Libya: Smuggler’s Lament

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May 3, 2021: Libyan smuggling gangs are once more taking a beating after nearly a year of prosperity. More and more of the flimsy boats smugglers use to get illegal migrants to Italy are being intercepted and returned to Libya. These gangs prospered after the Turks drove LNA forces from coastal ports near Tripoli in early 2020. With no one willing or able to prevent the smugglers from operating, the lucrative business of moving illegal migrants to Europe via nearby Italy was revived. Before the Turks arrived the LCG (Libyan Coast Guard) regularly cracked down on the smugglers. The Turks didn’t care about the smugglers. In part this was because back in Turkey the government tolerates people smugglers arranging (for a fee from the illegal migrant) to get Arabs, Africans or Asians from Turkey to Europe, unless the EU (European Union) pays the Turks lots of money to halt the smugglers. The LCG is something of a mercenary outfit that is not controlled by anyone in Libya. The LNG was founded and sustained by Italy, which pays the LCG to keep illegal migrants from reaching Italy. That only works if someone, like the LNA, is willing to protect the presence of the LCG near smuggler ports, especially Sabratha (a coastal city 66 kilometers west of Tripoli) .

Sabratha has long been notorious as the main port from which criminal gangs, under the protection of Tripoli based militias, moved illegal migrants to Europe. Local militias sometimes allowed this as long as they got a slice of that income. As long as they were powerful enough to control coastal towns, the militias protected the gangsters moving the illegal migrants to Europe via Libya. Most of the boats loaded with illegal migrants headed for Europe leave from Sabratha and other smaller 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 onto boats that 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. The smuggling gangs took in over a billion dollars from this in 2015 and found that kind of income was worth fight for. Since 2017 the LNA, some Sabratha militias and Italy worked to shut down the smugglers. The LNA had a plan for shutting down all the smuggling gangs and wanted more support from the EU to do the same with the European gangs which control more of this smuggling than the EU would like to admit. Italy took the lead implementing an EU program to organize (and subsidize) a revived Libyan coast guard, and paying southern tribes to go after people smugglers. That was the easy part and it soon greatly reduced the flow of illegals to the EU, most of them coming in via Italy. Turkish intervention made it possible for the larger Tripoli militias to resume their people smuggling for a while, but by late 2020 a ceasefire allowed LNA forces to resume supporting anti-smuggling operations in the coastal towns.

Placating The Turks

The country is still divided with the GNA (UN created Government of National Accord) controlling the least territory while the HoR (the last elected government that disagreed with the formation of the GNA) now busy dealing with the remaining Islamic terrorists and smuggling gangs, as long as the Turkish mercenaries remain inactive.

This ceasefire made it possible for the two rival Libyan governments to work on a merger agreement. In February Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh was selected by to head (as prime minister) the unified GNU (Government of National Unity). Dbeibeh is from Misrata, where he was born in 1959, and was educated in Canadian universities before returning to become a successful businessman in the 1980s. During the 2011 revolution Dbeibeh favored the Moslem Brotherhood but was perceived as doing so mainly to protect his family and business interests. He is known to have used corrupt behavior to keep his businesses going during the decade of fighting but is trusted enough to form the temporary government and attempt to organize the December elections. The main obstacle to holding the elections is the Turks, who demand that their presence in Libya be legitimized and that the agreements they made with the GNA in late 2019 be recognized as legal.

The GNU prime minister is still seeking to find acceptable (to GNC and HoR) candidates to head all 26 of the new government ministries. Similar negotiations proceed about moving the GNU capital to Sirte. The composition of the GNU security forces is still unsettled, as is the status of foreign troops, especially the hated Turks. A related issue is the legality of the treaty the GNA (Government of National Accord), signed with the Turks in late 2019. This agreement has Libya and Turkey agreeing to claim and exploit offshore oil and gas discoveries in the waters between Libya and Turkey. Even the UN opposes this deal because it violates numerous existing treaties that established rules for how this division of offshore resources is done. The GNA-Turkey deal is similar to the claims China is making in the South China Sea. Greece refuses to negotiate with the Turks over this and is instead appealed to the UN and international tribunals that handle such disputes. China was tried this way over its South China Sea claims and ignored ruling that upheld accusations that it acted illegally.

