Libya: Paranoia Blocks The Path To Peace


May 16, 2016: The UN sponsored unity government known as the GNA (Government of National Accord) has been in Tripoli since early April and controls all the government ministries located there. GNA has a lot of popular support it but not all the factions of the old Tripoli and Tobruk governments have recognized the GNA as the national government. This is mainly about terms for transferring power (now held by tribes and militias they represent) to GNA. This sort of thing is common in Libya and is a problem that won’t easily be done away with. It began with the first post-Kaddafi national government. This was the General National Congress (or GNC), formed after the 2011 revolution to create a new constitution for the voters to decide on. The GNC was to rule until the constitution was approved and government elections held. Progress was slow and in late 2013 the GNC illegally extended its power for another year. Despite that elections were held in 2014 but the GNC did not like the composition of the new House of Representatives (HoR). The UN recognized the HoR but most of the GNC members (who tended to be more tribal and religiously conservative) refused to give up power. The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk and rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC. Now the UN only recognizes the GNA. The Tobruk government is now the biggest obstacle to unity. It was initially believed that by the end of April a majority of the Tobruk House of Representatives would vote to transfer their allegiance (and power) to the GNC. Some of the Tripoli based GNC members also refuse to recognize the GNA and insist that the GNC still exists. The reality is that the GNC has lost all the government facilities it controlled and now exists in name only. The HoR is in a similar situation except for one major difference, the Libyan armed forces and its commander general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar. The possibility that Hiftar’s forces could gain control of the oil fields and ports in the east is a long shot but the only chance the HoR has of surviving. Even then there is UN opposition and an effective embargo of illegal oil exports. What to do with Hiftar and widespread distrust of the West (and everyone else) in Libya and throughout the Middle East is preventing an end to the chaos in Libya.

The problem is that Hiftar wants to remain head of the armed forces and many factions in the GNA. The UN and the West want to limit Hiftar’s authority. Thus another former officer (and recent subordinate of and rival to Hiftar) was named GNA Defense Minister. Since 2014 Hiftar has had the support of many Arab nations who see him as the kind of “strong man” who could unify Libya. But many Western nations (and the UN) disagree and fear that Hiftar intends to become another dictator like Kaddafi. Most Libyans feel this is absurd as while Hifar was once a general in Kaddafi’s army he turned on Kaddafi in the late 1980s and was forced to flee the country. After that he was openly critical of Hiftar and risked his life to return after the 2011 revolution to rally the eastern tribes against the Islamic terrorist groups that were blocking formation of a national government. Unfortunately the same qualities that make Hiftar an effective military leader are interpreted by many militia leaders as a threat to their power. Then there is the fact that many Libyans accuse the GNA of being “imposed on Libya by the UN and the West”. While this is all theoretical (as are most of the conspiracies Libyans use to blame their problems on) ISIL and a growing economic crises are very real and immediate threats.

General Hiftar was recognized (by the HoR) as head of the Tobruk military in early 2015 and was expected to continue under the GNA. Before 2015 Hiftar was, technically, just another self-made warlord. Because he was a former Kaddafi general and long-time Kaddafi opponent Hiftar managed to create a coalition of tribal militias and army units in late 2013 and proved to be very effective fighting the Islamic terrorists in eastern Libya. Since early 2014 Hiftar has managed to get most of the post-Kaddafi armed forces under his control and backed Tobruk pleas for foreign assistance in obtaining more weapons and other military supplies. Hiftar has been effective but not as much as he could have been, at least according to some Western military officials. He is a career military man and one big advantage Hiftar has is that he takes care of his troops and uses tactics that minimize casualties among his followers. This makes Hiftar very popular with forces he controls and makes it easier to attract new factions (usually tribal militias). Hiftar has launched a new offensive to destroy the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) base in Sirte. Other anti-ISIL militias are advancing from Misrata in the west, or at least planning to.

