Libya: The Last Best Hope Until The Next One

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March 19, 2016: Over the last week the UN sponsored peace talks in Morocco have come up with a proposed new unity government known as the GNA (Government of National Accord) that would be led by a prime minister (Fayez al Sarraj) who will be assisted by a presidential council composed that will assist the prime minister in recruiting suitable people for a cabinet. Sarraj was a member of the Tripoli parliament but known to be a moderate. He is a businessman who is currently in Tunisia with the proposed members of his presidential council waiting to move to Tripoli (the traditional capital). The problem with Sarraj is that he is a compromise candidate selected because it was believed he would have the fewest factions violently opposed to him. Yet those factions (mainly in Tripoli but also some that support the Tobruk government) contain some violence prone groups. One thing the anti-Sarraj factions have in common is the belief that the Sarraj government is being imposed by outsiders (the UN, neighboring Arab states and “the West”). At this point a growing number of Libyans support, or will tolerate, a unity government that, initially at least, is imposed by outsiders. UN and Libyan officials (from both the Tripoli and Tobruk governments) are trying to line up enough factions from both governments to back the use of force (by Libyan and foreign forces) to get the new Serraj government into Tripoli and established. This is all very risky and uncertain but it is what passes for a potential solution to the current crises in Libya. For the UN this is an effort to stave off a catastrophe. It is feared that Libya will go through the same process Somalia did; several decades of chaos before the factions decide to cooperate. In the meantime Libya will soon run out of cash and be dependent on foreign charity for food and other essentials. As the UN discovered in Somalia and several similar places, it is becoming impossible to get nations to donate the cash needed for chaotic countries where much of the aid is blocked or stolen. This would mean more Libyans fleeing the country to avoid starvation. They will flee to neighboring states initially, mainly Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. For that reason these three nations back (with reservations) using force to try and get the Serraj government installed and functioning. Western nations, especially the Europeans, want to avoid collapse because that would make Libya a terrorist sanctuary that would threaten everyone, starting with the nations closest to what remains of Libya.

The possibility of total collapse is a process not unique to Libya and Somalia but most of the rest of the world has passed through the phase of social development long ago. What makes Libya a special case is that it has the largest oil reserves in Africa. That’s $5 trillion worth of oil and natural gas still in the ground. Analysts at the National Oil Company calculate that Libya has lost $68 billion in oil income since 2011. Currently production is at an all-time low of only about 360,000 barrels a day. That is barely a quarter of what production was before the 2011 revolution. Without increasing oil production Libyans face widespread starvation within a year or two as cash reserves are exhausted. While some factions (especially the Islamic terrorist ones) don’t care (because they are on a Mission From God) the majority of faction leaders can do the math and have noted the adverse impact of the economic and social collapse over the last few years. The UN is hoping that will be sufficient to get enough factions to back Serraj, or at least remain neutral, and, as the old refrain goes, “give peace a chance.”

Even before the Serraj compromise was put together pro-unity members from both governments reported getting death threats from politicians and faction leaders who oppose the deal. Greed, corruption and factionalism has been key in preventing the formation of a national government or dealing with the growth of Islamic terrorism (and calls for turning Libya into a religious dictatorship). In theory both the parliament in Tobruk (recognized by the UN) and the rival government in Tripoli (dominated by Islamic conservatives) must vote to approve GNA deal. Plan B is to delay that while the Serraj government is installed in Tripoli by any means necessary.

Until now many Western and Arab nations were willing to intervene militarily against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Libya only after the GNA was approved and the new national government formed. Meanwhile many Libyan leaders are well aware that ISIL will continue to exist and expand in Libya unless there is a powerful offensive to clear them out. That requires a united Libya and some foreign assistance. None of that will be available without the GNA and that is another reason for the sudden local and foreign support for the last best hope represented by Serraj and the GNA.

So far ISIL has been kept away from oil facilities and major cities by local militias. While ISIL currently controls only a few towns along the coast they are constantly trying to expand. Thus over 500 kilometers of the 1,800 kilometers long coast is now under ISIL control or threat. ISIL has about 6,000 fighters in those places. That force is growing because of local and foreign recruits. A large number of Libyans (several percent of some four million people left in the country) who still believe Islamic terrorism will fix all the problems in Libya and that ISIL is the best practitioner of this savage and ultimately futile strategy. Nearly all older Libyans realize ISIL is a dead (and deadly) end but many teenagers are still believers. These pro-ISIL teenagers are often found at the many mosques in the country run by radicalized clergy. In some areas the radical clergy have been arrested or killed and radical mosques turned into moderate ones or destroyed if conversion was difficult. Islam is still important for most Libyans but there is a growing intolerance of the more radical forms. So many of the most radical Libyans are flocking to Sirte and other places under ISIL control. In addition it appears that ISIL is directing many of its new recruits to Libya instead of Syria.

