Libya: Money Talks Louder Than UN Or NATO

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October 7, 2022: Abdulhamid Dbeibah continues to control the GNU (Government of National Unity) as prime minister even though he was officially replaced earlier in 2022. Fathi Bashagha was selected in a UN supervised election to replace Dbeibah, who was seen as corrupt and dependent on the illegal presence of Turkish troops. Bashagha has tried three times to use force to remove Dbeibah but the pro-Dbeibah militias in Tripoli and surrounding areas have proved too strong to overcome. Some of these militias have benefitted from training and weapons provided by Turkey. The UN is helpless to do anything decisive because Russia is one of the five nations with a permanent veto over UN actions. Russia has allied itself with Turkey and is now cutting ties with the Bashagha faction. Dbeibah obtained Turkish and now Russian assistance to gradually gain control over the Central Bank of Libya and the National Oil Corporation. That makes it easier to win over tribes and areas that currently support Bashagha, the legitimate head of the GNU. Turkey is preparing to start exploratory drilling in areas of the Mediterranean that are controlled by Greece and Greece is threatening military action to stop the Turks. Both nations are NATO members and most members support Greece but the NATO rules don’t cover a situation like this and the Turks are taking advantage of that.

Dbeibah insists he can only be removed by national elections yet Dbeibah is the biggest obstacle to national elections. Many Libyans see Bashagha as making an effort to get Turkish forces out and hope to obtain active UN support in forcing the Turks out. The UN was hobbled by Russia using its permanent UN veto to block efforts to force the Turks out of Libya. Turkey’s refusal to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine made Russia less inclined to continue using its UN veto to support illegal (according to most UN members) Turkish operations in Libya. Turkey’s Libyan operations are proving to be more and more of a liability. Turkey seems aware of this as well. Most of their Syrian Arab mercenaries in Tripoli have not been paid for six months. Turkey is paying the Syrian leaders of the mercenaries to keep them under control. This includes allowing leaders to be flown back to Syria to deal with family affairs, like the death of a parent. The Syrian mercs have been in Libya for two years, which is longer than they signed up for. The Bashagha forces in Tripoli would have had no chance to succeed if the Turkish forces got involved. Bashagha was aware of the situation with the Turkish mercenaries in Tripoli and other problems the Turks were dealing with back home. The Turks did not interfere and the Bashagha forces were encouraged but that was not enough.

Libyans continue having economic problems because of disputes over who is the legitimate head of the GNU. Since April lack of cooperation between the Bashagha and Dbeibah factions have caused oil exports to decline by half, which resulted in chronic electricity shortages for both factions. Dbeibah, with help from Turkey and Russia, was able to replace the head of the National Oil Corporation and gain control over oil exports, which are now returning to normal levels.

This lack of unity has been around since the decades old dictatorship was overthrown in mid-2011. The UN stepped in with an official presence but because of the militia violence in the capital of Tripoli, the UN mission has been headquartered in neighboring Tunisia. For the same reason Fathi Bashagha, the leader of the eastern Libyan government does not plan to rule all of Libya from Tripoli until the violent militias there are pacified. This is what the eastern forces were close to accomplishing in 2019 before the Turks got involved.

After 2011 the UN was able to impose control over Libyan oil revenues deposited in European banks, to curb corruption, but benefits for the Libyan population were disrupted and reduced by the continuing disorder. What it comes down to is that there is no sense of national unity. The best post-2011 Libya has been able to do is create somewhat stable coalitions in eastern and western Libya. Partition of Libya into east and west is now seen as a serious solution to the continued deadlock. The UN is unlikely to accept the partition solution while new revelations about Turkish dirty deeds and Russia’s continued losses in Ukraine make a compromise acceptable to all more likely.

There is less and less violence in Libya because of the stalemate, and that means there is currently no war in Libya. Over the last decade most of the casualties have come from rival militias in Tripoli fighting each other and the Islamic terrorists in the east and south attacking locals and each other. Libya can best be described as a failed state, similar to what happened to Somalia after the 1990 anti-government rebellion and in Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1987 and again in 2021 when Pakistan-backed Taliban overthrew another Afghan government that had existed since 2002. In Somalia Islamic terrorist groups (mainly al Shabaab) eventually tried to take over, but failed. In Afghanistan it was the Taliban, which took over most of the country in the late 1990s, but was overthrown in late 2001 when the U.S. came to the aid of the tribes that were still fighting the Taliban. The clear lesson here is that someone will have to intervene to prevent Islamic terrorists from gaining too much control over the country, or simply to stop the violence before the economy (oil industry) is destroyed. At the moment no one is stepping forward to intervene, mainly because it is an expensive and thankless job. Someone may still intervene to back the government and that is what the government is hoping for.

