Libya: Edging Towards The End Game

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June 25, 2019: In Tripoli the LNA (Libyan National Army) forces continue to methodically eliminate militia resistance around the city. This has been unnerving for the many Islamic militias that have controlled Tripoli since 2011 are now in a panic because of the LNA advance and use of tactics the militias had never encountered before. Adding to the panic has been another LNA attack from the east, at the end of May, which the militias were not really prepared for. They believed the bulk of the LNA forces available for the Tripoli operation were stalled south of the city. The LNA took their time and assembled a mobile force for a move against the eastern approaches to Tripoli. The LNA is still having problems with Islamic terrorists elsewhere in the country. ISIL is still active in the south but not as yet a threat to the Tripoli operation. A growing number of Tripoli militiamen are noting that and deserting, surrendering to LNA forces or, in a growing number of cases, individual militias are accepting an LNA offer and switching sides. The UN backed GNA (Government of National Accord) tries to put a positive spin on all this but the defections and desertions are a fact as is the LNA seizure of the airport and defeating the few GNA efforts to regain the airport.

Early on the LNA established an informant network inside Tripoli that provided updates on militia deployments. The LNA used this network to get news of their amnesty offer for militiamen who surrendered with their weapons. More and more of the militiamen are quietly doing this and in the last few weeks that led to entire militias switching sides. LNA officials are still talking to the UN about a ceasefire but point out that the militias have been unreliable in the past, especially the Islamic and Islamic terrorist ones. That is why the LNA demands a verifiable disarmament of the militias before they agree to a ceasefire. The LNA blames Turkey for encouraging, and supplying, the Islamic terrorist militias in Tripoli and Misrata.

The Tripoli fighting has been going on since April 4th. There have been over 4,000 dead and wounded so far and more than 120,000 civilians have fled their homes to avoid the fighting. The LNA can only bring up a limited number of reinforcements without risking problems elsewhere in Libya. Currently, most of Libya and all the oil production and export facilities are safe because of LNA operations since 2014. That is the main reason the LNA has not gone after Tripoli until now. Yet all those oil facilities are technically under the control of the Tripoli-based NOC (National Oil Company).

The LNA showed UN intelligence the activities of Islamic militias in Tripoli and how some had welcomed veteran Islamic terrorists from Syria and other Middle Eastern nations. That’s another reason why LNA will agree to a ceasefire only if the militias disarm first, something even the GNA has been trying to achieve since 2015.

LNA commander Khalifa Hiftar has been traveling abroad to discuss his plans and needs with foreign supporters in Europe, the Middle East and Russia. Some Russian diplomats do not believe the LNA can take Tripoli and then bring long-term peace to the entire country. This despite the fact that the LNA has been systematically pacifying the entire country since 2014. Hiftar did it by being professional about it. He trained his troops and saw that they were well taken care of. His tactics emphasized keeping LNA casualties low. This was not spectacular but it worked and more and more militias and individual Libyans joined the LNA, after agreeing to operate by LNA rules. Meanwhile, the large militias that dominate politics in the two largest cities (Tripoli and nearby Misrata) were chaotic, unreliable and often violent towards each other and civilians in general. Western special operations troops sent in to work with (and observe) the LNA reported all this back to their government. The UN-backed GNA government was increasingly seen as corrupt and ineffective. Some GNA leaders noticed that as well and were willing to negotiate a merger with the LNA and its eastern sponsor the HoR (House of Representatives) government. The HoR was the last elected government of Libya (after 2011) and saw the UN backed GNA as too cozy with Islamic terrorist militias in Tripoli and Misrata. Senior UN officials opposed that sort of thing and demanded that the international government unite to destroy the LNA.

The same rivalry between Turkey and most Arab states in Syria is now becoming more visible in Libya. Turks in Libya is nothing new but now Turkey is increasing the shipments of military aid and apparently sending some advisors as well. The UN and some Western nations want the two rival Libyan government to merge but the Turks prefer the more terrorist-friendly GNA even though GNA forces are much less militarily effective than the LNA. Turkey has been pushing its agenda in Libya since 2012, with little effect.