The Hiftar problem is more complicated because many Arab government have been unofficially supplying him with military equipment and weapons. The main supporters (since 2014) are Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The most recent shipment consisted of about a hundred armored and unarmored trucks delivered via Egypt. Although there is a UN arms embargo on all factions in Libya the UAE (and some other Arab states) have always backed the more secular Libyan rebels and recognized (along with Egypt and the UN) the HoR government. But these Arab states also back the GNA while still believing that Hiftar is best suited to continue as military commander. Despite an internationally recognized government the arms embargo remains but the UN does not make a lot of noise about the UAE and Egyptian shipments because the vehicles, weapons and ammo go to what is left of the Libyan Army, which Hiftar has turned into the most effective counter-terror force in Libya.

While neither of the old governments had sufficient internal support to officially disband and transfer all power to the new GNA that made no real difference, except for Hiftar. The GNA has so much popular support that it took over all key government institutions, except the armed forces. This disunity is still a problem. It is mostly about greed, tribal loyalty and corruption. Many members of the GNC and HoR did not want to lose power and income (largely because of the opportunities for corruption). The GNA and the UN is brokering deals with major GNC and HoR factions to gain their support, or at least prevent armed opposition. This nasty business continues as quietly and discreetly as possible and may take some time to be completed. Failure to bribe (convince) enough holdouts to switch could lead to another civil war because most Libyans have made it pretty clear that they support the GNA.

The Central Bank and National Oil Company (NOC) both backed the GNA but that means little until nearly all the major factions agree to shift their loyalty the GNA. At that point the NOC managers believe production can be doubled within weeks and tripled within eight months. The NOC also accused the Tobruk government of trying to export 650,000 barrels of oil illegally this year. That was blocked by oil port workers who refused to do the actual loading and warnings from the UN that anyone involved in buying such an illegal cargo was subject to prosecution. But with the Hiftar issue still unsettled there is virtually no oil being exported from the eastern ports. HoR still retains the loyalty of enough tribal militias, plus Hiftar, to block GNA efforts to assert its authority in the east. To counter this the U.S. and EU are backing an effort to get the UN to lift its arms embargo against military forces controlled by the GNA. This would mean the West supplying one Libyan faction (GNA) while most Arab states back HoR and Hiftar. The new GNA Defense Minister (Mahdi Al Barghathi) is a former army officer from Benghazi who has worked for Hiftar but became a rival.

There is a major battle over Sirte in the works. The problem is that the three attacking forces (pro-GNA militias from Misrata, tribal militias around Sirte and Libyan Army forces from the east) are not acting together. At the moment the prospected of unity any time soon are not good. Hiftar and many Libyans do not trust the UN and the GNA. Nor do many Arab governments that still support Hiftar. One of the reasons for this mistrust is the fact that in order to get the GNA installed in Tripoli with little armed resistance the UN approved deals with Islamic conservative factions that Hiftar and many Libyans (especially in the east) see as supporters of Islamic terrorism. Then again many Arabs believe ISIL and al Qaeda are Western inventions meant to weaken the Islamic world. This is the political environment you have to work in to achieve anything in this part of the world.

May 14, 2016: The United States has imposed sanctions on Ageela Salah, the head of the HoR for his efforts in preventing HoR approval of the GNA. The EU (European Union) has already sanctioned Salah.

May 5, 2016: ISIL forces from Sirte have been attacking military checkpoints along the coastal highway and seeking to take control of more coastal villages. This has motivated militias in Misrata to unite and send a large force east towards Sirte. The UN is advising against that because the UN backed GNA wants to gain control over the Libyan armed forces first.

April 27, 2016: In Algeria the army has arrested 34 people and charged them with supporting Islamic terrorists (with supplies, weapons or shelter). Most (32) were arrested near where the borders of Libya, Tunisia and Algeria meet. This is 750 kilometers southeast of the capital. The other two were arrested at Tizi Ouzou (120 kilometers east of the capital.) Arrests like these are common because Islamic terrorism is still quite unpopular throughout the country and many people will use their cell phones to call in tips that lead to arrests which often result in the discovery of where Islamic terrorist hideouts or equipment storage sites are. Because of this several of these hideouts or weapons caches are found each week. There is similar violence on the Libyan borders with Egypt and Tunisia as armed smugglers use force to deal with border guards trying to stop the illegal movements of good and people.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close