Libya: No Compromise, No Surrender

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October 17, 2019: The six month battle for Tripoli is coming to an end, at least according to the forces attacking the city. The civil war between the LNA (anti-Islamic radical Libyan National Army) and the GNA (UN backed but largely powerless Government of National Accord) does appear to be ending because even if the GNA holds onto Tripoli, the LNA has the rest of the country, including all the oil. The LNA has been fighting since April to take the main GNA stronghold, the national capital Tripoli (in the west, near the Tunisia border). Turkish intervention interrupted that plan.

Despite the increasing (since May) Turkish military aid for the GNA forces, the LNA is still believed to have an edge. The LNA forces are larger, better trained, equipped and led than the collection of militias the GNA depends on. The Turks are supplying Bayraktar TB2 armed UAVs but the UAE has a similar force of superior Chinese CH-4 UAVs. The Chinese UAVs are controlled via satellite, giving them longer range than the Bayraktars, which can only use operator control 150 kilometers from their base. Beyond that, they can fly pre-programmed missions via GPS. To defend their own UAV airbases the Turks have brought in air defense systems. Both sides are using shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems that can hit aircraft operating as high as 4,000 meters (12,000 feet), which has been sufficient to take down warplanes or UAVs coming lower to launch missile or bomb attacks. More importantly, the Turks have brought in a military staff that the GNA has allowed to control the defense of Tripoli. The Turks were able to coordinate the often erratic tactics of the militias as well as improve the movement and distribution of military and civilian supplies in the city. As a result of this, the defending militias were better able to hold ground or recover territory they had lost. Despite that, the militias realize they are on the defensive and the city is largely surrounded. Moreover, the Turkish presence is unpopular with most Libyans.

So far Turkish military aid has prolonged the defense of Tripoli but not reversed the course of the GNA/LNA war. The Turkish involvement stalled the LNA advance on Tripoli for a while. Then the LNA adapted to the Turkish presence and resumed pushing back the militia defenders. Now Turkey says it is in favor of a negotiated peace between the GNA and the HoR (House of Representatives) government in Tobruk. The HoR was the last elected government and helped organize the LNA. The UN organized the GNA by making deals with the militias that dominate Tripoli and Misrata to the east. Many of those militias want or will accept, a religious (Islamic) government for Libya. Currently, most of these militias are out for themselves, and are basically a network of independent warlords whose only common interest is preventing the LNA from establishing a national government. The LNA has been, since it was founded in 2014, against Islamic terrorists and radicals as well as independent militias.

The UN operations are based in Tripoli and must support the GNA it created or face the anger of the Tripoli and Misrata militias. Turkey openly backs “moderate” Islamic groups like the Moslem Brotherhood, which have tried in several countries to form Islamic governments. The Brotherhood has never succeeded, mainly because it always runs into problems with its extremist factions that demand a more oppressive Islamic form of government than most Moslems will tolerate. The current Islamic government in Turkey is learning this lesson the hard way and is in danger of losing power in the next elections. Since 2003 the Islamic government in Turkey has carried out several of these increasingly aggressive interventions in Arab nations. The one in Syria has been going on since 2016 and has not worked out the way the Turks wanted. Now Turkey finds itself facing Russian and Syrian troops in Syria as well as Kurdish militias. The Libya intervention is the most distant and aggressive so far and is not a sure thing. The Turks discovered this a week ago as it invaded eastern Syria. The Turks were condemned by most UN members for this invasion. That included Israel, the EU (European Union), Russia, Iran and the Arab states. For the Arabs, there is the fear that the Turks are trying to rebuild the empire they had a century ago and lost because they were on the wrong side during World War I. The empire was not popular with most Turks, who were fed up with ruling the troublesome and often self-destructive Arabs. Recep Erdogan, the current (since 2003) Turkish leader leads an Islamic party that got elected on the promise to reduce corruption. It did that for a while before becoming quite corrupt itself. Now Erdogan is trying to regain his popularity by invading Syria to establish an area where he can move the millions of unpopular (with most Turks) Syrian refugees. The EU states are threatening sanctions and other economic retaliation over what the Turks are doing in Syria. The UN is now having a more difficult time justifying the Turkish military presence in Libya. Arab hostility to the Turks helps the LNA and hurts the GNA.

The Turks expected more of a welcome in Libya. They should have known better. The Turks first showed up there in the 1550s as the Ottoman Empire conquered the coastal towns and cities of what is now Libya. Eventually, the Turks advanced inland but there was no real incentive to because south of the coast was mainly desert and, before oil was discovered and developed in the 1960s, there was little economic value down there. Empires have bills to pay and tend to keep their soldiers where the money is.