Back in early 2015, Turkey warned all Turkish citizens to get out of Libya because of growing violence and anti-Turk sentiment. Turkey also warned all Turkish airlines to stay out of Libyan air space. This came after the eastern HoR government warned that it would shoot down any Turkish airliners or cargo aircraft entering Libya. This is all the result of the pro-Islamic radical Tripoli government having support from Turkey, Sudan and Qatar. Turkey said it supports the Islamic forces in Libya but that coalition includes many Islamic terror groups that the Turks insist they do not back. At the time the HoR government had most of the world recognizing it, along with most of the Islamic world. Turkey was under growing international pressure to support the HoR government and refused to do so. Instead, Turkey accused its foreign critics of conspiring against Turkey. This paranoia continues and since 2015 more evidence has surfaced of Turkish willingness to cooperate with some Islamic terror groups. This apparently includes the ones now defending Misrata for the UN backed GNA. There are some serious problems with that. Sudan is no longer backing the GNA because a recent uprising replaced the pro-GNA government. Iran is preoccupied with its own economic and political problems. So the only militarily significant supporter the GNA has is Turkey and the Turks are still unpopular with most Libyans.

Heavily influenced by Islamic groups, the GNA militias are hostile to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but not to less extreme Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda and the Moslem Brotherhood. The problem with the Tripoli militias is that they refuse to submit to any national government, including the one the LNA represents. Self-preservation keeps them going and that has forced the major militias to cooperate to prevent Tripoli from being taken by the LNA, which controls the rest of Libya and has always been hostile to Islamic militias in general and Islamic terrorists in particular. The LNA was founded in 2014 to do two things; bring peace to Libya and eliminate Islamic terror groups from Libya.

The LNA and its commander Khalifa Hiftar are seeking to take the capital and end eight years of factional fighting that has left Libya broke and chaotic. While Hiftar is eager to take the capital and finally unite all of Libya and end the war, he has always been a methodical commander and avoided tactics that caused high casualties to his forces. The LNA forces are better trained and led but the Tripoli militias are putting up some opposition. Despite the LNA advantages, the militias are aware that they are out of business once the LNA controls the city. Many of those militias are involved in people smuggling and various other illegal activities. It was that realization that led to more and more European nations to switch their support from the UN created GNA to the LNA. The fact that the militias dominate and perpetuate criminal activities inside Tripoli is the main reason why most locals are hostile to the militias. This gives the LNA a lot of popular support in Tripoli that the GNA lacks.

Hiftar has the support of most Libyans along with Russia, most Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and now the United States as well. The UN opposes Hiftar, as does ISIL, the Moslem Brotherhood and pro-brotherhood nations like Turkey, Qatar and Iran. The main argument against Hiftar is that he could turn into another dictator like Kaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011. Hiftar had been an early supporter of Kaddafi and was a colonel in the Libyan army when, in the late 1980s, he and Kaddafi became enemies and Hiftar was declared a traitor. Hiftar got support from the CIA to form an opposition force (the first LNA) but no African nations were willing to host it for long and by 1990 Hiftar was living in the U.S. and seeking citizenship. Hiftar became a U.S. citizen and spent 20 years living in the West before returning to Libya after Kaddafi was overthrown in 2011. By 2014 he realized that Islamic terror groups and independent militias were preventing the formation of a new government. His solution was to form the LNA in the east (Benghazi) and take on all the warring factions, especially the Islamic terror groups. Five years later the LNA, the only organized military force in Libya, is closing in on the last concentrations of militias in Tripoli and Misrata.

Hiftar is unlikely to become another Kaddafi or ruler of Libya. For one thing, he is 75 years old and in declining health. He is a Libyan patriot who wants to leave a legacy of a unified, peaceful and prosperous Libya. All the Middle Eastern dictators took over when they were much younger than Hiftar and did not spend two decades living in the West and witnessing what peace and prosperity look like. More UN members are realizing that, as were a growing number of senior GNA officials. That popular support has played a major role in the LNA effort pacify the entire country. Hiftar was trusted to do what he said he would do; shut down the outlaw and Islamic terrorist groups and restore peace.

