Libya: Festering, Talking, Hoping

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September 4, 2015: Not much verifiable information coming out of Libya about the overall situation. There are reports about high flying aircraft (not the few warplanes the Tobruk government has) being seen over areas where there is fighting. This is believed to be American and NATO UAVs and intelligence collecting aircraft. What these aircraft gather is not made public lest the Islamic terrorists and other bad actors below find out and change their communications. It appears that most of the country is quiet, including areas in the south where Islamic terrorist groups are largely free to operate, supplied by smugglers. In the north, along the coast where most of the population lives the situation is rather busier.

Fighting continues in several areas. In the eastern city of Benghazi and Brega (an oil export terminal in eastern Libya) small groups of Islamic terrorists continue to cause problems, even though the Islamic terrorists have lost control of most of the territory they held in the east as recently as 2014. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is having an easier time grabbing headlines than holding ground in Libya. The best example of this is in the coastal city of Sirte (500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi). Fighting between ISIL and locals (reinforced by some anti-ISIL militias from elsewhere) has left the city in chaos and caused over 800 casualties. ISIL has resorted to its usual savagery with public executions and random acts of terror. So far the locals are not willing to submit or flee. In July Islamic terrorist groups affiliated with ISIL claimed to have control of this city. That proved to be overly optimistic. Sirte had a population of 100,000 in 2011 and was former dictator Kaddafi's birthplace. Before 2011 it was full of his well-cared for Kaddafi supporters. Sirte was heavily damaged and looted during the 2011 rebellion. Most of the population fled that chaos and when they returned they found a much less prosperous lifestyle. This caused some of the locals to arm themselves and misbehave. The continued anarchy in Sirte made it possible for many Islamic terrorist groups to establish themselves there. Kaddafi was a religious man as were many of his followers and some of those now became fans of Islamic terrorism. Until 2014 there was nothing to unify the many factions in Sirte. Then ISIL came along and some Sirte based Islamic terrorist militias have pledged allegiance to ISIL. Soon after that ISIL began enforcing their strict lifestyle rules (including how women are to dress and act) there and public punishment (including execution) for those who refuse to comply. This soon backfired and since early August ISIL has been on the defensive in Sirte as the majority of armed factions there fight back.  The Libyan governments in Tobruk and Tripoli are using the Sirte situation to try and convince the UN to lift the arms embargo and encourage countries to provide air strikes against ISIL.

ISIL also claims control of Sabratha, which is 66 kilometers west of Tripoli and about the same size as Sirte. In fact ISIL controls parts of Sabratha and the reality is that no one has controlled all of Sabratha since 2011. Further east Derna (200 kilometers east of Benghazi) came under the control of ISIL affiliate Islamic terrorists in late 2014 but has since become a patchwork of pro and anti ISIL factions.  Derna is a little larger than Sirte and has long been a commercial center. Al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists drove ISIL out of central Derna in June but ISIL managed to maintain positions on the outskirts. ISIL admits they were defeated in Derna but insist they will take it back. Since early August that effort has largely consisted of machine-gun and mortar fire and a few suicide bombings. But the people on the receiving end are also Islamic terrorists and not particularly intimidated by ISIL threats or tactics. Tobruk government forces are slowly pushing ISIL out of the area.

Peace Talks

Since mid-August the UN hosted peace talks outside the country (Switzerland, Morocco, Turkey and so on) appear to have produced one tangible result; both the Tobruk and Tripoli governments agree that a peace deal is the only solution and that one was within reach. Getting from there to a final peace deal will not be easy because both sides have to get their factions to agree on terms. Everyone expects a final deal by September or October. Aside from getting all the factions involved to agree there is also the problem with the Tripoli coalition, which is falling apart and often unable to agree to any peace deal because of that. That is becoming secondary to starvation. Growing economic (less oil income and imported food) and military (ISIL and warlords) pressure has led the troublesome factions of the Tripoli government to be more accommodating. Beyond peace there are other problems, like many Libyans blaming outsiders (the West, mainly) for all their problems and refusing to take responsibility for the mess Libyans have created for themselves. At the UN there are problems with China and Russia. These two countries are also at odds with the West and do all they can at the UN to prevent peace in Libya. Russia in particular wants the Western nations that are most hurt by the continuing chaos in Libya and flood of illegal migrants to keep suffering. This is right out of the Russian Cold War playbook and is discussed freely and proudly on the streets of Moscow. That Chinese also recognize the usefulness of this tactic but are also eager to invest in the rebuilding of Libya.