From the 1550s to 1910 Libya was technically a province of the Ottoman Empire but was mainly run by local strongmen who were often Turks who had gone native. In 1911 Italy took advantage of the weak control the Turks exercised and invaded.

By 1912 Italy controlled what is now Libya. The Italians sent in colonists and brought the industrial revolution to Libya. Italian rule ended in 1943 when Italy, an ally of Germany during World War II, surrendered to the allies. Occupied by Allied troops, Libya was given independence in 1951 as a constitutional monarchy. The royal family was led by a prominent local religious leader who became king. The parliament demonstrated the political divides between eastern and western coastal Libya and the less populous tribal interior. The discovery and development of oil fields down south in the 1960s brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to Libya. It also brought a military takeover in 1969. This coup was led by Moamar Kaddafi who misruled Libya until 2011 when he was overthrown and killed.

The Turks had good relations with the Libyan monarchy but less stable and cordial relations with Kaddafi. Now the Turks have returned and are backing the Islamic militias. This is not popular with most Libyans, who have learned to fear the chaotic and unpredictable militias. Libya remains a thinly populated and divided (by tribal and local loyalties) place. When the kingdom was established in 1951 the population was about a million. The 1960s oil wealth triggered a population explosion (and lots of imported workers) the reached six million when the 2011 revolution occurred. Despite many Libyans fleeing the country the population is still about six million and a third of that is found in and around Tripoli. That’s why the city is so important to the GNA and why the LNA went after Tripoli only after they had established themselves in the rest of Libya.

GNA control is limited to a portion of western Libya along the coast. This includes the cities of Tripoli, Misrata and Sirte. The other two are much smaller than Tripoli and defended by local militias rather than any elected government. The LNA and HoR advocate elected governments while the GNA is less eager to discuss that lest it offend the many militias it depends on.

There are few things Libyans agree on, but these include dislike of the Turks, Islamic terrorists, militias, especially Islamic ones, and foreign interference in general. For that reason UN peacemaking efforts are none too popular. That’s because the UN backed an unpopular and weak government in Tripoli, a city controlled largely by rival militias. The UN is seen as outsiders more interested in pursuing their own goals rather than what Libyans want (peace and some form of unity). The LNA and its leader Khalifa Hiftar know that and made themselves useful by subduing the militias and Islamic terror groups in eastern Libya and slowly moving south and west to do the same throughout Libya.

Six months of fighting in Tripoli has forced over 100,000 civilians to flee their homes and caused several thousand casualties (fighters and civilians). As with most other battles in Libya, casualties are not as high as in places like Syria, Iraq of Afghanistan. While Libya is a large country over 80 percent of the people live along the coast and the style of warfare is usually loud skirmishes meant to intimidate. Eventually, one side blinks and withdraws. The Turks and Islamic terrorists prefer a more violent form of combat and that is one of many reasons why neither are wanted by most Libyans.

ISIL Interrupted

AFRICOM (the U.S. Africa Command) revealed that in September it carried out four airstrikes against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) camps in Libya and killed about a third of the remaining 150 ISIL personnel in Libya. Since 2017 AFRICOM has been cooperating with the LNA (seen as more reliable and safer to deal with than GNA) to track down and eliminate ISIL forces still in the country. This effort has proved successful The U.S. will work with other armed groups in Libya, as happened during 2016 when the U.S. provided over 500 airstrikes to assist the GNA militias driving ISIL out of the coastal city of Sirte. Survivors fled south and at the end of 2016 there were still at least a thousand armed ISIL members in Libya, most of them in the south were they constituted a threat and sought recruits.

AFRICOM was able to provide intel (and UAV surveillance) to a force that can use this information and the LNA was the only large armed force that has demonstrated an ability to do so. In addition, AFRICOM provided airstrikes against ISIL targets, which it has regularly does for anyone (including the GNA) who proved reliable in the past. Over the last two years, GNA control in most of the country was eliminated as LNA forces moved in to absorb or destroy local militias. Since ISIL was an enemy to everyone, any ISIL personnel encountered were killed or captured. ISIL manpower in Libya has been reduced by 90 percent in the last two years. Once Tripoli is taken and GNA forces are eliminated the LNA will go after any remaining suspected ISIL groups.

American aerial surveillance and electronic monitoring cannot detect everything that is happening on the ground. LNA forces are needed to the final check on who is doing what down there. AFRICOM carried out 500 airstrikes in and around the coastal city of Sirte in 2016 to assist GNA militias to drive ISIL out of the city. After that AFRICOM had to depend on the LNA, which had cleared most Islamic terrorist groups from eastern Libya and was advancing into the interior. ISIL survivors dispersed after fleeing south from Sirte and provided a lot fewer targets for airstrikes. Thus AFRICOM carried out only seven airstrikes in Libya during 2017 and six in 2018. This year AFRICOM has carried out a lot more airstrikes in Libya, usually with UAVs, but has not revealed the total for the year.

