Libya: The Obstacle

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June 30, 2021: Today is the deadline for the two rival factions to agree on how to run the national elections in December that will finally unite the country after a decade of rebellion and civil war. The two factions are the UN created GNA (Government of National Accord) controlling the least territory and the HoR (House of Representatives) the last elected government that disagreed with the formation of the GNA.

After nearly a year of effort a stable ceasefire was worked out in early 2021. This was part of a unification effort that made it possible for the two rival factions to work on a merger agreement. In February Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh was selected to head (as prime minister) the temporary GNU (Government of National Unity) while bringing together representatives of the two factions to work out details of the election process and a new constitution. Dbeibeh has been a successful businessman since the 1980s and, during the 2011 revolution 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 believed trustworthy enough to form the temporary government that has until December to organize elections.

By mutual agreement the GNU only lasts until the end of the year. If there is not an elected government by then, the civil war resumes. Currently the main obstacle is agreeing on whether the national leader will be an elected president or a parliament elected prime minister. It is understood that the legislative elections will create a legislature/parliament composed of many political factions with different ideas about how Libya should be governed. While a president does not have to worry about losing his majority in parliament and triggering new parliamentary elections, the parliamentary process makes it easier to avoid a resumption of the civil war by giving all factions a role in forming new governments led by a prime minister.

Then there are still major problems with corruption and foreign influence in Libya. The most intransigent example of that is Turkey, which is demanding that its illegal presence in Libya be legitimized and the agreements made with the GNA in late 2019 be recognized as legal. That will be difficult because that agreement brought in Turkish military forces that saved the GNA from being eliminated by the HoR forces. The GNA agreement with the Turks also illegally granted Turkey access to offshore waters that, by international law, are controlled by Greece. 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 appealing the UN and international tribunals that handle such disputes. The Chinese violations of international law in the South China Sea were judged by an international tribunal which declared China was acting illegally. China ignored the ruling and continues to militarize the South China Sea.

Turkey is no China and does not have the means to enforce its claims. The Greeks, and many Turks, know it. The Turks are able to remain in Libya because the UN and NATO are unwilling to try and force the Turks out. Most Libyans agree that it is crucial to Libyan unity to get the Turks out of Libya.

Turkey and Greece have been feuding for centuries and both are NATO members. Since 2000 Turkey has moved away from its pre-1991 (Cold War) policies and sought to become a leading power in the Moslem world. The problem with that is most Moslem nations oppose this new Turkish policy and are especially hostile to the Turkish military presence in Libya and how it was arranged.

The new GNU prime minister was able to find acceptable candidates to head all 26 of the new government ministries. Similar negotiations proceed about moving the GNU capital to Sirte. The LNA (Libyan National Army) forces in Sirte refuse to leave without some guarantees that Turk mercenaries stationed not far away on the coast road that goes through Sirte, will not speed into Sirte and claim to be the new permanent security force. Pro-Turkey media suggest money problems, with at least one of the LNA militias in Sirte demanding a bonus (or bribe) before they will leave.

The composition of the GNU security forces is still unsettled, as is the status of foreign troops, especially the hated Turks.

The 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 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 before the desperate 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 Turks adopted a similar attitude in Syria, where they are also considered a major obstacle to ending the civil war there. And then there is Somalia, where the Turks have become a major obstacle to peace.

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 in 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 with mercenaries in Syria, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere. The Turks are increasingly the main obstacle to unity and peace in many trouble spots where they have intervened.

The Turkish activities in Libya are becoming the only obstacle to unity and peace. That is because most of the other problems have been, or are being, solved. One of the HoR demands, that the UN backed, involved agreement on a long-sought list of anti-corruption measures. These meant reforms on how oil income was collected and spent. Before the late 2020 reforms went into force, the NOC (National Oil Corporation) was refusing to turn over any oil revenue to the Central Bank until the bank installed an accounting system that was transparent and clearly specified who gets the money and how the money is spent. There have been a growing number of complaints about corruption, like with the distribution of dollars obtained from oil sales by the Central Bank, often in cooperation with GNA officials. In 2019 the HoR government complained that the GNA had sought, with some success, to deprive the LNA of much oil income it was entitled to. This was taking place at the time when the LNA had upgraded oil facility security to the point where full production could be achieved. The GNA had never been able to achieve much security anywhere, except in Tripoli. Even with full and sustained oil production there were also continuing problems with corruption in how oil income was spent.

