Libya: National Suicide Approaches

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August 4, 2016: The battle for Sirte was stalled until the United States began providing air support for the government forces on August 1 st . The UN sponsored unity government (GNA, Government of National Accord) called for the air support because most of the militias fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Sirte have recognized the GNA and were losing their enthusiasm for fighting ISIL. Many Libyan militiamen have been wondering why there was no NATO air support as there was in 2011 and thought the resumption of air strikes was long overdue. The problem was that many Libyans oppose any “foreign intervention” (especially if it does not directly benefit them). Libyan Islamic conservatives came out in opposition of the American air support as did the House of Representatives (HoR) government in eastern Libya, which still refuses to recognize the GNA. Yet the HoR has been quietly accepting military aid from Egypt and some other Arab and Western states.

One thing most Libyans, Moslems and the West can agree on is the need to destroy ISIL and that is what the GNA forces are trying to do in Sirte. About a hundred American and British commandos (SAS, SBS, SEALs, Special Forces) helped organize the attack on Sirte. Using aerial surveillance (by satellites, manned aircraft and UAVs) the commandos located key ISIL positions in Sirte, especially around the port area. The UAVs are based in Italy and some of them are armed. The militias suffered fewer casualties because there was artillery and air support and pro-GNA militias now claim there are only a few hundred ISIL fighters left in Sirte, but these are fighting to the death and the advancing militiamen are not suicidal at all. This slowed progress against the remaining areas of Sirte still held by ISIL. The Western military advisers and commandos agreed that some precision air strikes would eliminate key obstacles to the GNA advance. This had to wait until the GNA could gather the support of enough factions to openly call for the foreign help.

Meanwhile many of the ISIL men originally in Sirte have left and headed for ISIL bases in southern Libya. These will have to be dealt with late. Even with the air support it may take another month or more to clear ISIL out of the Sirte area. This is because the militiamen are not trained or equipped to deal with all the mines and bombs ISIL has placed around their last few strongholds in downtown Sirte. The militias have, since May, have suffered about 20 percent casualties (nearly 400 dead and about four times as many wounded). ISIL used a lot of suicide bombers to impede the militia advance and once the militiamen were downtown there were snipers and remotely controlled bombs to worry about. The Western commandos could help with spotting snipers and hidden bombs but the best way to take out these obstacles was with smart bombs and guided missiles. The U.S. says the air support will be available for as long as the GNA needs, and authorizes, it.

The campaign against the main ISIL base in Sirte began in late May and by early June had pushed ISIL forces back to within 15 kilometers of Sirte and by late July were fighting their way through the city itself. Some of these militiamen were among those ISIL forced out of Sirte in mid-2015 but now they came at Sirte from the south and west. Refugees from Sirte indicated there are fewer ISIL men there because of all the fighting. ISIL men were noted shaving off their beards and behaving like civilians. Over 70 percent of the 120,000 civilians had fled Sirte but ISIL now controls only small areas downtown. But until these ISIL holdouts are destroyed the population won’t return. As they have done in Syria, Iraq Afghanistan and elsewhere harsh ISIL rule enraged many of the locals. In Sirte ISIL punished or executed people for minor infractions of what ISIL considers proper Islamic lifestyle. ISIL definitely believes that if you can’t be loved by your subjects than fear is an acceptable substitute.

The Misrata militias were the most numerous and experienced and did most of the fighting and took most of the casualties. Sirte was the key to continued ISIL presence in Libya and to efforts by ISIL to expand its control. This became obvious in early 2016 as ISIL tried to advance to the east and seize oil facilities. That advance was halted by local militias. By early May the local militias organized a larger force and counterattacked. The most prominent of these eastern militias were the ones paid to guard the oil facilities. These local militias are designated as PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards) and if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs. Most of these pro-GNA (Government of National Accord) militias agreed to join the effort to liberate Sirte from ISIL. The largest of these were the militias from Misrata.

Law And Disorder

In Tripoli the GNA has organized a police force by selecting experienced and trustworthy militiamen to form special units that respond to crimes in progress and take on the many large criminal gangs in the city. This approach is working so far in Tripoli and will provide a model for the rest of the country. At the moment what passes for security in most of the country is provided by local militias, which tend to become corrupt and self-serving and run by what amounts to local warlords. A relatively honest police force would be welcome in most of the country. Even if that were to happen an effective national police force can do little to halt the looming mass starvation.

Despite the growing prospect of massive starvation and total economic collapse, many of the factions in the east (where the HoR is dominant) and even some in the west (where the GNA is) still refuse to approve the December 2015 peace deal that created the GNA . This self-destructive sense of entitlement and resistance to compromise is common throughout the region but Libya is an extreme case. Unless this factionalism and corruption is overcome there is no possibility of avoiding a catastrophe. At the moment the only ones benefitting from this are criminals (especially smugglers, of people and goods) and really extreme religious fanatics who operate many militias (and al Qaeda affiliated criminal gangs). This crises is nothing new and details have been widely known since 2014.

In mid-2014 the government still has about $1oo billion left but there was little credit because foreign suppliers and lenders doubted the ability of the current government to turn things around. Government banking officials insisted that the remaining $100 billion can be made to last for at least two years. What the government did not like to dwell on was that to make existing cash reserves last spending had to be sharply reduced. Those reductions took place and the response of most Libyans was to flee the country or seize any money-making opportunity they could.

It is now two years later and apparently the cash reserves are so low that no one wants to go public with the exact figure. UN officials apparently know, as their cooperation is essential for the Central Bank to operate outside of Libya. The UN has told major donor nations (mainly the U.S. was well as major European and Arab oil states) but no one if offering emergency loans because there is still a massive corruption problem in Libya. Sending aid is one thing, ensuring that most of it is not stolen remains a problem.