Turkey is no China, and does not have the means to enforce its claims and the Greeks (and many Turks) know it. One of those things most Libyans agree on is the importance of getting the Turks out of Libya. The rival HoR government in the east, based in Tobruk, agreed to support the GNU with the understanding that security would be a priority and that the status of LNA (Libyan National Army) founder and leader Khalifa Haftar be “respected”. The Turks, Islamic militias and GNA diehards hate Haftar and want him gone if not imprisoned. Most Libyans oppose that because Haftar suppressed Islamic terrorism in Libya and nearly united the country under the HoR until the GNA made a deal with the Turks.

To further complicate matters the HoR has long been supported by Russia, Egypt and the Gulf Arabs while the GNA has received support from Iran. The Turks have also worked with Iran in Syria and against Kurdish separatists in general. Both Turkey and Iran support Islamic terrorists when it suits their purposes. The most acceptable solution to the security issue seems to be regional security commands that would put Haftar-led forces in charge of security in some regions. The Turks have not been cooperative and tolerate rogue militias as long as Turkish interests are respected

The reality is that the main task of the GNU is to eliminate the independent militias, get the foreign troops out of the country and create a new national army. The HoR already has a version of that with its LNA, which still controls most of the country and would have unified Libya by the end of 2020 had not the GNA brought in the Turks. The current (since 2000) Turkish government is “Islamic” and increasingly unpopular with Turkish voters. This government is facing reverses in upcoming Turkish elections and many Turks fear their government will rig the elections to remain in power and get Turkey involved in foreign wars. These are unpopular with most Turks, which is why the Turks do most of their fighting in Syria, Libya and elsewhere with mercenaries. The Turks are increasingly the main obstacle to unity and peace in Libya, as well as Syria and elsewhere.

Eastern Promises

While the Turks threaten, in the east Egypt and the HoR have agreed that Libya, at least most LNA controlled areas, are safe enough for Egyptian workers to return. One reason for the improved security was a late 2020 Egyptian effort to organize a military training program for a pro-Egyptian tribal coalition in eastern Libya. Some of the tribesmen received military training in Egypt. The ten Libya tribes involved have ancient links with Egypt and some of the tribes straddle the border. About 14 million Egyptians have family or ancestral ties in Libya.

Before the 2011 civil war began, a million Egyptians worked in Libya, and accounted for over 80 percent of the foreign workforce. This large foreign workforce is typical of Arab oil states. Foreign workers handle skilled jobs that few locals are qualified for and many more jobs that Libyans disdain. Over 80 percent of the Egyptian workforce in Libya lost their jobs due to financial problems or anti-foreigner violence. Egypt wants peace and prosperity to return to Libya because that will also mean the return of Egyptian workers. Before the 2011 war began the 6.5 million Libyans had a per capita GDP of about $10,000 (50 percent more if adjusted for purchasing power parity). Many Libyans were content to get by on a low-stress government job and let foreign workers keep the economy going. That hasn’t changed and Libya is seeking economic aid and foreign workers to get reconstruction going. While Egypt supplies the manpower, other Arab states, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are willing to supply the money. Until a unified government is operational throughout Libya,  reconstruction projects will be restricted to eastern Libya where there is enough law and order to permit the work to proceed. There are still plenty of bandits and Islamic terrorists who see foreign workers and rebuilding efforts as a source of ransom and extortion income. Nationwide there is potential demand for over two million foreign workers, many of them temporary, to handle reconstruction efforts. With enough cash and foreign workers, the reconstruction can be completed within three years.

May 2, 2021 : In the southeast, along the border with Chad, LNA forces arrested a some Chad based smugglers who were moving 7,200 liters (1,900 gallons) of fuel and a truckload of weapons into Chad. This smuggling has been going on for a long time, mainly because there has been little border security government since the 2011 revolution and subsequent civil war.

