Libya: The Empires Strike Back

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July 29, 2021: Turkey is buying its way into Libya by offering lucrative, and often illegal, offers to the current GNA (UN backed Government of National Accord). Turkey has a lot of contacts in Libya because before the 2011 revolution Turkey was a major supporter of Libyan dictator Moamar Kaddafi, who was overthrown and killed during a 2011 revolution. At that time Turkish firms had over $20 billion worth of unfinished contracts, mainly in construction. There were more than 20,000 Turks in Libya before the 2011 revolution. Since then, nearly all of them have been evacuated for their safety because Turkey was regarded as an ally and strong backer of Kaddafi. The Turks were early backers of Kaddafi after he led a coup against the Libyan monarchy in the 1960s. Turkey was rewarded for this support with over $50 billion worth of government contracts since the 1970s, most of them for construction.

Most Libyans and Arabs fear the Turks are trying to rebuild the empire they lost because they were on the wrong side during World War I (2014-2018). The empire was not popular with most Turks, who were fed up with ruling the troublesome and often self-destructive Arabs. Recep Erdogan, the current (since 2003) Turkish leader leads an Islamic party that got elected on the promise to reduce corruption. It did that for a while before becoming quite corrupt itself. Now Erdogan is trying to regain his popularity by invading Syria to establish an area where he can move millions of unpopular (with most Turks) Syrian refugees. The EU states are threatening sanctions and other economic retaliation over what the Turks are doing in Syria. The UN is now having a more difficult time justifying the Turkish military presence in Libya. Arab hostility to the Turks helps the LNA (Libyan National Army) and hurts the GNA.

The Turks expected more of a welcome in Libya. They should have known better. The Turks first showed up there in the 1550s as the Ottoman Empire conquered the coastal towns and cities of what is now Libya. Eventually the Turks advanced inland but there was no real incentive to because south of the coast it was mainly desert and, before oil was discovered and developed in the 1960s, there was little of economic value down there. Empires have bills to pay and tend to keep their soldiers where the money is.

From the 1550s to 1910 Libya was technically a province of the Ottoman Empire but, was mainly run by local strongmen who were often Turks who had gone native. In 1911 Italy took advantage of the Turks weak control and invaded.

By 1912 Italy controlled what is now Libya. The Italians sent in colonists and brought the industrial revolution to Libya. Italian rule ended in 1943 when Italy, an ally of Germany during World War II (1939-45), surrendered to the allies. Occupied by allied troops, Libya was given independence in 1951 as a constitutional monarchy. The royal family was led by a prominent local religious leader who became king. Its parliament demonstrated the political divides between eastern and western coastal Libya and the less populous tribal interior. The discovery and development of oil fields down south in the 1960s brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to Libya. It also brought a military takeover in 1969. This coup was led by Captain Kaddafi, an ambitious communications officer who organized other ambitious young officers into a movement that deposed the king and proceeded to misrule Libya until 2011 when he was overthrown and killed.

The Turks had good relations with the Libyan monarchy but initially less stable and cordial relations with Kaddafi. It took nearly a decade of effort for the Turks to gain the support of Kaddafi. The Turks were a member of NATO and many NATO nations lost billions of dollars in assets when Kaddafi seized foreign assets to support his revolutionary ideas, which included a merger with Egypt. Egyptian rejected that and throughout the 1970s sought an opportunity to invade and annex Libya. The Turks were useful in helping to convince the Egyptians to back off. Even more convincing was the Egyptian defeat in the 1973 war with Israel which eventually led to peace with Israel and military aid from the United States to guarantee that Libya would never be a threat.