October 16, 2019: The GNA raised the heavily subsidized price (10 cents a liter) for kerosene to 60 cents per liter ($2.30 per gallon), which is the cost of production. The retail price for fuel is a relic of the pre-2011 Kaddafi era when smuggling was much more difficult. Now buying up large quantities of subsidized fuel and smuggling it out of the country (to Tunisia or nations to the south) is a major industry and a big problem for anyone trying to govern Libya. This is part of an economic reform program that is supposed to be done in cooperation with the HoR government in Tobruk. The HoR was the last elected government and helped organize the LNA. HoR actually controls most of Libya, including most of the oil production and refining. HoR cooperates with GNA to get government employees paid and all Libyans supplied with necessities. That system is breaking down as the GNA faces elimination because the LNA seems likely to take control of the traditional capital, Tripoli. This is where the GNA operates from. The GNA is suspected of massive corruption in handling oil revenue. It is not providing the HoR with as much as it is entitled to and is suspected of participating in smuggling operations to obtain more cash. GNA is using a lot of that extra cash to pay many of the militias in Tripoli and encourage them (with cash bonuses) to follow orders from the Turkish military advisors that are now handling military strategy and actually control of GNA military forces.

October 2, 2019: The LNA carried out airstrikes against Turkish UAV operations at airports outside Tripoli and Misrata. Both attacks apparently did quite a lot of damage. This slows down the Turks because they simply send in more of their Turkish made UAVs to replace those lost.

October 1, 2019: In Germany, the U.S. and the UN organized a conference on what to do about the situation in Libya. The conference had representatives from the U.S., UN, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Britain, the AU (African Union), Arab League and the EU (European Union). Since the GNA and LNA refuse to negotiate anymore, the Germany conference and subsequent American diplomatic efforts were aimed at getting international support for monitoring and preventing corruption by the Libyan Central Bank and National Oil Company. Both these institutions are based in Tripoli but have to work with the HoR government which controls the oil fields and ports that oil is shipped from. The GNA is trying to keep the HoR from getting the agreed upon sums it needs to supply the Libyan population it controls. HoR now controls most of the population and the GNA sees using the oil money as one of the few effective weapons it has against the HoR government.

September 30, 2019: In Sirte (a coastal city 500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi), LNA forces continue fighting militias in the city. The LNA has eliminated the Islamic terror groups that had, since 2016, operated south of the city. The Sirte militias are loyal to the GNA, if only because the GNA doesn’t try to control what the Sirte militias do. That includes working with people smugglers and living off the local population. Shutting down this sort of thing is why the LNA has been able to take control of most of the country. The LNA is carrying out airstrikes on the Sirte militias and planning a ground offensive as soon as Tripoli is taken.

September 26, 2019: The GNA claim to have killed eight Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, a large Russian military contractor organization that is operating in several other African countries at the behest of the Russian government. Wagner Group has been providing more and more support for the LNA since 2018 and is believed to have about 300 personnel in Libya. The recent losses were the result of an airstrike on LNA forces preparing another offensive against the militias defending Tripoli.

September 25, 2019: At the UN Faiez Serraj, the GNA leader, condemned the LNA forces that are threatening to eliminate all GNA presence in Libya. Serraj now says he will never negotiate with LNA Khalifa Hiftar. A year ago Serraj had a different attitude but negotiations were difficult because Serraj had so little control over the Tripoli militias, who have always been opposed to the LNA. That’s because the LNA has curbed the independence and outlaw behavior of militias all over Libya and the Tripoli militias want no part of that.

Egypt and Qatar were also at the UN meeting and both openly advocated for different policies to bring peace to Libya. Since late 2018 LNA ally Egypt has been urging the LNA leader to negotiate a settlement with the UN backed GNA. In 2018 Egypt was certain that the LNA had pacified eastern Libya up to and including the Egyptian border. That was the main Egyptian concern. Egypt worked with the UAE to support the LNA and while Egypt is less active the UAE is still a major supporter of the LNA as is Russia. Egypt points out that the main obstacle to peace and national units in Libya is the continued support Islamic militias receive from countries like Turkey and Qatar. The Turks have even sent considerable aid to help militias defend their last stronghold in Tripoli. The LNA has, since 2014, systematically defeated, disarmed to recruited disruptive militias throughout most of Libya. The LNA also shut down a lot of Islamic terror groups. Yet the UN continues to back the GNA, whose main support comes from militias, many of them regularly fighting each other.

 

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