Libya: Too Much Me And Not Enough We

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August 19, 2016: Sirte has fallen. There are still some 200 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters cornered in two neighborhoods but basically the city is controlled by GNA (Government of National Accord) forces. The U.S. provided air support since August 1 st . This consisted of about 60 attacks with smart bombs, missiles or precision cannon fire. The targets were ISIL fortifications, armed vehicles and car and truck bombs (hit before they could be used). These air attacks saved hundreds of lives among the attackers and speeded up the advance. By late July the advance had slowed down considerably because of casualties from suicide bombers, roadside bombs and ISIL men fighting from well-fortified buildings. Low casualties became a priority and the air support took care of that. Sirte is still a dangerous place to be since ISIL left lots of mines and other bombs that can be triggered vehicles or people on foot. In the last few days GNA forces encountered their first female suicide bombers. Both were killed before they could reach their targets and were found to be wearing explosive vests. ISIL had never used female suicide bombers in Sirte before.

The U.S. and other Western nations are apparently also providing GNA forces with intel gleaned from aerial surveillance and electronic monitoring. This intel apparently indicates that ISIL is going to try and reassemble outside Sirte and either retake the city of carve out an area on the coast they can use as a base. If the GNA forces continue to receive air and intel support ISIL will have a hard time carrying out their plan. Many Libyans are still hostile to foreign military involvement but the Libyans doing the fighting against ISIL and other Islamic terrorists are nearly unanimous in their support for the foreign military assistance. Many ISIL men from Sirte are showing up elsewhere.

The GNA is gaining support but losing popularity because it can’t quickly reverse the damage five years of fighting and chaos have done to the welfare state dictator Kaddafi created to keep himself in power. As many rulers, particularly in the Middle East, have learned is that if you devote enough oil income to provide some kind of welfare state you can easily stay in power for a long time and still steal billions for yourself and you family. This method usually includes, as it did in Libya, exploiting tribal, religious and ethnic differences when allocating the oil wealth. Kaddafi did all that successfully for decades. But when he was overthrown in 2011 the Libyan people could not agree on how to share wealth and power and have been fighting ever since. In doing that they have prevented the creation of a national government and destroyed their cherished (especially now that it is gone) welfare state. More and more Libyans are accepting the idea that their problems are basically one of bad attitudes. In other words too much me and not enough we. Thus the GNA will never be considered a success until it can restore the lost paradise. Meanwhile destroying the ISIL presence gains friends at home and abroad and that makes it easier to make deals to get oil production going. If the corruption does not get out of hand (which it probably will) the oil income will make it possible to revive the economy. In Libya success is definitely not assured.

The Eastern Threat

One of the main obstacles to national unity, general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar has been abandoned by his supporters in the West. Hiftar is the most powerful man in eastern Libya because he commands the Libyan Armed Forces. Hiftar has refused to recognize the new UN organized GNA in large part because of mutual distrust. Many Libyans fear Hiftar could turn into another military dictator, like the late Libyan ruler Kaddafii. Libyans note that next door in Egypt another general got elected president and is trying to make his rule permanent. Hiftar is aware of that and despite his longtime support for democracy in Libya he cannot escape the fact that he is a military man and a very effective one.

Without Western backing foreign commandos that were operating with pro-Hiftar forces in Benghazi and other areas of eastern Libya will probably have to move. Hiftar still has allies among powerful Arab nations, like Egypt and several Gulf oil states. Even here Hiftar is in trouble because at a late July meeting in Egypt where Hiftar was told by Egyptian and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) backers that continued support from them (and France) was contingent on his destroying the remaining Islamic terrorist groups in Benghazi by the end of August.

There are also pro-Hiftar militias in the west. These are mainly Berbers, in particular the ZRMC (al Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council). The ZRMC has been working with Haftar since 2014 and is based in the mountains southwest of Tripoli in and around the Berber town of Zintan. The Berbers have always been hostile to Islamic terrorist groups and early on cleared them out of Zintan and kept them out. The ZRMC attracted new recruits from all over the country because it was seen as a force that could eventually be used to defeat Islamic terrorist groups in Tripoli. But since the GNA showed up some factions of the ZRMC have allied themselves with the new government.

Hiftar is still backed by what is left of one of the two previous governments, the HoR (House of Representatives) in Tobruk. Libya has created three government since long-time dictator Moamar Kaddafi was overthrown in 2011. First came the General National Congress (or GNC), a temporary group whose main job was to create a new constitution for the voters to decide on. The GNC was to rule until the constitution was approved and elections held. GNC failed to attract the support of all factions or agree on a new constitution. In late 2013 the GNC illegally extended its power for another year. Despite that scheduled national elections were held in 2014. GNC did not like the composition of the new House of Representatives (HoR) government. 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, seized control of Tripoli and became known as “the Tripoli government”. The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk and became known as “the Tobruk government”. The HoR rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC. By early 2016 the UN persuaded most GNC and HoR factions to merge and form the GNA.