Most of those reforms have gone into effect, and cost many corrupt Libyan leaders and businessmen a lot of money, and there are still efforts to get around the reforms. The illegal presence of the Turks is one GNA corrupt action that defies solution because the Turks refuse to leave and no one outside Libya is willing to try and force them. The Libyan people smugglers, unlike those in Turkey, have more options. One of them is to move their departure port operation to neighboring Tunisia. This has already happened but not all the Libya based smuggler groups have been able to make (or afford to make) the move yet.

The UN continues to make futile gestures against the Turks, and the other armed foreigners in Libya. The UN demands don’t work because the UN has no way to enforce compliance. Individual Arab and European countries, especially Egypt and France, are trying to negotiate a deal with Turkey that would get the Turkish mercs out of Libya. That won’t be cheap and the negotiations are mainly about how much it will cost in cash and concessions.

Arab countries in the region that were once part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire are less willing to negotiate with the Turks. While the Ottoman Empire has been done for a century, the Turks imperial attitudes are still around and nations formerly part of its empire see the UN as dominated by nations which mistakenly believe the Turks can be reasonable. So far, the Turks have not been reasonable in Libya and Arab nations believe that won’t change until the UN changes its attitude towards the Turks.

June 26, 2021: In central Libya (Jufra/Jofra province, 770 kilometers south of Tripoli) the LNA has spent the last week searching for remaining ISIL groups still operating in the volcanic mountains that rise out of the surrounding desert. LNA forces have been fighting various Islamic terror groups here since late 2016. General Haftar saw Jufra turning into a sustained campaign because some of the local Jufra militias will tolerate Islamic terrorist groups and are generally wary of what the coastal militias are up to. Other local militias are hostile to ISIL, which tends to attack anyone that does not agree with them. The LNA periodically moves ground forces down here to deal with new ISIL activity. The search is assisted by aerial surveillance and airstrikes. In the last week the LNA found and destroyed four ISIL hideouts and killed or captured over a dozen ISIL members. Since late 2020 most of the violent deaths in Libya have been from clashes between rival militias and occasional attacks by ISIL or other terrorist groups.

June 20, 2021: GNU prime minister Abdul Dbeibeh declared that the coastal highway was clear of all obstacles. A day later one of those obstacles, the LNA forces in Sirte, pointed out that the highway was not open because the UN created Joint Military Commission was given the task of negotiating an agreement to reopen the road. Now Dbeibeh is being accused of being bribed or intimidated into cooperating with the Turks.

The LNA has long dealt with rogue militias still blocking the coast road or operations of key oil production and export facilities. This form of extortion also crippled the GNU but the LNA was more successful at dealing with it, using a combination of negotiations and military force. 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 to 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.

June 10, 2021: In the coastal town of Ajaylat (80 kilometers west of Tripoli) seven people, including an American student, were killed during fighting between two rival militias, one of them affiliated with ISIL. Such feuds are still common in Tripoli and towns between the city and the Tunisian border. This is one area where people smuggling gangs can still operate freely if they pay off the right militias.

June 6, 2021: In the southwest (Fezzan region, 640 kilometers south of Tripoli) a suicide car bomb went off at a checkpoint outside Sabha City, killing two police and wounding five others. Since 2015 the LNA has been trying to maintain some degree of law and order in this area where fighting between Tuareg and Tebu tribesmen has been flaring up regularly since the 2011 revolution. Much of the violence is over control of the main road going to the Niger border. 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 was 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. In this case 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 after Kaddafi fell. There they constantly skirmishes 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 and Taureg. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still approve of. 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 worked out agreements on dividing smuggling business but discipline in the tribes is not all that tight and fights keep breaking out. The main cause of renewed fighting in 2019 is the GNA sending militiamen south to aid the Tabu in pushing LNA forces out of the area. The GNA effort in the south is not so much about ancient tribal rivalries but about gaining control of oil fields and pipelines in this part of the country. About a quarter of Libyan oil comes from this area and in 2020 the GNA, with help pf Turkish mercenaries, regained some control in the area, long policed by the LNA.

May 31, 2021: In the southwest (Fezzan region bordering Niger and Chad) electric company employees, and their security guards, were fired on when they went to disconnect electrical power to a local business that refused to pay its electricity bill. Two of the attackers were killed as well as two civilian bystanders.

 

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