The chaos that has crippled Libya since 2011 is not resolving itself quickly enough to prevent widespread hunger and privation throughout the country. This is not acceptable to the UN and the West but no one has a quick solution. Russia is openly backing the HoR (House of Representatives) faction that is opposed by the UN but is gaining support within Libya. 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. Worse, most Libyan have a sense of entitlement because of all the oil wealth and resist taking responsibility for all the corruption and factionalism that is keeping the country in chaos and broke. 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 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, less corrupt 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. Since then 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. The GNA is also more tolerant of corruption, in part because GNA is the conduit for most foreign aid and thus there is more to steal. 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.
The UN is beginning to change its attitude towards Hiftar and has been meeting with Hiftar and HoR officials to try and work out the disputes with GNA. This is mostly about factionalism and people not wanting to give up access to the enormous wealth that had enabled the former (and deceased since 2011) dictator Kaddafi to control the country for half a century by using that money to buy peace and maintain control.
One thing the GNA and HoR eventually agreed on was to cooperate when it comes to the Central Bank and NOC (National Oil Company). 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.
In an unsurprising development the GNA is under enormous pressure to determine how 44 percent of oil revenue for the first three months of the year disappeared. There was supposed to be $3.87 billion but the Ministry of Finance can only account for $2.2 billion of it. The GNA has been trying to get foreign loans and the potential lenders wanted to see the financial records. That did not end well but it is no surprise as Libya is one of the ten most corrupt nations on the planet.
The most obvious example of corruption is the PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards). These are tribal militias hired (or bribed) by previous governments to keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. Soon many, if not most, PFGs went rogue, 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 Kaddafi gone many tribes want 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. General Hiftar and the HoR government have been successful negotiating with the PFGs and offering a better deal (larger share of oil income) and less corruption. Hiftar has a reputation for being much less corrupt. PFGs often shut down oil fields and ports because GNA has not paid them. In these cases GNA has often delivered the cash but some or all of it was stolen by PFG leaders who deny they are stealing. The GNA has to collect and publicize enough evidence of the theft to convince other militias and tribal leaders that the corrupt PFG men must be replaced. This is difficult to do and meanwhile PFGs are constantly demanding “adequate compensation” before they will allow oil to be pumped, moved via a pipeline to the export facilities or loaded on tankers. The details of how much “adequate compensation” any PFG is paid is usually 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. PFGs are acutely aware that if they lose control of the facilities they protect they lose their jobs so there are extremely defensive and paranoid. The overall problem is that PFG compensation has little relationship to how dangerous the work is but rather is more a matter of tribal politics. It has taken several years for tribes in areas where there are oil facilities to realize that it they do not cooperate everyone will suffer, which is what has been happening and is getting worse.
Desperately Seeking Foreign Intervention
Italy tried to get the new U.S. government interested in providing military support for the GNA in its fight with HoR. The Americans declined but will continue helping with efforts to destroy surviving ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in Libya. The U.S. has agreed to work more closely with Egypt, which has long backed HoR and Hiftar forces to keep ISIL and Islamic terrorists out of Egypt. The U.S. also has good relations with Tunisia, which has also established effective border controls.
Italy and the rest of Europe want peace in Libya mainly because that is the source of most of the illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean and landing in Italy where, because of EU treaties and European sensibilities, Italy must absorb these illegal migrants or allow them to move on to other EU countries that offer better economic opportunities. In 2016 181,000 of these illegals reached Italy and that volume will continue as long as Libya is in chaos. About half the illegal migrants entering Europe are coming in via Italy. The criminal gangs (and some Islamic terror groups) that control the Libya based people smuggling are getting rich (over a billion dollars a year) off this business and can afford to bribe local militias to leave them alone.
Russia has a problem with the GNA because of seven Russian sailors under arrest since their Russian owned freighter was seized on March 5th and the crew accused of trying to smuggle out scrap metal. Until this matter is settled Russia is not interested in showing any public support for GNA. Meanwhile Russia has been unwilling to back HoR and its successful, and pro-Russian, military commander Hiftar.
The GNA has responded to EU demands that, in return for support, it do something about the people smuggling from the western coast of Libya. GNA technically controls this coastline and has a small force of coast guard vessels to patrol some of it. The coast guard does occasionally stop a boat loaded with illegal migrants but usually that boat is operated by someone who bribed the wrong people and is being taught a lesson.
Most of the people smuggling gangs are in western Libya, where it is easier and cheaper to bribe the local militias and government officials. This smuggling is big business and the gangs often demand more cash from their clients before putting them on a boat. The Illegals need cash to pay for transit from their homeland (usually Nigeria and neighboring countries) to the Mediterranean coast and onto a smuggler boat. The price often changes along the way and those who cannot or will not pay are either killed or forced to pay in other ways. One other way is working off the debt. This is a form of indentured servitude and many illegals from Asia agree to this sort of arrangement to pay for getting to North America or other “safe” Western nations. The smuggling gangs have not been able to establish a network of enforcers in EU or source nations to make this work the way it does in the U.S. and Canada so they have resorted to other solutions. The one that attracted some mass media attention was “slave markets” where illegal migrants in need of more cash are auctioned off to someone who will pay a lump sum and the illegal migrant will be obliged to work off the debt. That process could take years, or for life because slavery, especially of black Africans by Arabs, is still common (although technically illegal, to placate the West and the UN) throughout North Africa and parts of the Middle East.
