Libya: A Deal Is A Deal Except For One Detail

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November 27, 2017: For whatever reason European media decided to revive the slavery issue in Libya again. Slavery in Africa is nothing new, has never been abolished and is regularly condemned by the UN and most UN members. What the slavery headlines did do was remind everyone that Libya remains the main source of people smuggling from Africa to Europe. For a few years this business was worth nearly a hundred million dollars a month to European and African smuggling gangs. But by late 2017 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had been driven away from the Libyan coast and the smuggling gangs lost access to the ports they had long used to get their customers to Europe. That was because ISIL was providing protection for smugglers in return for large cash payments. In addition to eliminating ISIL from the coast security in Libyan coastal waters improved as European nations took more control over Libyan coastal waters and blocked a lot of smuggling activity they had previously tolerated.

Most of the smuggling gangs were in western Libya, where it was easier and cheaper to bribe the local militias and government officials. Even ISIL controlled one major port in western Libya. The gangs often demand more cash from their clients before putting them on a boat. The Illegals need cash to pay for transit from their homeland (usually Nigeria other sub-Saharan countries) to the Mediterranean coast and onto a smuggler boat. The price sometimes changes along the way and those who cannot or will not pay are either killed or forced to pay in other ways. One other way is working off the debt. This is a form of indentured servitude and many illegals from Asia agree to this sort of arrangement to pay for getting to North America or other “safe” Western nations. The smuggling gangs have not been able to establish a network of enforcers in EU or source nations to make this work the way it does in the U.S. and Canada so they try other solutions. The one that attracted some mass media attention over the last few years was “slave markets” where illegal migrants in need of more cash are auctioned off to someone who will pay a lump sum and the illegal migrant will be obliged to work off the debt. That process could take years, or for life because slavery, especially of black Africans by Arabs, is still common (although technically illegal, to placate the West and the UN) throughout North Africa and parts of the Middle East. The slavery stories also brought some unwelcome scrutiny to the nations the illegal migrants come from. Officials in these nations are bribed to allow the smugglers to operate freely and that means refusing to take back illegal migrants. That attitude can be changed if enough money is offered (legally or otherwise) to the government officials down there. But a period of bad publicity from slavery and corruption stories also works. For a while anyway. The problem with slavery in Africa is that since slavery has largely disappeared from Western countries there is no support in the West to do much more than deplore the situation and make it a big issue for a little while.

Deaths among the migrants, either as they came north through Libyan deserts to the coast (where most of the people have always lived) or when the boats taking them to Europe sank, have exceeded those from fighting between various Libyan factions (usually tribal militias). The battles between the militias tends to consist of posturing and lots of noise from inaccurate (often deliberately so) machine-gun and mortar fire. The most serious threat to the few remaining Libyans is starvation. The violence since 2011 has left over 35,000 dead, but by 2015 fighting had died down and been replaced by fear of economic collapse. As a result of that Libyans continued to flee if they could and so far about a third of the 6.2 million population of Libyans has left the country, most of them to neighboring Tunisia. Most of the 2-3 million foreign workers have also fled. The people most likely to leave are the educated and talented Libyans the country needs most. This has made it difficult for the Tripoli and Tobruk governments to find qualified people to fill senior posts.

Deadlines

The EU (European Union) and most major Western donors gave the Tobruk government until December 15th to approve the July 25th peace plan. That will not solve all the problems in Libya. 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. Actually H0R does not exercise much control but their LNA (Libyan National Army) does. The problem here is that the HoR does not really control the LNA. The July 2017 agreement provided six months to achieve a nationwide ceasefire, a date for national elections and UN recognition of the LNA. But one clause in that agreement stipulated that the head of the combined government also had the ability to select the leaders of the LNA. GNA and HoR refused to argue with the UN about Hiftar and the LNA but making it clear that this was a UN, not a Libyan, problem.

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 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 eastern Libya. Hiftar did that and points out that there is very little people smuggling in eastern Libya either, nor any reports of slavery. 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.

ISIL Seeks To Blend In

Libya is seen as the likely new ISIL base area mainly because large parts of that country are desert or semi-desert and currently controlled by no government (national, regional or even tribal). The LNA is trying to change that but it is slow going. There are a lot of negatives in Libya in that there are few foreign aid groups for ISIL to plunder or extort and most every other group with something worth having is heavily armed and dangerous. To make matters worse if there is one thing most Libyans can agree on is the need to keep ISIL out, or at least quiet. With their headquarters in Syria gone, along with most of the territory ISIL had controlled until late 2016, Libya still has to deal with more than a thousand ISIL members seeking to establish base areas (for training and planning operations worldwide). Yet the Libyan ISIL branch is doing better than any of the others, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As happened in Syria, Iraq Afghanistan and elsewhere harsh ISIL rule eventually enraged many of the locals and drove them to flee, resist or armed rebellion. ISIL still punishes or executes people for minor infractions of what ISIL considers proper Islamic lifestyle and that eventually backfires. 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 persists in this “more Islamic than thou” policy even though it eventually fails everywhere. One thing ISIL has going for it is a reputation as seriously badass killers and the most effective hired guns drug or smuggling gangs can get. But even ISIL cannot stand up to the Western troops, the LNA or determined local militias on a regular basis.

