Libya: Negotiating the Price of Peace

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September 30, 2021: T he GNU (Government of National Unity) has solved a lot of problems so far, but not the most important ones that will make the December national elections work. The two rival factions; GNA (UN created Government of National Accord in Tripoli) and HoR (House of Representatives government in Tobruk) agreed to a unification plan that required the two rival factions to work out the details of a formal merger of both factions and appointment of new ministers for all government departments, especially defense, finance and the NOC (National Oil Corporation). In February 2021 Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh was selected to head (as prime minister) the GNU. By mid-2021 many of the key ministries still lacked mutually agreeable leaders. This was preceded by the initial success in early 2021 when the October 2020 ceasefire was extended and made part of the national unification plan. The ceasefire continues to be observed.

The major obstacles are the continued presence of Turkish and Russian troops. The Russians see a unified Libyan government as a potential customer for Russian exports, including Russian participation in expanding Libyan oil production. Before the Turks arrived, Russia planned to withdraw most of its forces once the HOR forces had Tripoli.

The Turks intervened in 2020 to support the GNA, an unpopular faction (or fiction) created by the UN and about to be eliminated by a more popular Libyan force that had united most of the country since 2014, eliminated the Islamic terrorist threat and got oil production going again at pre-war levels.

The GNU leader is now accused of selling out to the Turks. While there were discussions with the UAE and European nations over possible investment opportunities, there was no action on calls to cancel illegal deals the Turks already had. More corruption accusations followed against the new ministers Dbeibeh appointed. All followed the same pattern, with the Turks offering illegal deals to corrupt GNU officials. The Turks block efforts to investigate these illegal deals, just as they have done with earlier agreements with the GNA. There will be no national unity or national elections as long as one faction is backed by the ruthless Turks.

Dbeibeh, the GNU leader, 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 was believed trustworthy enough to form the temporary government that has until the end of 2021. By mid-2021 Dbeibeh was facing accusations that he had violated that trust by cooperating with the Turks.

By mutual agreement the GNU only lasts until the end of 2021. If there is not an elected government by then, the civil war resumes. The primary problem has been the arrival of Turkish military aid for the GNU in mid-2019, and the GNA rewarding the Turks by signing a treaty in late 2019 that granted Turkey access to offshore waters between Libya and Turkey, some of them were already recognized as controlled by Greece. In early 2020 the Turks brought in thousands of troops, most of them Syrian mercenaries and lots of armed UAVs to block the HoR forces, the LNA (Libyan National Army) from taking Tripoli, the largest city in Libya and the last stronghold of the GNA and the militias, some of them favoring a government dominated by Moslem Brotherhood officials. The Turkish intervention worked, the HoR forces withdrew and the UN proposed the GNU. Since then, Turkey has refused to withdraw its forces or resolve its legal problems with Greece and the other NATO nations that back Greece.

These problems got worse when a key provision of the October 2020 ceasefire terms, that foreign troops would leave by January 2021, was ignored by the Turks, who refused to leave. The HoR/LNA supporters; Russia and the UAE would not withdraw their forces until the Turks did. To date none of the ceasefire terms have been fully met because they cannot work alongside the continued Turkish military presence. The HoR government and most European nations agree that the treaties signed by the GNA and Turkey in late 2019 are illegal and the Turks have hinted that it is possible for them to withdraw their troops as long as any departure deal leaves their economic interests in Libya intact. That means international backing for the 2019 treaty between GNA and the Turks that grants Turkey control of offshore waters controlled by Greece. Most of NATO backs Greece on this point and agrees the Turkish presence in Libya is illegal, but no one is willing to confront Turkey and force them out. Realizing that, the Turks believed they could just stall efforts to oust them and eventually win.

The Turkish strategy caused a deadlock in forming a workable GNA. The most damaging aspect of this is the inability of the GNU to agree on a new budget. One cause of the stalled budget is feuds over who should run the NOC and the Central Bank. Disagreements over who the new directors of these two institutions will be has disrupted the use of oil revenue to pay the salaries and other bills to keep the oil fields and oil export ports operational. The NOC has had no budget agreement since 2020 and has had to improvise to find the cash to keep the NOC going. Those efforts can no longer obtain the cash needed and without the 2021 budget approval there is not enough cash to keep oil exports going. One subsidiary of the NOC, AGOCO, ran out of cash earlier in the year and plans to shut down operations in early October. This means the loss of about a quarter of all Libyan oil production because the government cannot agree on who is in charge.

The GNA and HOR cannot agree on who is legally allowed to run for president and there are calls for a return of the monarchy, as a constitutional monarchy.

Libya may yet be rescued by Turkish efforts to repair its relationships with major Arab countries and Israel. For the last few weeks Turkey and Egypt have been negotiating terms of restoring diplomatic and other relationships. The Turks are willing to drop their support for the Moslem Brotherhood, which has been of little help to the current Turk government, dominated by Islam political parties since 2000 but now in danger of being voted out of power. Egypt also wants the Turks out of Libya. Once more the future of Libya is being decided by political decisions back in Turkey.

September 27, 2021: Turkey continues making regular flights of military transports from Turkey to Libya, carrying weapons and troops. These flights are being tracked by other NATO countries, and cargoes viewed using photo satellites. Turkey is currently using two of its new Airbus A400 military transports. These are similar to the latest version of the American C-130 and NATO can take some satisfaction in the success of the long-delayed A400 as it is finally delivered in large numbers.

