Libya: Seeking The Lost Paradise

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September 27, 2017: The July 25th peace plan was not a done deal but a work in progress. In July the GNA (Government of National Accord in Tripoli) and HoR (House of Representatives in Tobruk) governments both agreed to work together to achieve a nationwide ceasefire, elections and UN recognition of the LNA (Libyan National Army). Today GNA, HoR and UN officials are meeting in Tunisia to work out how to make the July 25 th agreement work and get a plan implemented by mid-2018. The basis for the July agreement was the 2015 deal the UN brokered, backed and pushed through to create the GNA. The UN admits that they ignored the complexity of local politics in Libya and the ability of many local groups to block a nation-wide deal. So now information is being collected, and constantly updated, on what key groups nationwide want and who is willing to give national unity a chance.

Another obstacle the July agreement ran into was the issue of what to do about the illegal migrants who have been flooding into Europe via Libya since 2012. Earlier in 2017 Italy took the lead implementing an EU (European Union) program to organize (and subsidize) a revived Libyan coast guard and paying southern tribes to go after people smugglers. That was the easy part and it soon greatly reduced the flow of illegals to Italy. A more difficult problem was dealing with the cultural differences. The EU does not agree with how Libyans often go about dealing with illegal migrants and the criminal gangs that move them through Libya and thence to Europe. These illegals 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 smuggler boats because it has been done before. Up until 2011 Italy and France had a deal with the Kaddafi dictatorship 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.

The EU deal only works if the Europeans allow the Libyans to shut down the smuggling gangs and deal with the illegals using Libyan methods. That means using force against smugglers and their accomplices as well as forcing the 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 trying 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 failing to solve the refugee problem.

Italy also led 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 smugglers. The “anyone else” was mainly the growing number of European NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are sending rescue boats to meet smugglers off the Libyan coast and escort the boats, or take the illegals aboard, 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. 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. Increasingly the revived 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.

The chatter among smugglers is that yes, business is down because of the EU plan but in the long run they will be back in business because the smugglers have partners in Europe (mostly Italy based gangsters) who know how to manipulate the European media and politicians to apply pressure on Libya to halt its inhuman treatment of illegals and the NGOs seeking to help the smugglers get the illegals into Europe. Then there is the culture of corruption in Libya which will eventually enable people smugglers to operate more freely. Any new Libyan government will likely not be a police state similar to what Kaddafi run and unable to shut down the smugglers as thoroughly.

The smugglers believe that Italy and the rest of Europe are willing to look the other way for the moment because the illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean and landing in Italy are a major political problem, especially in Italy. 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. At the same time Italy is the shortest distance (by water) from Libya to Europe.

The current peace proposals in Libya are basically about money. Libya expects the EU to pay billions of dollars in military and economic aid to seal their maritime and land borders. After all the EU paid Turkey $6 billion to halt the flow of illegals via Turkey. And then there is the issue of sovereignty. Libya expects EU nations to stop trying to interfere with how Libya deals with 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) are willing to compromise to achieve 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.

Libyan National Army

Another issue between Libya and the EU is the LNA (Libyan National Army) which has been demonized by many Europeans for a number of reasons most Libyans and Arab nations disagree with. The LNA was created by Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar, who was once a general in Kaddafi’s army. Hiftar disagreed with the dictatorship and was unable to do much about it. So he fled to the United States in 1990 with the help of the CIA. When the Libyan revolution broke out in 2011 Hiftar returned to Libya and joined the rebels in east (Benghazi). Hiftar remained on the sidelines after Kaddafi was defeated in late 2011 and watched as various attempts were made to form a workable government. Sometime in 2013 Hiftar apparently began implementing a new solution. One motivation for Hiftar was the growing strength of Islamic terrorist groups all over the country. Islamic conservatives, radicals and terrorists were well enough organized to prevent anyone from creating a new government that controlled the entire country. Hiftar was never a fan of Islamic radicalism and he found that most Libyans agreed with him.

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. By early 2014 Hiftar had managed to get most of the post-Kaddafi armed forces under his control and backed 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, because he lacked adequate supplies of weapons, ammo and everything else. 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). This approach extends to asking Italy to allow wounded LNA troops to use Italian hospitals.

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 as well as other supplies. Russia also recognized Hiftar, who has made several trips to Moscow to discuss the situation. By 2016 Russian media was portraying Hiftar as a legitimate military leader, as was Egypt and most other Arab states. This did not happen suddenly. 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 was best suited to continue as military commander. Despite an internationally recognized arms embargo the UN never made much noise about the UAE and Egyptian shipments because the vehicles, weapons and ammo go to what was 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 by late 2015 Egypt was under a lot of pressure from the UN to get behind the GNA, which Egypt saw as too cozy with Islamic conservative groups. Algeria felt the same way as did most other Arab states. For the UN the problems with Hiftar escalated in 2016 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 LNA in early 2015 and was expected to continue under the GNA. That issue now appears to have finally been settled in Hiftar’s favor. Italy recently invited Hiftar to a conference in Italy and treated him like the head of the LNA. Many Europeans accuse Hiftar of being a war criminal but that accusation could be made against any warlord or armed faction leader in Libya and according to most Libyans and foreign military observers Hiftar has done more than anyone else to limit the lawless behavior that many groups (like the Islamic terrorists) encourage as if it were a religious duty.