War In The East
Fighting continues in Derna (200 kilometers southwest of Benghazi). This was once an ISIL stronghold. By the end of 2016 most of the remaining ISIL members and their families (a thousand or so people, most of them armed) fled south from their former bases in Sirte and Benghazi. HoR forces followed the ISIL remnants to Derna, which had been largely free of ISIL control since early 2016. ISIL had spent several months trying to take Derna and failed. Derna is about the same size (100,000 population) as the former ISIL “capital” Sirte. The ISIL reverses at Derna were the result of stubborn local militias and the recent arrival of Hiftar forces, which were unsuccessful in establishing control. Hiftar was not popular with some of the Derna militias, especially those composed of Islamic conservatives and these groups eventually fought back. Now they are under attack again by Hiftar forces and being pushed out of the area. The GNA accuses Hiftar of illegally attempting to take control of Derna while Hiftar says he wants to remove any Islamic conservative or terrorist militias still in Derna. Meanwhile the pro-GNA militias that drove ISIL out of Sirte in mid-2016 are much less enthusiastic about chasing ISIL remnants south into desert. That is one reason GNA is calling on NATO for military assistance. Aside from the occasional airstrike and a hundred or so special operations troops on the ground, NATO prefers to keep its people out of Libya. Russia has a similar attitude as do the neighboring countries. All of these openly support Hiftar and note that Hiftar is able to keep up the pressure on ISIL in eastern Libya while the ISIL refugees from the central Libya coastal city of Sirte find that the GNA forces are not nearly as effective in dealing with potentially hostile militias in the south.
War In The South
In the south most of the violence down here is in or near the town of Sabha, which is 770 kilometers south of Tripoli and astride the main road going to the Niger border. It is the biggest city in the largely desert south. Current fighting is at Timnahent airbase (30 kilometers northeast of Sabha) and Samnu (a town 50 kilometers northeast of Sabha). Pro-GNA forces hold the airbase (or at least most of it) and Samnu against advancing HoR forces. Both sides are sending reinforcements south.
Normally the fighting down here is between Awlad Suleiman and Gaddadfa tribesmen and is usually over who controls smuggling routes and has been flaring up regularly since the 2011 revolution. The fighting is a continuation of ancient animosities between tribes divided by ethnicity as well as loyalty to the former dictator Kaddafi, who used tribal loyalties to maintain power and favored certain tribes. Some of the pro-Kaddafi Tuareg tribes kept fighting after Kaddafi died in 2011. The violence is not so much about putting Kaddafi followers back into power, but holding on to Kaddafi era privileges and avoiding punishment for crimes committed to support Kaddafi’s rule. After 2011 violence continued on the southern border in part because the pro-rebel Tabu (or “Tebu”) tribesmen were put in charge of border (with Sudan, Chad and Niger) security. There they constantly skirmished with the Tuareg tribes over control of the smuggling business. Another element of this rivalry was that the Tabu are black African while the pro-Kaddafi tribes are Arab. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still support. However, in some cases Kaddafi favored black tribes in the north, and used them to keep the population in line. By 2015 the Tabu were still technically in charge of the border but mostly concerned with their control over smuggling (of fuel, drugs and people). The Tabu and Tuareg leaders have worked out agreements on dividing smuggling business but discipline in the tribes is not all that tight and fights keep breaking out.
April 10, 2017: In Tripoli armed members of a militia broke into the home compound of the Central Bank governor in an effort to force action to reduce surging prices in the market places. This was caused by a recent Central Bank effort to shut down illegal money changers. Manipulating the currency is one of the many scams present in Libya and usually there is no one person to blame. In this case the Central Bank was responding to demands by donor nations to clean up the corruption. That is why the armed men could not find the Central Bank governor as he was in Europe meeting with EU bankers.
March 30, 2017: Algeria is seen as the major reason why the main factions in Libya are still talking to each other. Algeria has not provided any material support to any faction and provides a convenient and safe place to hold the frequent meetings between faction officials and diplomats from the UN and neighboring countries. Algeria has provided similar assistance for Mali.
March 28, 2017: In the southwest, across the border in Algeria (Illizi Province) Algerian troops patrolling the border came upon and arrested a known Islamic terrorists in a border town. Southern Libya is still a sanctuary for various Islamic terrorist groups who maintain a low profile in Libya itself.
March 26, 2017: The GNA has formed a 3,000 man force to provide security in Sirte, which still contains some ISIL members. The Sirte force will be paid and GNA is seeking foreign aid to help pay for it.