The chaos that has crippled Libya since 2011 is sorting itself out but not in a way acceptable to the UN and the West. Now Russia is openly backing the HoR faction that is opposed by the UN but is gaining support within Libya. As the old saying goes; life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Most Libyans have concluded that if they don’t establish some form of national government (or “understanding”) soon the country will literally starve. Libya has depended on oil income for decades and the current population cannot feed itself without oil money to pay for the food and other necessities. Without a central government Libyans have fallen back on tribal or clan leaders. There are over a hundred recognized (even by Kaddafi) tribes and major clans. With Kaddafi gone it took a while for many of these tribes to rebuild their leadership capability and ability to serve tribal members. About a third of these tribes are large enough, and well led enough to be treated as a separate entity (usually because of a tribal militia) and it is these tribes that are now willing to work with Hiftar but not the GNA.
The UN recognized GNA (Government of National Accord) has occupied the capital (Tripoli) since early 2016 but has been unable to gain the loyalty or cooperation of the many factions that have been keeping the country, especially western Libya, in chaos since 2012. GNA controls all the government ministries located in Tripoli but the rival HoR (House of Representatives) government based in Tobruk controls eastern Libya and, more importantly, most of the oil export (and many oil fields) facilities. HoR is better organized, united and more hostile to Islamic radicals and terrorists of any sort. The GNA made a major mistake early on by underestimating the revived Libyan Armed Forces and its leader general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar. HoR and Hiftar gained allies throughout Libya while the GNA proved itself indecisive and ineffective. For example, Hiftar has the support of many of the Berbers who tend to live in western Libya. Thus the ZRMC (al Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council) has been working with Hiftar 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 when the GNA showed up some factions of the ZRMC allied themselves with the new government. That did not last and more militias in western Libya are reconsidering their loyalties. This dispute is mainly about terms for transferring power (now held by tribes, militias and powerful men like Hiftar) to a new national government.
The basic problem is that the UN and most Western nations continue to back the GNA despite the fact that the GNA relies too much on Islamic conservative militias and senior Libyan Islamic clerics who favor imposing Islamic law on Libya, something most Libyans don’t want. Western groups are pressuring the UN to concentrate on prosecuting militia leaders, especially those loyal to Hiftar, for war crimes. But most Libyans note the majority of alleged war crimes being committed by militias aligned with the GNA and rarely criticized by the UN. This reinforces Libyan distrust of the UN as a foreign force trying to impose itself on Libya. This is one of the best recruiting tools for Hiftar who, so far in 2017, has gained the allegiance of a number of tribes who see Hiftar as decisive, organized, reliable and very opposed to Islamic terrorists of any kind. That appeals to other Arab states in the region. The West tends to see Hiftar as another Kaddafi (a military officer who staged a coup to replace the Western backed Libyan monarchy). The Arabs and most Libyans don’t see a similarity between Hiftar and Kaddafi and are mystified that so many in the West do.
Lack of unity has long been a problem in Libya and is not, as the UN discovered, easily solved. Most Libyans are fed up with UN efforts to form a national government. Things began to go wrong from the start. The first post-Kaddafi national government the UN helped organize 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 tried to illegally extend 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) 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, took 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”. HoR rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC.
In late 2015 the UN declared that it only recognized the new GNA, which it helped form. The Libyan support for the GNA is weakening even though the West, and especially the United States, still recognizes only the GNA. It was American air support that helped pro-GNA militias take the coastal city of Sirte from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in late 2016. But while the GNA was concentrating on Sirte the HoR had already rid itself of ISIL and most other Islamic terror groups and was able to take control of most oil production and shipping facilities in eastern Libya. HoR also gained the support of the other North African nations in addition to the very public support of Russia.
One thing the GNA and HoR eventually agreed on was to cooperate when it comes to the Central Bank and NOC. Both these institutions are essential to pay for needed imports. With this understanding, and the more capable Hiftar forces controlling most of the oil facilities the NOC sees an opportunity to get production from 650,000 barrels a day at the end of 2016 to a million barrels a day by the end of 2017 and double that by 2022. Pre-2011 production was 1.6 million barrels a day. One thing that all Libyans 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 until oil shipments get back to pre-2011 levels. 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.