In the east HoR found an ally in Hiftar, then a local warlord who still has supporters all over the country but most of them were always are in the east around Benghazi. Hiftar is gradually losing his support outside of eastern Libya. In large part that is because most of the pro-Hiftar factions are not very mobile. Like most militias in Libya these factions exist largely to provide local security. These groups supported Hiftar because he seemed most likely to establish a powerful mobile force that could eventually come to the aid of each local militia and restore national unity and prosperity. The inability of Hiftar to work with the GNA has led many pro-Hiftar factions to either become neutral or support GNA.

A major problem with Hiftar is that he wants to remain head of the armed forces and many factions in the GNA oppose that. 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. That rivalry is still unresolved. Another problem is that since 2014 Hiftar has had the support of many Arab nations who see him as the kind of “strong man” who could unify Libya.

General Hiftar is very capable and demonstrated this early on. He managed to create a coalition of tribal militias and army units in late 2013. This coalition proved to be very effective fighting the Islamic terrorists in eastern Libya. By 2015 Hiftar had managed to get most of the post-Kaddafi armed forces under his control and the HoR government appointed him head of the Libyan armed forces. Hiftar backed HoR pleas for foreign assistance in obtaining more weapons and other military supplies. Hiftar was popular because he was competent (having been a career military man) and took good care of his troops. This is rare in Arab armies but Hiftar deliberately uses tactics that minimize casualties among his followers. This made it easier to attract new factions (usually tribal militias).

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. He is believed to receive some unofficial military support from Western nations, in part because he is the most competent and reliable local commander in Libya.

August 17, 2016: In Sirte ISIL men outside the city sent in two suicide truck bombs that crashed into a GMA forces assembly area killing over a dozen GMA fighters and wounding many more. This makes it clear that GMA forces will have to hunt down and kill ISIL gunmen who escape the city and reform elsewhere.

August 16, 2016: In Sirte ISIL used nine suicide bombers in an effort to halt the GNA advance. The attacks killed nine GNA fighters and wounded over 80 more but did not stop the effort to clear remaining ISIL forces from the center of the city.

Pro-Hiftar Berbers west of Tripoli claim to have arrested Abu Nassim Fezzani, a much sought after ISIL leader, and twenty of his followers who were trying to get to Tunisia. GNA forces in Sirte recently found documents indicating Abu Nassim Fezzani was planning to return to Italy (where he had been a political refugee for years) and carry out some major terror attacks there.

August 15, 2016: The GNA and the UN agreed on the five members of a caretaker committee to run the $67 billion Libyan sovereign wealth fund. This is money put aside by the pre-2011 Kaddafi government for emergencies. Most of that money has been unavailable for use because of UN sanctions imposed to prevent the fund from being stolen. Corruption by government officials is a major problem in Libya and the UN and the major Western banking nations (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain and the United States) had to agree on the five members of caretaker committee. That took years and the work of the caretaker committee will be monitored and audited as well. Donor nations take a keen interest in this because if the fund were looted they would be called on to provide financial aid for Libya.

August 12, 2016: In the east 23 Egyptians left Libya after having been kidnapped during late July while passing through Brega (160 kilometers south of Benghazi). Many Egyptians still work in Libya, especially in the oil industry. Criminal gangs and rogue militias will rob and kidnap foreigners if they can. In this case the Egyptian government was able to call on allies in eastern Libya to get the 23 Egyptians freed after ten days.

August 5, 2016: In Derna (200 kilometers southwest of Benghazi) a dozen pro-Hiftar troops and militia were killed while driving the remaining Islamic terror groups from the area. Earlier in the year ISIL was driven from Derna, which they had been unsuccessfully trying to take since late 2015. Derna is about the same size (100,000 population) as the ISIL “capital” Sirte. The ISIL reverses at Derna are the result of stubborn local militias and the recent arrival of Libyan Army forces. General Hiftar, the army commander, is not popular with some of the Derna militias, especially those composed of Islamic conservatives and these groups eventually fought back. Now they are being pushed out of the area.

August 4, 2016: Morocco informed Algeria that it was increasing security along some areas of the Algerian border because it believed some ISIL personnel were planning to move to from Libya to Morocco via Algeria.

 

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