Since 2014 Libyans have suffered major cutbacks in government spending. This came as quite a shock as most Libyans depend on the government for jobs, food and other essentials. Without oil income the government cannot deliver. As of 2016 oil income (from exports) is less than ten percent of what it was before 2011. In those normal times about two thirds of the $53 billion annual government budget was for salaries and benefits. Since 2014 government workers have seen their pay or benefits reduced or delayed so that more essential issues (like food imports) could be attended to. The government has also warned people that a lot of Kaddafi era subsidies will have to go in order to keep the economy functioning at all. Such a move is very unpopular. Kaddafi provided a lot of stuff at very low prices. Like loaves of bread for a few pennies. Fuel and electricity was also sold far below cost as were airline, bus and train tickets. Another problem was the many people who collected a government paycheck didn’t do any work, or even show up for work. Changing all these bad habits has proved very difficult. The greed, Islamic terrorism and sense of entitlement that is so widespread in Libya also means that foreign investors are not interested because Libyans make inefficient and troublesome employees. Libya is no place to create wealth but it is an ideal place to squander it. The basic problem is that Libyans have proved unable to agree on how to handle their oil wealth. The tribes living where the oil comes from want a larger share. Actually, everyone wants more, for one reason or another. In 2013 various local militias near the oil fields and export terminals began to seize these facilities and by the end of 2013 had halted 70 percent of exports. That rose to over 85 percent by early 2015. All this was largely unexpected because at the start of 2013 oil production was at 1.4 million barrels a day and nearly back to normal. Then greed got the best of many factions who decided their loyalties were more to themselves than to Libya as a whole. It’s been downhill since then. Before the 2011 revolution oil accounted for over 90 percent of government revenue and over 70 percent of GDP. Without the oil there is no government budget and no economy. Already most Libyans that could flee (about a third of the population) have done so and the rest have to work things out among themselves or starve.

The Politics Of Oil

The GNA has managed to get pledges of loyalty from most PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards) that keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. Deals have been made, that apparently include large cash payments, to get the oil export ports reopened and production increased to 900,000 barrels a day by the end of 2016. Currently only 200,000 barrels a day are produced and half of that is refined in Libya for local use. The rest is available for export but the PFGs have demanded “adequate compensation” before they will allow the export facilities to resume loading tankers. The details of how much “adequate compensation” the GNA has agreed to pay have been 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. Since the 2011 revolution over 32,000 have died (mainly in local disputes) and most of the casualties now are from the fighting with ISIL (mainly in Sirte) and other Islamic terror groups (mainly in Benghazi). The people most likely to leave are the educated and talented Libyans the country needs most. This has made it difficult for the GNA to find qualified people to fill senior posts. About 85 percent of Libya's six million people live along the coast. Some five percent are still nomadic. Other minorities comprise about six percent of the population. Nearly 100 percent of the population speaks at least some Arabic and 97 percent are Sunni Moslems. Currently there are fewer than four million people in Libya

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 Kadaffi gone many tribes wanted payback for past injustices (real or imagined).

August 2, 2016: In the east (Benghazi) an Islamic terrorist car bomb was used to attack troops fighting al Qaeda affiliated gunmen. The car bomb killed at least 22 people and wounded about as many. The Libyan Army troops in Benghazi are controlled by the HoR government.

August 1, 2016: The first American air strike was carried out in Sirte, with three ISIL armored vehicles destroyed. There also some smart bombs used against buildings containing ISIL gunmen blocking the advance of militia fighters. The initial strikes were carried out by U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B jets and AH-1 helicopter gunships operating from a U.S. Navy amphibious ship off the coast. Other strikes are coming from air bases in Italy, where American Reaper UAVs have been carrying out surveillance missions over Sirte for months. The Reapers can also carry Hellfire missiles and smart bombs. Sirte is about 350 kilometers from the nearest Italian territory.

July 29, 2016: Egypt is again hosting meetings between the major Libyan factions in an attempt to negotiate compromise deals that will enable a national government to function in Libya. Egypt still backs the HoR government (mainly because of the effectiveness of general Hiftar in helping keep Islamic terrorists out of Egypt) but has contacts with the UN backed GNA. There is general agreement that Libya’s neighbors Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt are eager to make honest efforts to achieve peace in Libya. The main problem is that too many Libyans are not nearly as willing to do what’s best for Libya.

July 26, 2016: The main Tunisian border crossings at Ras Jadir has been closed for several days because two rival Libyan militias are confronting each other over who will control the crossing. Both militias accuse the other of corruption and being partners with smugglers. Efforts by the Tunisian government to collect import taxes and curb smuggling at these border crossings are difficult because too many Libyans see smuggling as a right and the taxes as unfair.

July 20, 2016: In the east (near Benghazi) three French special operations soldiers were killed when the Libyan Mi-17 helicopter they were in was shot down by Islamic terrorists. The French troops were collecting information on Islamic terror groups around Benghazi and advising local Libyan forces fighting Islamic terrorists in the area.

July 17, 2016: Some 30 kilometers west of Sirte a power plant resumed operation after more than a hundred ISIL living there had been driven out and the mines and explosive traps they left behind had been cleared. Part of the industrial complex around the power plant had been used as a bomb making facility that was apparently supplying most of the suicide vests and car bombs being used in the area. This plant supplies power to areas all along the coast, including Tripoli. It was shut down in June 2015 when ISIL gained control of the area.

 

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