Oil income, and who controls it, is the main reason why the GNA is losing its mandate and the HoR is now a contender, not a rebellious holdout. HoR has also shown itself to be more effective at dealing with the smugglers, especially the gangs that are getting rich moving illegal migrants and stolen (from Libya) oil across the Mediterranean to Europe. The HoR, partly because they have a more professional security force (led by Hiftar), also suffers less fighting between militias. Such armed squabbles are becoming more common in GNA territory.
The problem with Hiftar began when he insisted on remaining head of the armed forces after the GNA was created. Many factions in the GNA opposed that. The UN and the West wanted to limit Hiftar’s authority. Thus another former officer (and recent subordinate of and rival to Hiftar) was named GNA Defense Minister and Hiftar refused to go along with 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. But many Western nations (and the UN) disagreed and feared that Hiftar wanted 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 Kaddafi 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 were 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) the lack of unity and growing economic crises are very real and immediate threats and are doing more to unite Libyans than anything else.
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).
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) who have sent over a hundred armored and unarmored trucks 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 the UN never made much 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. Egypt gained something important because of its support of Hiftar and that was law and more order on its western border with Libya. Egypt is particularly important to the HoR because Egypt is again run by a former general and feels Libya needs the same kind of leader.
Egypt is under a lot of pressure from the UN to get behind the GNA, which Egypt sees as too cozy with Islamic conservative groups. Algeria feels the same way as do many Tunisians. In addition leaders from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt have met several times since 2012 and continue to agree that none of them wants to intervene militarily (on a large scale) to deal with the chaos in Libya. But at the same time all three nations, which have long borders with Libya, will cooperate with whatever faction is controlling the Libyan side of the border and will work to keep Islamic terrorists from freely moving back and forth across the border. Thus Egypt has become very close to the HoR government while Tunisia is on good terms with both the GNA and pro-Hiftar groups who have worked with Tunisia to control Islamic terrorism, especially ISIL. Tunisia noted that Hiftar keeping ISIL out of eastern Libya and pro-GNA militias driving ISIL out of Sirte by the end of 2016 had greatly reduced ISIL activity in Tunisia. Algeria noted the same thing and all three neighboring countries have increased their border security to contain the lawlessness that still predominates throughout Libya.
The GNA has not ignored neighborhood politics and have recently sent officials to Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Russia to make their case for being the only national government in Libya. These officials come back with vague promises to help and some blunt assessments by foreigners about what HoR does right especially compared to GNA efforts. The GNA is also advised to make more of an effort to reconcile their differences with HoR, especially when it comes to general Hiftar.
Unofficial Foreign Combat Support
UN sanctions forbid most foreign military assistance for Libyan factions. That has not stopped a growing number of countries who quietly intervene, usually as part of an effort to deal with Islamic terrorist groups like al Qaeda or ISIL. The most obvious military activity has been air support. Over 25,000 combat and support sorties by NATO and Arab aircraft in 2011 were the major reason the Libyan revolution was over so quickly. Since then there has been very little air support, despite many Libyan factions calling for it to return. The problem is the Libyans are split into too many factions. The remnants of the Libyan Air Force were put back into service but these Cold War Russian relics have probably generated fewer than a thousand sorties since 2012. American air support returned briefing in 2016 when, for about a hundred days (August-November) there were 367 American air attacks using smart bombs, missiles or precision cannon fire (in about half as many sorties) to assist Libyan forces fighting to regain control of the coastal city of Sirte. 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. But once ISIL was driven out of Sirte and American air power withdrew.
France, the U.S. and Egypt have together carried out about a hundred sorties so far for specific counter-terror operations. Not all these sorties were admitted to and that accounts for dozens of reports of “unidentified jets” making attacks, usually at night. To make sure the right targets are hit France, the U.S. and several Arab nations have had small groups of special operations troops in Libya. The UAE carried out some of these unidentified attacks but eventually created a small air force in Libya to quietly provide sustained air support for the Hiftar forces. Some 100 kilometers northeast of Benghazi the UAE has established a military base outside the coastal city of Marj. The base has been there since February 2016 and also hosts French troops who have been assisting the Hiftar forces since 2015. The Marj base receives regular visits by UAE C-130s carrying civilian and military supplies. There are at least three UAE Mirage jet fighters, used mainly for reconnaissance. The UAE also has at least six AT-802U attack aircraft based there as well as two or three UH-60 helicopters and at least three Chinese Wing Loong UAVs.