There have been two rival governments in Libya since 2015. The GNA has since late 2018 become more amenable to working with Hiftar. But the many militias the GNA presides over wanted nothing to do with losing their power to a unified government. Currently, Hiftar forces control nearly all of the country, including most of the coastal areas (except Misrata, Tripoli and the coastline west of the city to the Tunisian border). The LNA has occupied and pacified most of the areas where oil production, refining and export facilities are. Before moving on Tripoli from the south the LNA had pacified the Fezzan region in southwest Libya. At that point, it was noticed that many prominent militia leaders in Tripoli are leaving the country with their families. The LNA was expected to move into Tripoli at the request of the GNA government but when the GNA leaders proved unable to do that the LNA acted anyway. The UN, which played a major role in creating the GNA (and deciding that LNA was a threat to Libya despite most Libyans believing otherwise) also became less hostile to the LNA.

The 2015 deal the UN brokered, backed and pushed through to create the GNA was a mistake and the UN later admitted they ignored the complexity of local politics in Libya and the ability of many local groups to block a nation-wide deal. The UN also played down the power many Islamic militias in Tripoli (and Misrata) retained while pretending to support or tolerate the GNA. Meanwhile, these militias refused to halt their private feuds and wars.

June 22, 2019: The NOC headquarters in Tripoli warned that it will not consider GNA demands that NOC order a nationwide shutdown in operations. Unmentioned is the fact that the LNA controls over 90 percent of those facilities and has an unofficial understanding with the NOC to share the oil revenue. The HoR (the rival government in Tobruk that LNA belongs to) has established a NOC rival in Benghazi that is basically a training operation for the post-GNA NOC. This is another reason for officials of the current “official” NOC in Tripoli to cooperate with the LNA.

June 21, 2019: In Tripoli, a second local militia announced that it had switched side and now worked for the LNA. The NOC also announced that fuel was still available in and around Tripoli. The NOC did not discuss that this fuel availability nationwide was due to the unofficial cooperation agreement it had with the LNA. Most Tripoli residents know that the LNA controls most of the country, including the oil production, shipping and refining facilities.

June 13, 2019: LNA warplanes shot down a helicopter, one of the few operational warplanes the GNA still has. These GNA aircraft operate out of an airport in Misrata, a militia dominated city 180 kilometers east of Tripoli. LNA believes Turkey has set up a military training and support facility in Misrata, which is even more dominated by Islamic terrorist militias than Tripoli. This is the second GNA military aircraft the LNA has shot down recently.

June 8, 2019: In south central Libya (Jufra, 650 kilometers southeast of Tripoli), ISIL was believed responsible for an attack on an LNA checkpoint that resulted in another LNA operation to track down and destroy remaining ISIL groups in the area. While this area has been under LNA control for more than a year there is a lot of thinly populated mountainous terrain to hide in. In this case, the hideout was found and about a dozen ISIL members were killed.

June 7, 2019: In Tripoli, the LNA controls most of the airport and, more importantly, the airspace over the city. The LNA is establishing complete control over the airport and the ability to service commercial air traffic. Now the GNA has to use the airport in Misrata, but getting from there means a 200 (or more) kilometer road trip and the risk of running into an LNA checkpoint.

June 6, 2019: An LNA warplane shot down a second Turkish UAV used by the GNA. Despite the UN arms embargo in Libya Turkey has supplied the GNA with weapons, armored vehicles and aircraft (manned and unmanned). The LNA accuses Turkey of supporting militias that belong to the Moslem Brotherhood or are allied with the Brotherhood. While the Moslem Brotherhood is less extreme than ISIL they still advocate a religious dictatorship for Libya.

June 1, 2019: In the southwest (near the Algerian border), Algerian army patrols continue to find hidden caches of weapons close to the key town of Amenas. Some of these caches are recent, and probably left by active smugglers, but most have been there for years and probably abandoned by Islamic terrorists or criminals who are now dead, in prison or have fled to the West or some other distant sanctuary from Algerian security forces. The more recent ones indicate that Islamic terrorist activity is still happening on the Libyan side of the border.

May 31, 2019: LNA leader Khalifa Hiftar held his first official meeting with the Russian leader in Moscow. Hiftar has made several unofficial visits to Russia in the last few years, where he met with diplomats and Ministry of Defense officials to discuss the situation in Libya and arrange for illegal (because of the arms embargo) shipments of Russian weapons to the LNA.

 

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