One thing that is persuading the Tripoli government to make peace is the growing success of the Tobruk government in using its international recognition, UN support and cordial relations with many foreign nations to gain sole control of the Central Bank and National Oil Company. The Tobruk government is gradually replacing the Central Bank and National Oil Company and depriving the Tripoli government of their main source of income (oil sales). In January Tobruk forces seized the Benghazi branch of the Libyan Central Bank and began looking for bankers to run a new Central Bank headquarters outside Tripoli. The Central Bank (which controls over $80 billion in cash and gold reserves) headquarters remained in Tripoli for so long because bank officials managed to convince the UN that they were neutral and trying to continue paying government salaries and bills for essential imports. This worked for a while because the UN believed that recognizing the “functional neutrality” of the Central Bank would help achieve a peace deal with the Tripoli government. Because of that the UN initially criticized the February seizure of the Benghazi branch. The Tobruk government insisted the Benghazi seizure was done, in part, to prevent Islamic terrorist groups from attacking the branch, whose vaults contain a lot of cash (and remained intact and under guard.) Since then the UN found that the Tripoli government has become paralyzed by factional disagreements and many international financial institutions, like the IMF, agree. So the Tobruk government effort to gain sole control of the Central Bank is succeeding. That will lead to Tobruk getting sole control over the National Oil Company as well. Currently only about 225,000 barrels of oil a day is being pumped and shipped, all from facilities controlled by the Tobruk government.

Tunisia has a growing problem with Islamic terrorists from (currently) lawless Libya getting in and causing problems. Arrests are regularly made but police know a lot of these Islamic terrorists are still getting in. Not surprisingly Tunisia has decided to follow the Israeli example and build a high tech security fence along 160 kilometers of its border with Libya. This decision is based on the success of a fence design pioneered by Israel and successfully copied by India and Saudi Arabia and a growing number of other nations.

September 3, 2015: The Tripoli government finally got its internal problems settled enough to send a delegation to the UN sponsored peace talks (with the Tobruk government) in Switzerland. The UN has told both government that until they form a united government the UN is unwilling to do a lot more (like lift the arms embargo and urge member nations to provide air support against ISIL.)

September 2, 2015:  A Greek coast guard ship stopped a small freighter off Crete and brought it in for inspection. The freighter was suspected of smuggling weapons and had left Turkey on the 29th headed for Misrata in Libya. The inspection eventually found half a million rounds of ammunition and 5,000 military style shot guns hidden in cargo containers under legitimate cargo. Because of those discoveries the search continues. Turkey has offered to assist in the investigation and ascertain if the weapons came from smugglers in Turkey. The 40 year old freighter is small (65 meters/211 feet) and the crew of seven (mostly Arabs) were arrested. The cargo was apparently for one of the Islamic terrorist militias that control Misrata.

September 1, 2015: The Tobruk government has banned Yemenis, Iranians and Pakistanis from entering the country. Too many people from those countries have been encountered fighting for Islamic terror groups in Libya. The Tobruk government had earlier banned Sudanese, Bangladeshis, Palestinians and Syrians for the same reasons. This ban does not keep these people out but makes it more difficult for them to get into Libya and move around there freely.

August 28, 2015: In the northwest (the port of Zuwara 60 kilometers from the Tunisian border) a local militia arrested three smugglers believed responsible for the deaths of over 200 illegal migrants being taken to Europe. Two overloaded boats sank while still within Libyan territorial waters (anything 22 kilometers from the shore) and many of the bodies washed up on the Zuwara beaches. In more peaceful times Zuwara was a popular vacation destination for Libyan and foreign vacationers. Arresting smugglers in Libya is rare because these criminals usually pay off local militias or whoever has the power in an area. But the large death toll in this incident and the bodies washing up on the tourist beaches outraged many residents of Zuwara who demanded action from the local militia. The three arrested smugglers will probably be able to bribe their way out of this mess and then move their smuggling operation to another town.

August 27, 2015: Turkey cancelled a 2009 agreement with Libya which allowed Turks and Libyans to enter both countries without visas. As a result after the 2011 revolution Turkey became a favorite vacation spot for affluent Libyans as well as a useful conduit for well financed refugees and criminals.

August 26, 2015: The landline telephone system in the east was crippled when someone in Sirte damaged an underwater cable off Sirte, a city partly controlled by ISIL.

August 25, 2015: The Tripoli government called on foreign nations to provide air support in the fight against ISIL in Libya. Both the Arab League and NATO declined to do so.

August 24, 2015: ISIL groups in Derna have called for the death of al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is leading al Qaeda forces against ISIL in Derna.

August 15, 2015: In Egypt the Libyan border was closed because the Libyan border guards disappeared and been replaced by armed civilians. It is still unclear why that happened but the Libyan Tobruk government (recognized by the UN) is actively working with Egypt to get Libyan guards back on duty so the border can be reopened sometime in September. The border is over a thousand kilometers long and most of it is in thinly populated areas that makes it easy for smugglers to get across. Until the Libyans put trained personnel back on border guard duty Egypt will let Egyptians cross from Libya to Egypt but not much else.

 

 

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