For that reason ISIL in Libya has learned that it is best not to carry out attacks that kill civilians. In fact ISIL appears to have decided that using as little violence inside Libya is the best way to survive and thrive there. ISIL needs a base are and at the moment Libya is one of the most likely areas to operate in. There are still restrictions. Getting across the Egyptian border (the easiest way to reach the rest of the Middle East) is difficult as long as Hiftar and his LNA operate throughout western Libya. The LNA has more problems with the Egyptian border since the collapse of ISIL control in Iraq and Syria. Many of the surviving ISIL men are seeking to reach Libya via Egypt. Some of these ISIL personnel decide to join ISIL factions already established in Sinai (near the Israeli border) or western Egypt (near the Libyan border). This is the main reason why Hiftar still has a lot of support from Egypt and other Arab nations. Hiftar is genuinely hostile to Islamic terrorism but to the West he is seen as a potential new Libyan dictator. That is important to Libyans, but not as important as personal safety and enough national unity to get the economy going again.

ISIL also needs money and with the Syrian oil income gone, working with drug smuggling gangs became more important. AFRICOM (the U.S. Africa Command) knows what ISIL is trying to do here and is becoming more of a presence in Libya and they prefer to work with the LNA (which is seen as more reliable and safer to deal with). The U.S. will work with other armed groups in Libya, as happened during 2016 when the U.S. provided over 500 airstrikes to assist the GNA militias drive ISIL out of the coastal city of Sirte. Survivors fled south and there are still believed to be at least a thousand armed ISIL members in Libya and they constitute a threat and seek recruits. AFRICOM is able to provide intel (and UAV surveillance) to a force that can use this information and the LNA is the only large armed force that has demonstrated an ability to do so. In addition AFRICOM can provide airstrikes against ISIL targets, which is regularly does for anyone (including the GNA) who has proved reliable in the past.

Oil Shortage

The National Oil Corporation (NOC) has managed to increase production this year to record (since 2011) levels. Since June about a million BPD (barrels per day, including natural gas equivalents) are 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. Now production growth is stalled because of the lack of foreign firms willing to work in Libya to repair and expand Libyan oil facilities. The chaos created by all the militias and lack of a reliable central government means foreign firms rate Libya as one of the least reliable places to operate and opt for working in other areas, even though the profits are lower. Risk is a big deal in the oil industry because huge amounts (often billions of dollars) are often required to get new (or refurbished) oil facilities producing.

There are still occasional disruptions because of all the independent minded factions. Despite that the NOC still hopes to reach 1.25-1.5 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.

November 26, 2017: For the second time this month the water supply to Tripoli was cut by a militia seeking to get their leader released from a Tripoli jail controlled by a rival militia. There is less of this sort of extortion, which for years had crippled efforts to restore oil production and exports.

November 21, 2017: The HoR government in Tobruk voted to back the UN peace deal that unifies the two governments. This still leaves LNA leader Khalifa Hiftar to be negotiated with because the UN peace deal gives the united government control of the LNA but Hiftar has made it clear that he must remain the LNA leader.

November 19, 2017: In south central Libya (Jufra/Jofra province, 770 kilometers south of Tripoli) AFRICOM carried out another airstrike against an ISIL camp. This is the second such airstrike in three days. LNA forces have been fighting various Islamic terror groups in Jufra since late 2016. General Hiftar saw Jufra turning into a battle with the Misrata militias (that side with Islamic conservatives but oppose ISIL). There are some Jufra militias that 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 fighting down there.

November 15, 2017: Leaders from Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria met in Egypt to update their common Libya policy. All three nations continue to vigorously (loudly and repeatedly) support the July peace agreement. A major reason for this July 2017 agreement was the need to avoid mass starvation in Libya. Since 2011 Libyan oil exports had shrunk and the Libyan Central Bank cash reserves are nearly gone. If peace and unity are 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 keep peace and prosperity out of reach. At this point most Libyans will settle for survival. The neighbors (particularly Egypt, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Algeria) back the new peace deal as do European nations. How long it will last is another matter. So far, the deal is still on track. If achieved by the end of the year or early in 2108 it would mean the first national government in Libya since 2011 and fewer worries about smuggling and Islamic terrorism coming out of Libya. The only major disagreement the Arab countries have with the West is Arab preference for LNA commander Khalifa Hiftar, which a growing number of Western leaders want to prosecute as a war criminal.

November 13, 2017: LNA commander Khalifa Hiftar visited the UAE and attended the Dubai Air Show to meet with other Arab military and political leaders. Egypt and UAE have always been the primary supporters of the LNA and Hiftar.

November 11, 2017: In the east (Benghazi) the LNA captured the last neighborhood held by an Islamic terrorist groups. This required a four month siege. This approach was used to keep LNA casualties down and limit property damage (from large scale use of artillery and airstrikes). The resistance was led by Ansar Al Sharia a group still active in Tunisia but under attack everywhere it shows up.

November 4, 2017: The LNA has increased scrutiny on organizations controlling ports in eastern Libya and forcing them to allow audits to ensure they are not just fronts for smugglers. LNA takes a similar anti-corruption attitude in areas it has gained control of farther south.

November 3, 2017: LNA leader Khalifa Hiftar visited Egypt to report on conditions in areas he controls and discuss what can be done to improve security along the Libyan-Egyptian border.

 

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