The AT-802U is an armed (with bombs, rockets or Hellfire missiles) version of a popular AT-802 crop duster. Unable to obtain armed Predator UAVs from the United States, Gulf Arab states turned to China and purchased quite a few Chinese Wing Loong UAVs. Each of these can be equipped to carry two BA-7 laser guided missiles (similar to the Hellfire) or two 60 kg (110 pound) GPS guided bombs (similar to the U.S. SDB). Development on Wing Loong began in 2005, first flight was in 2007 and Chinese troops got the first ones in 2008 for further testing. While Wing Loong is similar in shape to the larger American MQ-9 Reaper, in size it's almost identical to the 1.2 ton Predator. While some jets and helicopters of the old Libya Air Force are still in service with Hiftar forces the UAE aircraft have flown over 80 percent of the combat missions in the east. Hiftar is a military professional and favors subordinates with military skills. For that reason the Hiftar forces have gotten the most out of what limited air support they have.
Since February (or earlier) Russia has had a small (about 22 men) group of special operations troops in western Egypt, near the Libyan border. Russia is apparently getting ready to back Hiftar in a big way. Already Russia has quietly flown nearly a hundred badly wounded Hiftar troops to Russia for medical treatment. Since late 2016 Russia has openly backed Hiftar. The GNA made a major mistake early on by underestimating the resurrected Libyan Armed Forces and its leader general Hiftar. Russia did not make that error. In part because of several (since 2016) visits from general Hiftar Russia has now agreed (unofficially) to sell HoR weapons. Most of what was left of the pre-2011 Libyan armed forces was rebuilt by Hiftar, who was a Libyan Army officer who turned against Kaddafi in the 1980s and received asylum in the United States. But Hiftar remains unacceptable to some of the factions the UN had united to form the GNA and that turned out to be a bad decision. The HoR government asked Russia for economic assistance and the state controlled Russian oil company has agreed to work with the Libyan NOC (National Oil Company) to repair, upgrade and expand Libyan oil facilities. Hiftar visits Egypt regularly and has managed to keep Egypt, a few other Arab states providing support. Egypt allows banned goods (like weapons and ammo) to cross the border unhindered. Russia and many Arab states are pressuring the UN to rethink its Libyan strategy and its support for the GNA. Libya may turn out to be another Middle East victory for Russia.
March 21, 2017: The National Oil Corporation (NOC) revealed that production had risen to 700,000 BPD (barrels per day) in mid-March when Hiftar forces regained control of the main eastern oil ports. The fight over these two ports from February to March had reduced production to nearly 600,000 BPD but now the NOC sees production hitting 800,000 BPD by the end of August and a million BPD before the end of 2017. But it all depends on an end of fighting over oil facilities.
March 14, 2017: Hiftar forces lost control of key eastern oil facilities on March 4th because of a surprise move by militias near coastal cities (where the oil ports are) being joined by some militias from the west and the interior to seize these facilities. Hiftar had taken these coastal oil ports during a September 2016 offensive and left security to local forces. Ten days after losing control Hiftar forces regained it, enhancing Hiftar’s reputation once more.
The key ports involved are Ras Lanuf (620 kilometers east of Tripoli) and Es Sider/Sidra (20-30 kilometers further east). These had 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. Hiftar then seized 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 is still operational and pro-GNA. Ras Lanuf and Zueitina were operational again by early 2017 and Libyan oil exports would double by the end of 2017 if these ports remained operational. Along with Brega, these three ports can export 800,000 barrels per day. At the end of 2016 a pro-GNA coalition of eastern militias (tribal and Islamic terrorist) tried to drive Hiftar forces out of Bin Jawada (30 kilometers west of Es Sider) and failed.