The current stalemate was caused when the western GNU officially refused to recognize the western (HoR, or House of Representatives) government approval of Fathi Bashagha as the new GNU prime minister. The HoR government represents more Libyans than the Tripoli-based GNA (Government of National Accord). The GNA and HoR are in the process of using the GNU to merge but that process, and the long-sought national elections, are currently blocked by a dispute within the GNU between the newly elected former interior minister Fathi Bashagha as the new GNU prime minister and the original GNU prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, whose term of office ended in December. This dispute has been going on since January and UN efforts to resolve the dispute have failed.

Dbeibah turned out to be corrupt and willing to accept the Turkish presence in Libya. Dbeibah also blocked progress on organizing national elections. Bashagha believes he can organize national elections in 14 months, unless the UN backs Dbeibah or does nothing to block interference from Dbeibah. Bashagha backed Turkish intervention in 2019 and 2020, but turned against the Turks when the Turks indicated they were not leaving Libya.

The December 24 elections did not happen and there are disagreements in Libya and the UN over a new date for national elections. The UN also wants to replace many of the local officials in the GNU. In late 2020 the UN brokered the creation of the GNU, yet another temporary government to unite Libya. The Turks, Russians, GNA, HoR and LNA agreed to withdraw their forces as part of a late 2020 ceasefire/national unification plan. This agreement called for national elections to be held by the end of 2021. That did not happen, mainly because of the continued presence of Turkish forces and disagreements over the new constitution and who can run for office. The Turks realize they don’t have to fight to remain in Libya, just disrupt and delay any efforts, like elections or a UN condemnation, to force them to leave or fight to stay. Haftar and his LNA stayed out of the dispute between Bashagha and Dbeibah. Haftar does not want to be accused of acting like a king maker.

Durable Disagreements

Libyans have not been able to agree on a new government since the overthrow of Kaddafi in mid-2011. There was some unity because by 2015 there were two major factions, one in the capital Tripoli and backed by the UN and the other in the east, based in Tobruk. The primary dispute between the two factions was support of Islamic political parties and some Islamic terrorist groups. In most of Libya, especially the east, that attitude was not acceptable and the growing number of Islamic terror groups in Libya had become a major threat to most Libyans. The most effective opponent of the Islamic terrorists was a former Libyan army officer, Khalifa Haftar, who fled Libya in the 1980s after incurring the wrath of dictator Kaddafi. Now an American citizen, he returned to eastern Libya in 2013, revived some of the units of the Kaddafi-era military and began taking control of military bases from militias and Islamic terrorists. Eastern tribes rallied to Haftar, who had organized the most effective counterterrorism effort in the country. Haftar had the support of most Arab states, especially Egypt and the UAE. Egypt has a vulnerable border with Libya that was being used by Islamic terror groups to move people in and out as well as smuggle weapons into Egypt.

Egypt provided a land route to Libya for supplies and weapons for the LNA, largely paid for by the UAE and other Arab oil states. Egypt, the UAE and other Arab states support the new Bashagha government and oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Turkey backs Ukraine more than it opposes Russia but is trying to play both sides. The UN was forced by nearly all its members to strongly condemn Russia for the Ukraine invasion. The Ukrainian situation has also taken away any UN attention to the Libya crisis. Currently the UN has not proposed any solution to the GNA/HoR dispute or the illegal presence of Turkey in Libya. The UN tends to avoid offending major UN members, especially the five nations with veto power. That group includes Russia but not Turkey. The UN does not have armed forces, aside from peacekeepers who are supplied by member states and paid for by UN members, especially the U.S. and other industrial nations that provide most of the UN budget. UN leaders have found that the safest thing for them to do when major powers have disputes is to find ways to offend no one, even if that means serious disputes go on far longer than necessary.

Russia backed Haftar early on and by 2016 Haftar was making regular visits to Russia to discuss cooperation in the fight against the Islamic terrorists in Libya. What impressed the Russians was Haftar’s long-range plan for uniting Libya, holding elections and allowing the Libyan economy to thrive once more. Russia began providing military assistance, in the form of advisors and technicians to repair and restore a lot of Russian tanks, artillery and aircraft that were still intact but out of action because of a lack of repairs and new parts. Russia and Arab allies also helped Haftar with logistics.