Libyans took note of who supported the Kaddafi dictatorship and the Turks were on that list. In 2019 the Turks returned with the aid of the losing faction (the GNA) in the civil war that came after Kaddafi was overthrown. The GNA had the backing of Islamic militias, which were seen as a major reason for the internal chaos since 2011. Kaddafi had also favored Islamic radicals and gave sanctuary to some Islamic terrorist groups. Kaddafi was also friendly with the religious dictatorship that took over in Iran during the 1980s. In short, Kaddafi and the Turks represented a past that was not popular with most Libyans, who have learned to fear the chaotic and unpredictable militias and their foreign allies.

Libya remains a thinly populated and divided (by tribal and local loyalties) place. When the kingdom was established in 1951 the population was about a million. The 1960s oil wealth triggered a population explosion, including lots of imported workers, that reached six million when the 2011 revolution occurred. Despite many Libyan’s fleeing the country the population is still about six million and a third of that is found in and around Tripoli. That’s why the city is so important to the GNA and why the LNA went after Tripoli only after they had established themselves in the rest of Libya.

By 2019 GNA control was, and largely still is, limited to a portion of western Libya along the coast. This includes the cities of Tripoli, Misrata and (until 2020) Sirte. The other two are much smaller than Tripoli and defended by local militias rather than any elected government. The LNA and HoR (House of Representatives government in Tobruk) advocate elected governments while the GNA is less eager to discuss that lest it offend the many militias it depends on.

There are few things Libyans agree on and these include dislike of the Turks, Islamic terrorists, militias, especially Islamic ones, and foreign interference in general. For that reason UN peacemaking efforts are none too popular. That’s because the UN backed an unpopular and weak government in Tripoli, a city controlled largely by rival militias. The UN is seen as outsiders more interested in pursuing their own goals rather than what Libyans want; peace and some form of unity. The LNA and its leader Khalifa Haftar know that and made themselves useful by subduing the militias and Islamic terror groups in eastern Libya and slowly moving south and west to do the same throughout Libya. At that point a desperate GNA made an illegal deal with the Turks. This involved promises of billions in new business for Turkish firms and some instant cash that would be illegally transferred to Turkey. The Turks brought in over a thousand Turkish personnel and over 12,000 Syrian mercenaries. While better fighters than the Islamic militias occupying Tripoli and Misrata, the Syrians showed no enthusiasm for getting killed fighting the better trained and led LNA forces, at least not on a large scale. With help of Turkish air power and artillery, the mercs will still take part in small scale operations against the LNA and several of these have been successful. Despite that, since mid-2020 there has been a stalemate between Turk and LNA forces and ever since then efforts to get the Turks to leave have failed. The Turks believe they are invulnerable and Libyans note the similarity with the Ottoman attitudes.

The HoR government and most European nations agree that the treaties signed by the GNA and Greece are illegal and the Turks show some flexibility in negotiating, as long as any compromise leaves their economic interests in Libya intact. The Turks believe they can just stall efforts to oust them and eventually win.

An example of those stall tactics was seen after the June 30 deadline for the two rival factions to agree on how to run the national elections in December that will finally unite the country. The two factions are the UN created GNA (Government of National Accord) controlling the least territory and the HoR (House of Representatives) the last elected government that disagreed with the formation of the GNA.

In early 2021, after months of effort a stable ceasefire was worked out. This was part of a unification plan that was to make it possible for the two rival factions to work on a merger agreement. In February 2021 Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh was selected to head (as prime minister) the temporary GNU (Government of National Unity) while bringing together representatives of the two factions to work out details of the election process and a new constitution. Dbeibeh has been a successful businessman since the 1980s and, during the 2011 revolution favored the Moslem Brotherhood, but was perceived as doing so mainly to protect his family and business interests. He is known to have used corrupt behavior to keep his businesses going during the decade of fighting but is believed trustworthy enough to form the temporary government that has until December to organize elections. By mid-2021 Dbeibeh was facing accusations that he had sold out to the Turks. There were discussions with the UAE over possible investment opportunities, but no determination to cancel the deals the Turks already had.

