Libya: Wining Without Fighting

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October 27, 2017: The July 25th peace plan seems to be working although not the way many UN officials had hoped. The UN backed GNA (Government of National Accord in Tripoli) has continued to weaken while the HoR (House of Representatives government in Tobruk) now claims to control 95 percent of the country. The July 2017 agreement provided six months to achieve a nationwide ceasefire, a date for national elections and UN recognition of the LNA (Libyan National Army). That was later extended to a year and so far the UN has not been able to get the GNA and HoR to agree on key issues.

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. It turned out that the HoR and their military leader Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar had a lot more nationwide support than the UN or GNA realized or wanted to admit. HoR also had the LNA which has been demonized by many Europeans for a number of reasons most Libyans and Arab nations disagree with. The LNA was created by Hiftar and is the only organized and disciplined military force in the country. The LNA was initially founded to shut down Islamic terrorist groups and Libyan militias that supported them. In contrast the GNA tried to build a national government with the support of militias, many of them supporting a new government using Islamic (Sharia) law and most Libyans had had enough of that because it was a tactic the former dictator Kaddafi has used to rule the country for decades until the 2011 revolution killed him and destroyed his hated government.

The UN and EU (European Union) were also appalled by Hiftar’s harsh tactics against the people smuggling gangs that were responsible for most illegal of the illegal migrants arriving in Europe. Some EU countries (like Italy and France) backed Hiftar early on but more importantly so did most Libyans. Hiftar recently explained how that support could enable the LNA to enter Tripoli, the traditional capital if the UN negotiations failed. But Hiftar also pointed out that Tripoli was not a priority, dealing with smuggling gangs, Islamic terrorists and corruption in general was.

Hiftar had a plan for shutting down all the smuggling gangs and wants more support from the EU to do the same with the European gangs which control more of this smuggling that the EU would like to admit. Earlier in 2017 Italy took the lead implementing an EU 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 the EU (most of them coming in via Italy). That did not last because the smuggler gangs in Sabratha (a coastal city 66 kilometers west of Tripoli) defeated the militias that had briefly shut down much of the smuggling activity. Down south the smugglers found ways around patrols the southern tribes conducted. The coast guard was another matter but it turned out that the coast guard was not yet large enough to shut down the entire coast. Hiftar is making plans for the LNA to take control of Sabratha and shut down the smugglers there permanently and in any other Libyan port. The LNA is one of the few armed groups in Libya that could do this.

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 that kind of income is too attractive to give up without a fight.

The UN Solution Evolves

No date was set for third round of UN moderated peace negotiations and few Libyans feel any urgency to do that. This is because Hiftar has gained a lot of new allies since those negotiations began in August. That’s because Hiftar fights only when he has to and keeps casualties among LNA troops low. Hiftar understands logistics, finance and tribal politics. Hiftar also acts on his realization that without controlling corruption survival of Libya is not possible. All this is why he has been so successful at winning the support of the many militias, most of them based on tribe affiliation, that once controlled most of the country. Tribal militia leaders depend on the support of the families and clans that constitute the tribe. Tribal militia leaders have come to realize that peace and prosperity is all that will save them and Hiftar seems to share those goals. His biggest obstacle in taking Tripoli is that the three militias that dominate the city (and are the primary military force the GNA can still depend on) know that they will all suffer economically if the GNA and HoR form a united government with Hiftar in charge of the military. The Tripoli militias also know that Hiftar does not want to fight in the city as that could cause too much damage and kill the people he most appeals to (civilians and his own soldiers). So Hiftar would like the UN peacemaking efforts to succeed but in the meantime most Libyans have more urgent matters to deal with.

Meanwhile Hiftar has announced plans to take control of Zawiya (50 kilometers west of Tripoli) and after at least control access to Tripoli. Zawiya is more important for Libyans in general. Back in 2011 Zawiya was a rebel stronghold in the midst of a region that was largely pro-Kaddafi. The rebels held all or part of Zawiya throughout the months of rebellion against Kaddafi. Zawiya controls the road from Tripoli to Tunisia. This was a key supply line for Kaddafi, and the rebels made it largely unusable. The rebel defenders of Zawiya suffered a lot and some of them still want payback for their sacrifices. Many of the Zawiya rebels turned into outlaws and that led to a flourishing smuggling business.

Hiftar has angered many EU nations by attacking 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. More recently Italy began prosecuting NGOs that operated these rescue ships from Italian ports. This caused many, if not most NGOs to halt the use of these rescue ships.

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 also know that they can persuade some members of the new coast guard to join the gangsters by extorting money from the illegal migrants seized at sea and brought back to Libya. This works as long as there is no unified Libyan military with someone like Hiftar in charge.

ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)

Libya is seen as the new ISIL base area. That is not working out so well because if there is one thing most Libyans can agree on is the need to keep ISIL out. With their headquarters in Syria gone, along with most of the territory ISIL had controlled until about a year ago, Libya still has to deal with more than a thousand ISIL members seeking to establish base areas (for training and planning operations worldwide).