Factions

While the LNA and HoR control most of Libya (mainly in the east and south but also in the west (south and west of Tripoli up to the Tunisian border), the GNA is still the UN sponsored and internationally recognized Libyan government. The problem is that GNA still has the support of several major Islamic groups and while these Islamic militias opposed ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and most Islamic terror groups they are not really enthusiastic about a real democracy. A religious dictatorship, perhaps modeled on what is going on in Iran, is more acceptable. HoR opposes this as do the Tuareg tribes and Berber militias that control most of the Algerian border area. The Berbers favor Hiftar and the HoR and some have pledged allegiance to the LNA. But most Berbers and nearly all the Tuareg tribes further south are waiting to make a deal with a new national government, preferably one including Hiftar.

Motivation

A major reason for Libyans supporting the July agreement was the need to avoid increasing privation and even 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 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 at all costs 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.

Libyans agree that it is possible to achieve a nationwide ceasefire. This would allow essential economic and government functions to be restored. Six years of chaos and increasing poverty have created growing nostalgia for the welfare state former (until 2011) dictator Kaddafi created to keep himself in power. As many rulers, particularly in the Middle East, have learned is that if you devote enough oil income to provide some kind of welfare state you can easily stay in power for a long time and still steal billions for yourself and your closest associates. This method usually includes, as it did in Libya, exploiting tribal, religious and ethnic differences when allocating the oil wealth. In tolerating that for so long Libyans now find themselves unable to create of a functioning national government and restore their cherished (especially now that it is gone) Kaddafi era welfare state. More and more Libyans are accepting the idea that their problems are basically one of bad attitudes. The only thing many Libyans can agree on is that most other Libyans are corrupt and can’t be trusted and foreigners, especially Westerners, are worse. These toxic attitudes were exploited by Kaddafi but he is now gone while the bad attitudes he fostered remain. Too many Libyans insist that no new national government will never be considered a success until it can restore the lost paradise. But now there is growing agreement that there is no quick way to regain that paradise and it is more realistic to approach that more prosperous past in stages. While many Libyan faction leaders are still unwilling to compromise they do need to eat and obtain basic items for their followers.

How To Keep Score

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 are still occasional disruptions because of all the independent minded factions. 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.

September 24, 2017: Fighting between rival militias has been going on in Sabratha, a coastal city 66 kilometers west of Tripoli, for the last six days and so far has left 11 dead and 30 wounded. Most of the casualties are militia members but some are civilians. Sabratha has long been one of the coastal ports that people smuggling gangs operated from. Local militias allowed this as long as they got a slice of that income. The militias 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 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 until 2016 ISIL got a portion of that. This was 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.

September 22, 2017: For the first time since January 19th American warplanes attacked an ISIL target in Libya. This attack took place against a desert camp 240 kilometers southeast of Sirte, the coastal city ISIL once held but were driven out of in mid-2016. The attack appears to have been carried out by UAVs that used six missiles or smart bombs and killed 17 ISIL personnel. There was also a lot of other damage and some secondary explosions (stored fuel or ammunition). This attack was requested by the GNA. The camp was expanding and had become a place where ISIL was stockpiling supplies. American intelligence revealed this camp was used as an assembly point for personnel and vehicles moving into and out of the country. Further south there are roads to Niger, Chad and Sudan.

September 20, 2017: In the south (Sabha) fighting between Tabu and Zaghawah tribesmen broke out and left at least eight dead and many wounded. The Zaghawah were apparently working for a Chinese company operating down there and the Zaghawah gunmen operated out of the Chinese compound. Tribal violence down there is usually over who controls smuggling routes and has been flaring up regularly since the 2011 revolution. Most of this violence has been in or near the town of Sabha, which is 770 kilometers south of Tripoli and astride the main road going to the Niger border. It is the biggest city in the largely desert south. The fighting is a continuation of ancient animosities between tribes divided by ethnicity as well as loyalty to the former dictator Kaddafi, who used tribal loyalties to maintain power and favored certain tribes. Some of the pro-Kaddafi Tuareg tribes kept fighting after Kaddafi died in 2011. The violence is not so much about putting Kaddafi followers back into power, but holding on to Kaddafi era privileges and avoiding punishment for crimes committed to support Kaddafi’s rule. After 2011 violence continued on the southern border in part because the pro-rebel Tabu (or “Tebu”) tribesmen were put in charge of border (with Sudan, Chad and Niger) security. There they constantly skirmished with the Tuareg tribes over control of the smuggling business. Another element of this rivalry was that the Tabu are black African while the pro-Kaddafi tribes are Arab. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still prefer. However, in some cases Kaddafi favored black tribes in the north, and used them to keep the population in line. By 2015 the Tabu were still technically in charge of the border but mostly concerned with their control over smuggling (of fuel, drugs and people). The Tabu and Tuareg leaders have worked out agreements on dividing smuggling business but discipline in the tribes is not all that tight and fights keep breaking out.

September 19, 2017: Egypt offered to help reorganize LNA forces. This effort would involve integrating armed men who are currently not part of the LNA and supplying them with weapons, uniforms, training and screening to keep an Islamic terrorist types out.

September 13, 2017: In the south the LNA merged three depleted battalions (12, 116 and 181) into one new Rada (“deterrence”) unit. The LNA controls most of the south via deals with local militias and by providing some air support and rapid reaction forces like these new Rada units.

 

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