Sirte is no longer controlled by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but the city still has some ISIL men fighting to the death. In most of the city government forces are carefully searching for bombs, landmines and other deadly traps ISIL tends to leave in areas it expects to lose control of. These bombs have been causing most of the casualties lately. ISIL stored ammo and explosives in dozens of hidden locations. For most of these ammo stockpiles there are no ISIL men left alive who know the locations. Then there are all the mass graves of deal ISIL members as well as those they killed for resisting ISIL rule.
The U.S. continues to provide air support as it has since August 1st. This has consisted of nearly 200 attacks so far. These attacked used smart bombs, missiles or AH-1W helicopter gunships armed with autocannon and missiles. The targets are usually ISIL fortifications, armed vehicles and car and truck bombs (hit before they could be used). The AH-1Ws showed up in mid-August and are from a U.S. amphibious assault ship off the coast. Since early June GNA forces have suffered about 500 dead and over 2,500 wounded fighting to drive ISIL out of Sirte. ISIL apparently suffered at least a thousand dead but bodies are still being found and identified. Only a few dozen ISIL men are still fighting in Sirte. A week ago there were nearly 200 left, in two neighborhoods and several suburbs. The two neighborhoods near the seafront have now been largely cleared of the ISIL threat now and it appears that the last battles with ISIL in Sirte will take place in the suburbs.
The American air attacks have saved hundreds of lives among the attackers and speeded up the advance. ISIL adapted. For example in late August GNA forces and ISIL observed an unofficial ceasefire while the remaining wives and children (most of them widows and orphans) of ISIL fighters were allowed to leave the city (and be checked for weapons or any other contraband). The remaining ISIL fighters were blocking the exit of some of the few remaining city residents, apparently so they can be used as human shields. Some of these human shields were later found to be ISIL family members who refused to leave. If any women and children are left in the open near ISIL positions the American aircraft will not attack them. The GNA ground forces have to go in with small arms, RPGs and grenades to get the ISIL fighters. Foreign commandos, who call in the air strikes, are also helping with these ground attacks.
To most Libyans destroying the ISIL presence in Sirte and elsewhere in Libya rids the country of a major problem and also gains friends 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. Many Libyans believe that driving ISIL out of Sirte will make the West obligated to reward those that did it. That would be local militias from western Libya, particularly the city Misarata. Libyans, like most Moslems, see ISIL (and Islamic terrorism in general) as a creation of the West and believe the West should generously compensate Libyans who defeated ISIL. This attitude sounds absurd to most Westerners but it is very real in the minds of Middle Eastern Moslems. This complicates Western efforts to help Libya with its largely self-inflicted problems.
The major problem is national unity. 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. The main obstacles to national unity were ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups along with some powerful military forces led by general Hiftar and loyal to HoR and eastern Libya.
The Oil Army Carries Out Plan B
In the east (Benghazi) one of the main obstacles to national unity, Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar and GNA representatives failed to work out a mutually agreeable peace deal in early September. Hiftar had a Plan B and mobilized his troops to march west and take control of all the oil facilities in eastern Libya, especially the ports that stored and exported the oil. Hiftar had already been negotiating with the PFG (Petroleum Facilities Guards) militias guarding some of these facilities and proposed that oil facility guards work with him to get a better deal (larger share of oil income) for the east from the GNA. By September 13th Hiftar forces had captured Ras Lanuf (620 kilometers west of Tripoli). This port and Es Sider/Sidra (20-30 kilometers further west) have been closed since December 2014. In normal times Es Sider and Ras Lanuf can ship 600,000 barrels a day but remain shut down until the fighting in the area stops. Hiftar also seized the airport outside Ras Lanuf and moved in some of his warplanes (two MiG-21s and two helicopters). These were then used to attack militias that refused to support him. Hiftar forces were able to take Es Sider by the 15th but a counterattack by GNA forces (mainly local PFGs) drove Hiftar out of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf within a week. Meanwhile Hartar was unable to take the oil port of Zueitina (220 kilometers west of Ras Lanuf and 180 kilometers southwest of Benghazi). In between Ras Lanuf and Zueitina is the oil port at Brega which, like Zueitina, is still operational and pro-government. By the end of September it was clear that the Hiftar plan to seize control of the eastern oil facilities had failed. Ras Lanuf and Zueitina were loading foreign tankers by the end of the month and Libyan oil exports would double by the end of the year if these ports remained operational. Along with Brega, these three ports can export 800,000 barrels per day. With his Plan B a partial failure Hiftar told the GNA he would not interfere with oil facilities operations, even though he has forces threatening (or controlling) some of them. Haftar is still a force to be reckoned with in the east and has offered to continue negotiations. At the same time Hiftar recognized that most Libyans wants oil exports to increase because that was a matter of national survival.
The militias that are paid to guard the oil facilities were government employees and came to be known as PFG. They know that if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs. The PFGs did not want to fight pro-Hiftar forces but had to take sides and sided with the GNA. Nevertheless Hiftar does represent eastern Libya, which has long seen itself as not getting its fair share.
Since early 2016 Hiftar has been abandoned by his supporters in the West. Hiftar was the most powerful man in eastern Libya because for several years he rebuilt and still commands what is left of the pre-2011 the Libyan Armed Forces. Hiftar has refused to recognize the GNA in large part because of mutual distrust. Many Libyans fear Hiftar could turn into another military dictator, like the late Kaddafii. Libyans note that next door in Egypt another general recently 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. Since early 2016 Hiftar has come under local and international pressure to support the GNA. He may do that, especially since Benghazi has finally been cleared of Islamic terrorists, something Hiftar can take a lot of credit for. Hiftar still has allies among powerful Arab nations, like Egypt and several Gulf oil states. In late July 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. Hiftar got that done and that was supposed to lead to a deal with the GNA. That is still a work in progress but Haftar has agreed to not interfere with oil production and export.