The idea of a backup ISIL headquarters in Libya has always been seen as a possibility. Success in making it happen has been elusive. ISIL lost control of the Libyan coastal city of Sirte in late 2016 and many of the ISIL men originally in Sirte left and headed for ISIL bases in southern Libya. Sirte is a coastal city 500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi and the main ISIL base in Libya since early 2015. ISIL first showed up in late 2014 and recruited many of the most radical men from existing Islamic terrorist militias and sought to establish a permanent presence along the Libyan coast. The provoked a response from the LNA in the east and various powerful (usually pro-GNA) militias in the west. ISIL strength in Libya has dropped drastically because of that. As happened in Syria, Iraq Afghanistan and elsewhere harsh ISIL rule enraged many of the locals. In Sirte ISIL punished or executed 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. That approach works both ways and ISIL lost.

ISIL also needs money and that is why the people smuggling gangs are so important because in coastal cities ISIL was often the most effective hired guns smuggling gangs could get. But even ISIL could not stand up to the LNA or determined militias. Cutting off ISIL access to the sea meant cutting their income substantially. ISIL turned to land smuggling routes, especially the ones via Egypt or Mali. Both of these routes are under heavy attack and in Libya is leading the most effective operations against gangsters who work with ISIL.

October 25, 2017: In the east (60 kilometers south of Ajdabiya) ISIL attacked a LNA checkpoint killing two soldiers, wounding three and setting several fires. After grabbing whatever loot they could fit into their vehicles the dozen or so ISIL raiders fled before LNA reinforcements showed up. Ajdabiya is a port town 150 kilometers southwest of Benghazi that loads oil tankers with oil produced in large oil fields to the south. What is left of ISIL is hiding in areas away from the coast and carry out attacks like this to obtain supplies and try (without much success) to intimidate LNA forces. Attacks like this have occurred every few weeks this year.

October 23, 2017: Earlier in 2017, under pressure from the UN and foreign donors, the GNA agreed to allow the ACA/Administrative Control Authority (an auditing agency formed in 2013) access to financial and personnel records. HoR had taken over ACA when GNA was formed but the UN gave GNA control over most government personnel matters. So far the ACA has been able to identify and document massive corruption in government spending. This was never a secret but details were always difficult to obtain. The latest ACA audit identified over 100,000 full time government jobs that are held illegally by government employees who already have another government job. Many of these non-existent workers are children, dead, or retired. This audit was made possible by the access to national identity card data and payroll information, which both use the national identity card number.

October 21, 2017: In Tunisia a month of UN moderated unification talks between GNA and HoR ended without agreement. The major disagreements were over how the constitution will be changed and whether or not general Hiftar will command the unified armed forces.

October 20, 2017: Egypt quickly called on the LNA to assist in finding those responsible for an ambush today in Giza province that left over fifty policemen dead. The ISIL men responsible fled west towards the Libyan border. Giza province is on both sides of the Nile River but extends deep into the Western Desert because of several large oasis that have been population centers for thousands of years and were way stations for caravans. A railroad was built a century ago deep into the Western Desert because of the oasis and provided better access to the entire province. The oasis, paved roads and railroad have attracted smugglers who could more easily get stuff across the borders with Sudan and Libya. General Hiftar has worked closely with the Egyptian military to improve security along the thousand kilometer long common border but it has proved impossible to detect all illegal traffic.

In a case like this Hiftar can use his good relationships with tribes in eastern Libya to assist the Egyptians in finding the Islamic terrorists responsible for the ambush. This cooperation may be responsible for F-16s attacking eight smuggler trucks near the Libyan border by the 23rd. The trucks were carrying weapons and the F-16s returned with video proof.

Hiftar and Egypt also have long-term plans for improving border security, which is one reason Egypt has supported the LNA from the beginning. The cooperation between LNA and Egypt has made it possible to identify when and where arms smugglers would cross the border into Egypt. At that point Egyptian Air Force F-16s can use their targeting pods and smart bombs to locate and destroy these convoys coming into Egypt from Libya via desert trails north of the “sand sea” that is largely impassable to trucks. With the targeting pods you can also record video of the airstrikes showing some of the trucks exploding twice as their cargoes of ammunition ignited. Smuggling Libyan weapons (looted from government warehouses during the 2011 revolution) into Egypt is still big business especially since Hamas and other Islamic terrorist groups, plus criminal gangs, are ready to buy whatever gets into Egypt. Far fewer of these convoys are making out of the Western Desert since the LNA took control of the Libyan side of the border and established an intelligence network. But small groups of Islamic terrorists are another matter and that’s what Egypt sees as a growing problem.

October 6, 2017: In Tripoli clashes between rival militias flared up again and after several days of fighting left at least four dead and over twenty wounded. Most other militias in the country are for local defense and often run by men who see this as an opportunity to steal. There is a major problem in that Tripoli has plenty of such opportunities and the main militias often fight it out to decide who controls what.

October 4, 2017: In the coastal city of Misrata three ISIL suicide bombers attacked a count house compound and killed four people while wounding over 30. Although this attack was considered a failure ISIL announced it as the first to many to punish cities like Misrata that supplied militias that drove ISIL out of their main North African base in the coastal city of Sirte.

 

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