Libya: The Long Very Hot Summer

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July 8, 2022: The year-long political deadlock between the two main factions over national elections, and the presence of foreign troops provided by Russia and Turkey, is gradually being resolved by developments few expected.

First came the steady and continuing reduction of Russian forces in Libya. The Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered economic sanctions against Russia that reduced its ability to maintain any forces in Libya. Turkey has made smaller reductions because of severe economic problems in Turkey. The pressure on Turkey over its operations in Libya received a major and unexpected boost recently when Turkey was forced to reveal details of how its clandestine operations in places like Libya operated. This was due to recent publication of details on how Turkey managed to get involved in the Libyan Civil War. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) got Turkey to admit details on the Turkish Libya operation via year-long negotiations to get a key Turkish agent and organizer of such operations freed from prison. These details did not receive much publicity until recently, in part because of speeches the freed Turkish agent gave after he returned home.

On November 29th, 2021 Turkey finally got Mehmet Ali Ozturk freed from a UAE prison. Ozturk was serving a life sentence for running a Turkish government-sponsored Islamic terrorist network that was part of a secret Turkish effort to create and use suitable Islamic terror groups to support Turkish foreign policy throughout the Maddie East. This included areas like Syria and Libya where Turkey and the UAE were opponents. The Turks believed it was safe for Ozturk to travel to the UAE, which he did in 2018 on a business trip for BLC, the successful family firm he worked for. Ozturk has spent most of this life with his family run firm and was recruited by MIT in 2012 because Ozturk supported Turkish president Erdogan’s secret use of cooperative Islamic terror groups to do business with, including covertly hiring them as mercenaries. Turkey maintained the loyalty of these Islamic radicals by providing them access to Turkey to obtain supplies and sometimes as a safe place to put their families while the men were off fighting for their cause. This policy was harmful to Libya as well as the UAE.

In 2018 Ozturk was arrested in the UAE and changed with a long list of crimes involving Islamic terrorist groups. A diplomat from the Turkish embassy was at the trial, which took ten weeks to complete. The Turks learned that the UAE intel officials knew a lot more about Ozturk and his work for MIT than the Turks realized. The Turks continued trying to get the Turkish businessman Ozturk freed from prison and all the Turks were offered in return was the possibility of freedom for Ozturk if Turkey provided confirmation of the charges against Ozturk and details of Ozturk’s work for the Turkish government. President Erdogan of Turkey resisted that until he realized that the UAE and Israel had long been sharing intelligence data, that all the details of MIT operations the UAE wanted would probably come out soon anyway, and here was a chance to come clean and repair relations with the UAE, Israel and maybe even the Americans all at once. The Turks confirmed that the Ozturk network was one of several operating in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and Europe. The primary purpose of these groups is to protect Turks, especially Turkic minorities in other countries that are persecuted because they are a minority, not just because they are Turkic. This aid even extends, from time to time, to Turkic Uyghurs in northwest China who are being persecuted, jailed and killed for not cooperating with Chinese efforts to turn them into loyal Chinese citizens. Most of the MIT efforts with Islamic terrorists have less noble goals, usually involving supporting Turkish foreign policy. That is what MIT sought to do in Syria to maintain good relations with the Iranians while persecuting the local Kurds and placating the Iran-backed Assad government of Syria. The goals in Libya are purely about money and gaining access to Libyan oil and offshore deposits in waters between Libya and Turkey that by international law belong to Greece. The MIT networks often disguised themselves as humanitarian groups to provide cover for MIT operations that often caused or exacerbated humanitarian disasters. Ozturk was released from prison at the end of 2021 and was hailed as a Turkish hero back home and became a popular speaker at pro-Erdogan gatherings in Turkey. Erdogan now has to clean up the mess all these recent MIT revelations identified. This was the cost of getting a key MIT operative out of jail and was considered worth it by supporters of the Erdogan-run Turkish government. Libya sees this as an opportunity to obtain active UN support in forcing the Turks out. The UN was hobbled by lack of information about the MIT operations in Libya as well as Russia using its permanent UN veto. Mainly because of the Turkish reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia is less inclined to use its UN veto to support illegal (according to most UN members) Turkish operations in Libya. For Turkey the Libya operations are proving to be more and more of a liability.

There are other pressures at work in Libya. Political uncertainty is made worse by economic problems since April because both eastern (Fathi Bashagha) and western (Abdulhamid Dbeibah) factions have caused oil exports to decline by half, and caused chronic electricity shortages for both factions. This is forcing the Tripoli faction to reconsider its deal with the Turks and opposition to elections. This lack of unity has been around since the decades old dictatorship was overthrown in mid-2011. The UN stepped in with an official presence but because of the militia violence in the capital of Tripoli, the UN mission has been headquartered in neighboring Tunisia. For the same reason Fathi Bashagha, the leader of the eastern Libyan government does not plan to rule all of Libya from Tripoli until the violent militias there are pacified. This is what the eastern forces were close to accomplishing in 2019 before the Turks got involved.

