 27, 2017: Morocco rounded up a group of students (the leader was 20) who had organized an ISIL cell and obtained weapons. Police seized a submachine gun and seven pistols plus ammo and some explosives. The suspects said they had obtained the weapons from a smuggler operating out of Algeria. The weapons were traced to Libya, where several hundred thousand rifles, pistols and other weapons were stolen from government warehouses during the 2011 revolution. The students planned to kill politicians and bomb embassies.

January 20, 2017: In Tunisia officials from the Arab League and AU (African Union) signed an agreement to not send military forces into Libya and instead seek a political solution inside Libya. Most Arab Leagues support or favor the HoR as do all the neighbors of Libya.

January 17, 2017: In Algeria Libyan HoR officials met with Algerian leaders to discuss Algerian efforts to achieve a stable government in Libya. Egypt and many other Arab states, plus Russia, back HoR over the UN recognized GNA Algeria has regular talks with leaders from both governments and is not taking sides, at least not yet but clearly favors the HoR.

 

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