Unity Over Oil
The HoR government in Tobruk has agreed to let the Central Bank and National Oil Company (NOC) handle all oil revenues, including, of course, those the HoR had been getting “illegally” (according to the UN). The GNA has led an effort this year to increase oil exports and oil income. Production was crippled by lack of GNA control in the east and for nearly a year has been less than 20 percent of what it was (1.6 million barrels a day) before 2011. With this new agreement, and the Hiftar forces agreeing not to interfere, the NOC feels it has a good chance of getting oil production up to 900,000 barrels a day by the end of 2016. That is 56 percent of the pre-2011 production. Current production is 500,000 barrels a day. One thing everyone can agree on is that the standard of living has declined sharply since 2011. Per capita income is about 30 percent of what it was in 2011 and that will further decline in 2016 even as oil shipments increase. Mass starvation is no longer a theoretical threat or conspiracy theory. It is happening and that is causing many factions to become cooperative, for now.
The HoR government still retains the loyalty of enough tribal militias, plus general Hiftar, to block GNA efforts to assert its authority in the east. The threat of mass starvation and shortages because of low oil income prompted the rival NOCs to agree to merge. The HoR and GNA signed a deal on July 2nd but on the 13th HoR changed their mind because of suspicions that the GNA would not abide by the terms. By October HoR had been convinced it was best for everyone if they did not interfere with oil production and the need to pay for essential food and other imports. Since March 2015 the HoR government had used a rival National Oil Company in Benghazi because it no longer trusted the original one that remained in Tripoli and was subject to pressure from the rival Tripoli government (which was not recognized by the UN). This was apparently part of an effort to encourage the Tripoli government to agree to a peace deal. In 2015 the HoR NOC exported 175,000 barrels of oil a day and refined another 36,000 barrels a day for local use. The original Tripoli based NOC exported more than 200,000 barrels a day but refined less for local use. With the formation of the GNA in early 2016 the HoR NOC has had a more difficult time exporting oil and has now given up on that.
The GNA has apparently succeeded in gaining the loyalty of most PFGs that keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. Previous to 2016 a growing number of PFGs were going rogue and shut down the facilities they guarded and, in effect, tried to blackmail the government into paying them more. This was driven by tribal feuds over how oil revenue should be allocated. 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). Many of the PFGs have now backed the GNA but as long as some of them continue to resist oil income is crippled and the much feared food crises is still approaching.
ISIL and other Islamic terrorists have financed themselves by participating lucrative criminal activities that now flourish in Libya. Smuggling (or people, drugs and weapons) is the most obvious activity and this generates nearly $2 billion a year. Most of that goes to criminal gangs in North Africa and Europe (especially in Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey) but more than ten percent goes to local militias (some of them Islamic terrorists). For the crime gangs the main source of income is moving illegal migrants to Europe via Libya. Most of the boats loaded with illegal migrants headed for Europe leave from Sabratha and other coastal towns in the area. It costs these illegals thousands of dollars each for the smugglers to get them to the Libyan coast and then on a boat that will get them to Europe or close enough for the EU (European Union) naval patrol to rescue them and take them the rest of the way. More traditional exports are drugs (South American cocaine, Afghan heroin headed for Europe) plus Libyan weapons stolen in 2011 from huge government stocks. Most of the weapons go to other African countries. At the same time police in Spain and Turkey are seizing a lot more drugs (amphetamines, hashish and other designer drugs popular with Islamic terrorists) and weapons (more modern stuff, plus bomb making components) being smuggled into Libya, often through government controlled (in theory) ports like Tripoli and Misrata. This is because, in some cases the Libyan smugglers demand payment from their European partners in the form of drugs and modern weapons. The Islamic terrorists (ISIL, al Qaeda and others) are actually a minority among the criminal gangs operating in Libya. Most of the gangs are Libyans who are just out to make money any way they can. Thus a lot of the violence, especially assassinations or armed attacks on government compounds, in government controlled cities like Tripoli can be traced back to the illegal activities of many militias. Law and order and a working government means less cash for many of these militias.
October 11, 2016: Government forces in Sirte have started another offensive to eliminate the few remaining groups of ISIL gunmen in and around the city. One of the things keeping this government offensive going is the support (often covert) of Western and Arab governments. This includes obvious things like air support and special operations troops to train and advise the Libyan fighters. More important to the Libyans is the media assistance the foreign forces provide on the spot or via movement to Libyan or European hospitals for advanced care. That is important because while most Islamic terrorists are willing to fight to the death, most of the pro-government forces are fighting for a better life.
October 4, 2016: In the east (Benghazi) several mortar shells landed in a residential neighborhood, killing three civilians and wounding twelve. Although most Islamic terrorist groups have been destroyed or driven from the city there are still feuds between heavily armed local militias. The security forces are also taking casualties each week as they try to find and clear all the landmines and bombs left behind by the Islamic terrorist groups driven from the city.
September 12, 2016: In western Sudan (Darfur) JEM rebels denied accusations that some of its men were in eastern Libya fighting (as mercenaries) for the Hiftar forces. The GNA and the PFG militias defending the four oil export ports between Sirte and Benghazi had evidence that JEM men were with the Hiftar forces. Sudan had previously accused the JEM of operating in Libya as well as Chad, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. JEM has a reputation for being disciplined and reliable mercenaries and display a “have gun, will travel” attitude.