After 2011 the UN was able to impose control over Libyan oil revenues deposited in European banks, to curb corruption, but benefits for the Libyan population were disrupted and reduced by the continuing disorder. What it comes down to is that there is no sense of national unity. The best post-2011 Libya has been able to do is create somewhat stable coalitions in eastern and western Libya. Partition of Libya into east and west is now seen as a serious solution to the continued deadlock. The UN is unlikely to accept the partition solution and the new revelations about Turkish dirty deeds and the continued losses Russia is suffering is making a compromise acceptable to all more likely.

There is less and less violence in Libya because of the stalemate, and that means there is currently no war in Libya. Over the last decade most of the casualties have come from rival militias in Tripoli fighting each other and the Islamic terrorists in the east and south attacking locals and each other. Libya can best be described as a failed state, similar to what happened to Somalia after the 1990 anti-government rebellion and in Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1987 and again in 2021 when Pakistan-backed Taliban overthrew a government that had existed since 2002. In Somalia Islamic terrorist groups (mainly al Shabaab) eventually tried to take over, but failed. In Afghanistan it was the Taliban, which took over most of the country in the late 1990s, but was overthrown in late 2001 when the U.S. came to the aid of the tribes that were still fighting the Taliban. The clear lesson here is that someone will have to intervene to prevent the Islamic terrorists from gaining too much control over the country, or simply to stop the violence before the economy (oil industry) is destroyed. At the moment no one is stepping forward to intervene, mainly because it is an expensive and thankless job. Someone may still intervene to back the government and that is what the government is hoping for.

The current stalemate was caused when the western GNU (Government of National Unity) officially refused to recognize the western (HoR, or House of Representatives) government approval of Fathi Bashagha as the new GNU prime minister. The HoR government represents more Libyans than the Tripoli-based GNA (Government of National Accord). The GNA and HoR are in the process of using the GNU to merge but that process, and the long-sought national elections, are currently blocked by a dispute within the GNU between the newly elected former interior minister Fathi Bashagha as the new GNU prime minister and the original GNU prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, whose term of office ended in December. This dispute has been going on since January and the UN efforts to resolve the dispute have, as usual, failed so far.

Dbeibah turned out to be corrupt and willing to accept the Turkish presence in Libya. Dbeibah and members of his cabinet refused to cede power to Bashagha, who is backed by the eastern HoR faction and its LNA (Libyan National Army) forces, which still control most of Libya. Bashagha believes he can organize national elections in 14 months, unless the UN backs Dbeibah or does nothing to block interference from Dbeibah. Bashagha backed Turkish intervention in 2019 and 2020, but turned against the Turks when the Turks indicated they were not leaving Libya.

The December 24 elections did not happen and there are disagreements in Libya and the UN over a new date for national elections. The UN also wants to replace many of the local officials in the GNU. In late 2020 the UN brokered the creation of the GNU, yet another temporary government to unite Libya. The Turks, Russians, GNA, HoR and LNA agreed to withdraw their forces as part of a late 2020 ceasefire/national unification plan. This agreement called for national elections to be held by the end of 2021. That did not happen, mainly because of the continued presence of Turkish forces and disagreements over the new constitution and who can run for office. The Turks realize they don’t have to fight to remain in Libya, just disrupt and delay any efforts, like elections or a UN condemnation, to force them to leave or fight to stay.

Libyans have not been able to agree on a new government since the overthrow of Kaddafi in mid-2011. There was some unity because by 2015 there were two major factions, one in the capital Tripoli and backed by the UN and the other in the east, based in Tobruk. The primary dispute between the two factions was support of Islamic political parties and some Islamic terrorist groups. In most of Libya, especially the east, that attitude was not acceptable and the growing number of Islamic terror groups in Libya had become a major threat to most Libyans. The most effective opponent of the Islamic terrorists was a former Libyan army officer, Khalifa Haftar, who fled Libya in the 1980s after incurring the wrath of dictator Kaddafi. Now an American citizen, he returned to eastern Libya in 2013, revived some of the units of the Kaddafi-era military and began taking control of military bases from militias and Islamic terrorists. Eastern tribes rallied to Haftar, who had organized the most effective counterterrorism effort in the country. Haftar had the support of most Arab states, especially Egypt and the UAE. Egypt has a vulnerable border with Libya that was being used by Islamic terror groups to move people in and out as well as smuggle weapons into Egypt.

Egypt provided a land route to Libya for supplies and weapons for the LNA, largely paid for by the UAE and other Arab oil states. Egypt, the UAE and other Arab states support the new Bashagha government and oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Turkey backs Ukraine more than it opposes Russia but is trying to play both sides. The UN was forced by nearly all its members to strongly condemn Russia for the Ukraine invasion. The Ukrainian situation has also taken away any UN attention to the Libya crisis. Currently the UN has not proposed any solution to the GNA/HoR dispute or the illegal presence of Turkey in Libya. The UN tends to avoid offending major UN members, especially the five nations with veto power. That group includes Russia but not Turkey. The UN does not have armed forces, aside from peacekeepers who are supplied by member states and paid for by UN members, especially the U.S. and other industrial nations that provide most of the UN budget. UN leaders have found that the safest thing for them to do when major powers have disputes is to find ways to offend no one, even if that means serious disputes go on far longer than necessary.