By mutual agreement the GNU only lasts until the end of the year. If there is not an elected government by then, the civil war resumes. Currently the main obstacle is agreeing on whether the national leader will be an elected president or a prime minister chosen by parliament. It is understood that the legislative elections will create a legislature/parliament composed of many political factions with different ideas about how Libya should be governed. While a president does not have to worry about losing his majority in parliament and triggering new parliamentary elections, the parliamentary process makes it easier to avoid a resumption of the civil war by giving all factions a role in forming new governments led by a prime minister.

July 25, 2021: Leaks from within the Syrian mercenary force and from banking officials in Libya revealed that the GNA agreed to pay the salaries of the 13,000 Syrian mercenaries in Libya. These mercenaries have complained of pay cuts and delays in payment because the Turks are having economic problems at home. The GNA was told that if they wanted those mercenaries to remain in Libya they had to arrange for the Libyan Central Bank to get enough money into a Turkish bank to cover mercenary pay. That proved difficult, but not impossible because of recent banking reforms.

In early 2020 one of the HoR demands, that the UN backed, involved agreement on a long-sought list of anti-corruption measures. These meant reforms on how oil income was collected and spent. Before the late 2020 reforms went into force, the NOC (National Oil Corporation) was refusing to turn over any oil revenue to the Central Bank until the bank installed an accounting system that was transparent and clearly specified who gets the money and how the money is spent. There have been a growing number of complaints about corruption, like with the distribution of dollars obtained from oil sales by the Central Bank, often in cooperation with GNA officials. In 2019 the HoR government complained that the GNA had sought, with some success, to deprive the LNA of much oil income it was entitled to. This was taking place at the time when the LNA had upgraded oil facility security to the point where full production could be achieved. The GNA had never been able to achieve much security anywhere, except in Tripoli. Even with full and sustained oil production there were also continuing problems with corruption in how oil income was spent.

Most of those reforms have gone into effect, and cost many corrupt Libyan leaders and businessmen a lot of money, and there are still efforts to get around the reforms. The illegal presence of the Turks is one GNA corrupt action that defies solution and now the Turks have apparently cooperated in bank fraud.

July 24, 2021: An LNA delegation completed a five-day visit to Russia to discuss the future of Libya and the Russian role in that. No details of exactly what was covered during those five days but the LNA founder and commander Khalifa Haftar’ is now calling in all Libyans to participate in the December elections. The Russians also have economic deals in Libya that depend on who leads the unified government. Russia has been promised billions of dollars’ worth of oil research and development contracts. Even more than the Turks, the Russians need the money. Haftar has promised to resume his offensive against the GNA, despite the Turkish presence, if the December elections are not held and the results respected.

July 18, 2021: Turkey has quietly set up an air defense system around the munitions and weapons factory at Bani Walid, a town inland between the coastal cities of Tripoli and Misrata. The Turks fear that the LNA ground and/or air forces will attack the weapons complex as well as the nearby Bani Walid airport.

July 17, 2021: Russia and Turkey are supposed to have secretly agreed to withdraw their forces from Libya in return for some kind of mutual economic benefits. This is unlikely but rumors like this are believed by many factions in Libya and are a reason why the civil war has been going on for a decade. Meanwhile the GNU prime minister insists that the December 24 national elections will take place despite a growing list of obstacles.

July 3, 2021: Egypt officially opened a new naval base near the Libyan border. This opening was given a lot more publicity than earlier base openings because the Egyptians wanted to get the message. The Turks did notice the base opening and shrugged. Egypt is another former province of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt continues to help facilitate negotiations between opposing groups in Libya but that has not been much help since the Turks showed up.

July 1, 2021: The EU (European Union) is seeking member nations willing to contribute military observers to supervise and verify disarmament and departure of foreign troops from Libya. All but a few EU nations (except Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden) are also members of NATO and are the ones that contribute troops for missions like this as well as EU support of peacekeeping operations in Africa. The EU tried to keep these Libya plans quiet but it soon leaked to the media.

 

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