Haftar forces were effective and loyal because Haftar took care of them and minimized friendly casualties. The Russian and Arab support enabled the LNA to pacify 90 percent of Libya and by early 2019 Haftar was closing in on Tripoli, where the UN-backed GNA was barely able to maintain order in Tripoli and two other eastern cities dominated by Islamic militias who openly feuded with each other and barely tolerated the GNA. By mid-2019 the LNA offensive was working its way towards taking Tripoli when Turkey showed up with an offer the GNA couldn’t refuse; military intervention against the LNA. In return the GNA would sign a treaty with Turkey granting it somebody else’s offshore oil rights. The GNA’s UN patron did little more than protest as Turkey began moving in weapons and troops, especially 10,000 of its own Syrian Arab mercenaries, to halt the LNA advance. By February 2020 the LNA agreed to a ceasefire. This held and led to a peace deal in which the GNA and eastern HoR governments agreed to merge and carry out national elections. Part of the deal was Russia and Turkey withdrawing their troops. Russia began doing so but the Turks did not. The Russian force was much smaller (about 1,200 Wagner Group military contractors and Russian technicians for maintaining equipment as well as a larger force of Arab mercenaries) than the 12,000 Turkish troops and Arab mercenaries. Russia had another reason for pulling out most of its personnel and ultimately its support for Haftar; it could no longer afford it. That was the result of economic sanctions imposed after the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine. In 2022 that escalated into a larger operation and Russia is now burdened with even heavier sanctions. This could lead to the departure of all Russian military personnel. The Turks are now the major obstacle to Libyan unity and elections. Russia also has forces in Syria, where it is an ally of Turkey.

The key issue is getting the Turks out of Libya but no one has the military capability to force the Turks out as long as the Turks refuse to leave. Bashagha, the new GNU leader, promises to use negotiation to get the Turks out. The Turkish forces are still concentrated in the west, around Tripoli and Misrata. In both these cities the militias violently feud with each other. This happens despite Turkish efforts to train militia members to be professional soldiers. The militiamen accepted the training and new weapons, but their first loyalty remained to their militia leaders, who often represented populations in the two cities.

After 2015 the LNA served as a successful counterterrorism force that destroyed or neutralized Islamic terrorists in the east and south and by 2019 was preparing to do the same with the feuding Islamic militias in Tripoli and Misrata.

Not all the troublesome militias were in the major cities. Some are from rural areas around oil production facilities and serve as PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards). General Haftar and his LNA tamed these PFGs via negotiation and in a few instances by force. Despite that, and the fact that jobs as PFGs are among the best paid and secure in the country, some PFG groups have internal political problems that occasionally result in a PFG threatening to shut down the facilities they guard unless they are paid more. It’s still up to the LNA to settle these disputes with a minimum of violence or lost production. Most Libyans are aware of the rising cost of grain imports and that the national bank has exhausted most of its cash reserves. That means that any serious disruption of oil production will soon mean less access to food or cash for government payrolls, including the PFGs.

The PFGs have long been seen as a permanent source of corruption. PFGs are tribal militias hired (or bribed) by previous or post-2011 governments to keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. Soon after Kaddafi was deposed in 2011 many, if not most, PFGs went rogue, shut down the facilities they guarded and, in effect, tried to blackmail whoever was paying them to pay more. This was driven by tribal feuds over how oil revenue should be allocated. Libya has always been very corrupt and Kaddafi remained in power for decades by playing the tribes off on each other with oil income. Those who cooperated got more, those who caused trouble got less. With Kaddafi gone many tribes wanted payback for past real or imagined injustices. Many of the PFGs came to support the GNA but, as long as some of them continue to resist, oil income is crippled and the much-feared food crisis is no longer approaching, it is here. General Haftar and the HoR government have been successful negotiating with the PFGs and offering a better deal (larger share of oil income) and less corruption. Haftar has a reputation for being much less corrupt. PFGs often shut down oil fields and ports because GNA has not paid them. In these cases, GNA often delivered the cash but some or all of it was stolen by PFG leaders who denied they were stealing. The GNA has to collect and publicize enough evidence of the theft to convince other militias and tribal leaders that the corrupt PFG men must be replaced. This is difficult to do and meanwhile PFGs are constantly demanding “adequate compensation” before they will allow oil to be pumped, moved via a pipeline to the export facilities or loaded on tankers. The details of how much “adequate compensation” any PFG is paid is usually kept secret because in Libya the feeling is that no one group is getting their fair share of the oil wealth that has kept the country functioning since the 1970s. Without the cash provided by oil exports, Libya could not import enough food and other essentials to keep the population alive. PFGs are acutely aware that if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs so they are extremely defensive and paranoid. The overall problem is that PFG compensation has little relationship to how dangerous the work is but rather is more a matter of tribal politics. It has taken several years for tribes in areas where there are oil facilities to realize that if they do not cooperate everyone will suffer, which is what has been happening and is getting worse.

Libyans are exhausted and frustrated, but not so much that they will unite, or fight. The only positive development in the last year has been the restoration of normal production levels of 1.2 million BPD (barrels per day). The LNA guards the oil production and export facilities and concentrates its efforts on that.

October 5, 2022: Russia is reopening its embassy in Tripoli and backing the Abdulhamid Dbeibah faction in Libya rather than the Fathi Bashagha faction and the LNA (Libyan National Army) in the east. In effect, Russia is cooperating with Turkey, which has illegal agreements with the Tripoli government that enables Russia to explore for oil and gas in areas of the Mediterranean that are recognized as Greek.

 

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