Despite all this ISIL continues suffering defeats. For example local forces continue to battle ISIL in Sabratha, a coastal city 66 kilometers west of Tripoli and about the same size as Sirte. ISIL has controlled parts of Sabratha since mid-2015 but no one has controlled all of Sabratha since 2011. There has been constant fighting, especially with ISIL. The various local militias in Sabratha united, got reinforcements from other militias in Tripoli and have so far stopped ISIL from taking over the city. ISIL seems to be having more success in Tripoli where it is possible to recruit from other Islamic terrorist militias. These groups often have more extreme members who see ISIL as more to their liking. Because of this ISIL is making enemies of other Islamic terrorist groups. What happened between ISIL and other Islamic terrorists groups in Syria is widely known and discussed in Tripoli and the consensus is that ISIL is not a team player and considers itself the mortal foe of any other Islamic terrorist group that does not pledge allegiance to ISIL. Meanwhile pro-Tobruk forces continue to block ISIL from establishing themselves in the eastern city of Benghazi. This success in Sabratha and Benghazi shows that Libyans can defeat ISIL. But it also shows that ISIL is relentless and will continue to fight until destroyed.

While there is lots of tension and threats of violence in Libya there is little heavy combat and most of that involves ISIL efforts to expand. Most of the casualties are to the fighters involved although the UN estimates that so far this year 8-9 civilians a week are killed or wounded by stray shell (mortar usually) or rocket fire and bullets aimed at someone else.

Meanwhile the neighbors are increasing security on the borders with Libya. Algeria is putting more security personnel on the Libyan border, given the increased activity there are more Islamic terrorists try to get themselves or shipments of weapons into Algeria. So far this year the security forces have kept the Islamic terrorists on the run and unable to launch any major attacks in Algeria. The major threat is the large number of Islamic terrorists in neighboring Libya and their attempts to get into Algeria.

March 17, 2016: France announced that it would join any effort to get the Serraj government into Tripoli. In late February France admitted that it had at least fifteen special operations troops in Libya and they had been there since the end of 2015. The French troops were operating from an air base outside the Benghazi and were working alongside British and Italian special operations forces and some other specialists from all three countries plus American troops who came in as needed. While there were less than 200 foreign troops involved all the Islamic terrorist groups in Libya (and some of the less religious ones) see this presence of foreign troops tantamount to a Western (and non-Moslem) invasion of Libya. Most Libyans don’t care. The air base is controlled by the elected Tobruk government that is recognized by the UN. The Western commandos are mainly training their Libyan counterparts as well and helping to establish a more efficient intelligence network so that Western warplanes can carry out more strikes on ISIL. Few Libyans object to anything that will hurt ISIL. The French said their troops had carried out four missions so far but nothing was said of how many, if any, the American, Italian and British had engaged in.

Meanwhile Egyptian leaders warned the West not to go into Libya alone with ground forces as most Libyans (and most Arabs) would regard that as another Western invasion of a Moslem country. Going in as part of a Moslem-Western coalition is apparently another matter.

March 15, 2016: The UN voted to extend for three more months UN efforts to establish a functioning national government in Libya. This means the UN can officially pressure key Libyan institutions (the banks and oil companies) to support UN efforts to form a new government.

March 14, 2016: In the southeast (5oo kilometers south of Benghazi) ISIL tried to attack a water processing plant 80 kilometers from the Sarir oil field (the largest in Libya). Security forces killed the driver of a suicide car bomb and defeated ISIL gunmen that were trying to overrun the defenders and get to the water plant. Rockets were also fired at the plant but did no damage to the plant itself. This is the latest and one of the most elaborate ISIL attacks on oil facilities and the militias defending oil facilities are increasing their efforts to improve defenses.

March 11, 2016: Algerian troops on the Tunisian border troops killed three Islamic terrorists who were apparently coming from Libya. The men were transporting weapons including twenty assault rifles, three RPG launchers, two suicide bomb vests and six shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles of the type known to have been taken from Libyan military warehouses during the 2011 rebellion.

March 9, 2016: Just across the border in Tunisia two more Islamic terrorists from Libya were killed, along with a soldier. The dead Islamic terrorists were apparently survivors of the recent attack on nearby Ben Guerdane. The two dead men revealed their presence when they raided a construction side seeking food. Troops were alerted and soon caught up with the men, who refused to surrender.

March 7, 2016: Just across the Tunisian border in the town of Ben Guerdane a large force of ISIL gunmen attacked army and police checkpoints as well as military bases in a coordinated pre-dawn assault. All these attacks were repulsed with 36 of the attackers killed and another seven soon caught up with and killed by pursuing troops. Twelve soldiers and police died in the operation along with seven civilians caught in the crossfire. ISIL is, like most other Islamic terrorist groups in Libya, disappointed and frustrated by the lack of success in establishing any permanent presence in Tunisia. While over 3,000 Tunisians went off to Syria and Libya to join Islamic terrorist groups (including ISIL) one reason for leaving Tunisia was that most Tunisians were very hostile to Islamic terrorism.

March 2, 2016: Five ISIL men from Libya were killed by Tunisian border guards on the Tunisian side of the border. A local civilian in the nearby town of Ben Guerdane was killed by a stray bullet. The dead men were heavily armed and suicide bomb vests.

February 29, 2016: The U.S. State Department warned American citizens to avoid travelling to Tunisia because of the increasing risk of Islamic terrorist attacks against foreigners there. At the same time Britain announced that it was sending twenty soldiers to Tunisia to help train Tunisian troops and generally improve Tunisian border security efforts. France has, for years, been a major supporter of Tunisian efforts to increase the size and capabilities of its counter-terrorism forces.

 

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