April 30, 2021: In Sirte the JMC (Joint Military Commission of GNC and LNA) met under the auspices of the GMU to discuss how to resolve problems with rogue militias still blocking the coast road. Clearing that road is one of the pre-conditions for holding elections. Most Libyans live along the coast and the coastal highway is an essential element of national unity and prosperity. Powerful local militias took advantage of that after 2011 and this lucrative power to extort “transit fees” from traffic is one of the things that kept many militias in business. That income included fees from smuggling gangs operating from coastal ports. The LNA systematically eliminated militia control of the road east of Sirte (a coastal city 500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi). In early 2020 the LNA finally gained control of Sirte but by mid-2020 the invading Turks were moving west and trying to take Sirte. That failed and that was one of the reasons the Turks tolerated a ceasefire. The LNA is still having problems with local militias that want regain control of Sirte. The presence of Turkish forces (in the form of Syrian Arab mercenaries) is a major obstacle because they don’t take orders from any Libyans, but from the Turks.

April 29, 2021: The head of the NOC (National Oil Corporation) announced that there is now an agreement on how to distribute oil income to areas controlled by the GNC and H0R. The Turks had to be convinced that the NOC was not political operation but one that operated under UN scrutiny (and audits) to keep oil production going and organize the massive effort to catch up on delayed maintenance and upgrades to oil facilities. That will require foreign loans as well as stable oil prices and political stability in Libya.

Since 2019 the LNA has established reliable security for all oil facilities. By the end of 2020 o il production had risen from 800,000 to 1.2 million BPD (barrels per day). In August 2020 the LNA ordered preparations for oil exports to resume and that happened more rapidly than expected. At that time the NOC expected to have production to nearly two million BPD by the end of 2021. Production is currently 1.2 million BPD and a realistic goal for the end of 2021 is 1.5 million BPD if the ceasefire is maintained. With that production could reach 1.6 million BPD by the end of 2022. The production level before the 2011 civil war began was 1.6 million BPD. Oil exports resumed in October 2020, despite threats from some militias near ports to shut that down if the militias did not receive more money for protecting the ports from other militias. The LNA was able to quickly deal with these threats. Production estimates depend on the success of the December national elections and maintaining the peace nationwide.

April 20, 2021: The NOC invoked “force majeure” clause to halt oil exports in some ports because of delays in the Central Bank allocating the money to run the ports. Force majeure is a legal step indicating that circumstances beyond its control cancel existing agreements until the crises passes. This was previously used to protect Libya from being sued for damages by companies that had bought oil that was now not going to be delivered because outlaw militias had taken control of oil facilities. This means the buyers will end up spending more to buy the oil they need on the open oil market, rather than pay a lower negotiated price. There’s a price for using force majeure, and that is lower prices for your oil in the future until you restore faith in your ability to fulfill your contracts. After about a week the financial problems were resolved and force majeure oil lifted. Because of the force majeure daily exports fell several hundred thousand BPD each day exports were halted.

April 12, 2021: Egypt announced it has temporarily suspended diplomatic normalization discussions with Turkey and will also freeze bilateral security cooperation. Egypt made these decisions for several reasons, but diplomats said Egypt is particularly incensed because Turkey has failed to withdraw its mercenaries from Libya. Egypt also wants two senior members of the Moslem Brotherhood extradited from Turkey. Despite the rebuff, Turkey indicated it still hopes to sign a new maritime border agreement with Egypt.

April 5, 2021: In North Africa ambitious Chinese foreign policy is running into trouble. Both China, the West and oil-rich Arab states are willing to provide aid and loans to Libya, but only if certain conditions are met. China has few demands but wants economic and military access as well pro-China foreign policy. China is willing to take its losses in places like Libya, as well as exploiting the local corruption, to get what China wants. The West wants reduced corruption (including illegal migrants) and the removal of foreign troops, especially the Turks. The Arab oil states want more power for Islam in the new government and help with controlling Iranian and Turkish efforts to gain more control over Moslem states in the region. Israel wants peace, economic ties and cooperation in dealing with Islamic terrorism. Most Libyans are willing to accept the Western, Arab and Israeli conditions. China is a “maybe” because of the Chinese reputation for doing whatever it takes, including bringing in Chinese workers and demanding that these workers be allowed remain if they wish. Most Libyans also want the foreign troops out and less corruption. On a personal level, most Libyans want some other Libyan to go first when it comes to abandoning the many corrupt practices that have long been generally acceptable, or at least tolerated in Libya. All of these foreign powers are willing to reopen their embassies and such. That will clarify the local situation for foreigners, which won’t help if all the foreigners see is corruption and mismanagement.

 

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