September 21, 2021: The HoR parliament met and voted to withdraw confidence of the GNU because of GNU inability to deal with continued problems with the Turks and preparations for the December 24 national elections. HoR leaders openly accused GNA and GNU of working against the December elections. The GNU responded by insisting that they would proceed without HoR support. The U.S. said it would continue supporting the GNU efforts but is planning to sanction nations that have troops and illegal military aid in Libya if the elections don’t happen and the civil war resumes. If the sanctions had any impact, this would hurt the Turkey backed GNA faction far more than the HoR faction.

September 17, 2021: In the southwest (Fezzan region, 640 kilometers south of Tripoli) French counter-terrorism forces have joined the LNA and security forces in neighboring Niger to eliminate a Chad rebel group called FACT (Front for Alternation and Concord) which has been increasingly active this year. Since 2015 the LNA has been trying to maintain some degree of law and order in this area where fighting between Tuareg and Tebu tribesmen has been flaring up regularly since the 2011 revolution. Much of the violence is over control of the main road going to the Niger border. 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 was 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. In this case 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 after Kaddafi fell. There they continued skirmishes 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 and Taureg. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still approve of. 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 weapons, fuel, drugs and people). The Tabu and Tuareg leaders worked out agreements on dividing smuggling business but discipline in the tribes is not all that tight and fights keep breaking out. The main cause of renewed fighting in 2019 is the GNA sending militiamen south to aid the Tabu in pushing LNA forces out of the area. The GNA effort in the south is not so much about ancient tribal rivalries but about gaining control of oil fields and pipelines in this part of the country. About a quarter of Libyan oil comes from this area and in 2020 the GNA, with help of Turkish mercenaries, regained some control in the area, long policed by the LNA. The GNA forces were unable to dislodge LNA forces and the October 2020 ceasefire agreement enabled the LNA to return to its anti-terrorist and anti-smuggling efforts. At that point the French offered to cooperate against common problems, which is where FACT became a target.

September 9, 2021: Turkey and Egypt announced they intend to restore diplomatic ties before the end of 2021. However, a major issue remains unresolved. Egypt adamantly opposes Turkey’s involvement in Libya. The two nations broke formal relations in 2013. Turkey and Egypt began discussing normalizing diplomatic relations in May. Egypt is demanding that Turkey drop its support for the Moslem Brotherhood, which the Turks are seriously considering if that is the price of making peace with Egypt.

The Moslem Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 as a political movement stressing clean government and the use of Islamic law. That has not worked out. In mid-2012 Egyptian election officials declared Islamic Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi the new president. Before president Mursi could do much, the Moslem Brotherhood radicals got violent in their demands that Egypt be ruled with Sharia (Islamic) law. That was what Saudi Arabia has used for decades but Sharia was very unpopular with most Egyptian voters. By 2014 angry voters had forced Mursi out and new elections put a former general (Sisi) into power. The Moslem Brotherhood once more became the enemy, except in Turkey, where a Moslem Brotherhood-like government had ruled Turkey since 2000 and had not had any problems with radicals. But Turkish voters were getting tired of their increasingly corrupt and inept Islamic government that seems to have declared just about everyone an enemy of Turkey.

Every time a moderate Moslem Brotherhood government gains power it fails because the radicals, there is always a radical faction, demand that an Islamic religious dictatorship be installed and this always triggers popular resistance. Some of those Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood radicals went rogue in 1987 and eventually established themselves in Gaza as Hamas. In 2005 Hamas took over Gaza and turned it into a sanctuary for all many of Islamic terror groups including, by 2014, ISIL. That led to Egypt treating Hamas as an enemy, not oppressed Palestinian freedom fighters. The Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood hurt its reputation in the early 1990s when radical factions, frustrated at their inability to achieve peaceful reforms in Egypt, turned to terrorism and were defeated after a bloody terrorism campaign aimed at the economy and especially foreign tourists, failed. Tourism accounts for 11 percent of the GDP and provides jobs (directly or indirectly) for 12 percent of the Egyptian workforce. Turkey could use the need for better relations with Egypt as an excuse to declare the Moslem Brotherhood an enemy, on paper at least. Turkish and Egyptian diplomatic officials are trying to find mutually acceptable lies to make this work for everyone. The Egyptian economy is growing again, after the 2020 covid19 recession slowed things down. Since early 2021 GDP has been growing at a rate of over seven percent. Turkey has to keep this in mind.

Russia believes expensive foreign military operations, like the ones in Syria and Libya will eventually pay for themselves by generating more exports and lucrative foreign deals. So far, this strategy has been running at a loss and the situations in Syria and Libya still have uncertain outcomes for Russia. In many respects foreign military interventions in Syria and Libya have also caused more problems with existing allies.

In Syria, Russia and Turkey are supposed to be Iranian allies but are less frequently acting the part. Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 to help preserve its old Cold War era ally the Assads. This was done for the benefit of Russia, not Syria, Iran or Turkey. Russia was the second foreign power to come to the aid of the Assads. Since 2012 Iran has been helping keep their old Shia ally, the Assads, in power. Iran had more ambitious goals, as in increasing its threat against Israel once the rebels were defeated. A year after the Russians showed up, the Turks sent in troops, but used locally recruited Syrian mercenaries to do most of the fighting and dying. The Turks used the same mercenaries in Libya, where the Russians are the enemy rather than an ally.

Libyans see the Turks as trying to use Libya as a tool to expand their power in the region. Libyans, more so than the Turks, remember the centuries of problems the Turks caused in what became Libya. 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 Libyans 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.

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.

 

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