Russia backed Haftar early on and by 2016 Haftar was making regular visits to Russia to discuss cooperation in the fight against the Islamic terrorists in Libya. What impressed the Russians was Haftar’s long-range plan for uniting Libya, holding elections and allowing the Libyan economy to thrive once more. Russia began providing military assistance, in the form of advisors and technicians to repair and restore a lot of Russian tanks, artillery and aircraft that were still intact but out of action because of a lack of repairs and new parts. Russia and Arab allies also helped Haftar with logistics.

Haftar forces were effective and loyal because Haftar took care of them and minimized friendly casualties. The Russian and Arab support enabled the LNA to pacify 90 percent of Libya and by early 2019 Haftar was closing in on Tripoli, where the UN-backed GNA was barely able to maintain order in Tripoli and two other eastern cities dominated by Islamic militias who openly feuded with each other and barely tolerated the GNA. By mid-2019 the LNA offensive was working its way towards taking Tripoli when Turkey showed up with an offer the GNA couldn’t refuse; military intervention against the LNA. In return the GNA would sign a treaty with Turkey granting it somebody else’s offshore oil rights. The GNA’s UN patron did little more than protest as Turkey began moving in weapons and troops, especially 10,000 of its own Syrian Arab mercenaries, to halt the LNA advance. By February 2020 the LNA agreed to a ceasefire. This held and led to a peace deal in which the GNA and eastern HoR governments agreed to merge and carry out national elections. Part of the deal was Russia and Turkey withdrawing their troops. Russia began doing so but the Turks did not. The Russian force was much smaller (about 1,200 Wagner Group military contractors and Russian technicians for maintaining equipment as well as a larger force of Arab mercenaries) than the 12,000 Turkish troops and Arab mercenaries. Russia had another reason for pulling out most of its personnel; it could no longer afford it. That was the result of economic sanctions imposed after the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine. In 2022 that escalated into a larger operation and Russia is now burdened with even heavier sanctions. This could lead to the departure of all Russian military personnel. The Turks are now the major obstacle to Libyan unity and elections. Russia also has forces in Syria, where it is an ally of Turkey.

The key issue is getting the Turks out of Libya but no one has the military capability to force the Turks out as long as the Turks refuse to leave. Bashagha, the new GNU leader, promises to use negotiation to get the Turks out. The Turkish forces are still concentrated in the west, around Tripoli and Misrata. In both these cities the militias violently feud with each other. This happens despite Turkish efforts to train militia members to be professional soldiers. The militiamen accepted the training and new weapons, but their first loyalty remained to their militia leaders, who often represented populations in the two cities.

After 2015 the LNA served as a successful counterterrorism force the destroyed or neutralized Islamic terrorists in the east and south and by 2019 was preparing to do the same with the feuding Islamic militias in Tripoli and Misrata.

Not all the troublesome militias were in the major cities. Some are from rural areas around oil production facilities and serve as PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards). General Haftar and his LNA tamed these PFGs via negotiation and in a few instances by force. Despite that, and the fact that jobs as PFGs are among the best paid and secure in the country, some PFG groups have internal political problems that occasionally result in a PFG threatening to shut down the facilities they guard unless they are paid more. It’s still up to the LNA to settle these disputes with a minimum of violence or lost production. Most Libyans are aware of the rising cost of grain imports and that the national bank has exhausted most of its cash reserves. That means that any serious disruption of oil production will soon mean less access to food or cash for government payrolls, including the PFGs.

The PFGs have long been seen as a permanent source of corruption. PFGs are tribal militias hired (or bribed) by previous or post-2011 governments to keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. Soon after Kaddafi was deposed in 2011 many, if not most, PFGs went rogue, shut down the facilities they guarded and, in effect, tried to blackmail whoever was paying them to pay 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 wanted payback for past real or imagined injustices. Many of the PFGs came to support the GNA but, as long as some of them continue to resist, oil income is crippled and the much-feared food crisis is no longer approaching, it is here. General Haftar and the HoR government have been successful negotiating with the PFGs and offering a better deal (larger share of oil income) and less corruption. Haftar 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 often delivered the cash but some or all of it was stolen by PFG leaders who denied they were 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 they 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 if they do not cooperate everyone will suffer, which is what has been happening and is getting worse.

Libyans are exhausted and frustrated, but not so much that they will unite, or fight.

July 7, 2022: Persistent and increasing anti-government protests in all urban areas (not just Tripoli and a few other large cities) has put all Libyan leaders under pressure to compromise, hold national elections and address the self-inflicted economic problems that are impoverishing all Libyans. There is also an embarrassment factor, with both Turks and Arab nations seeing the deadlock as confirmation that Libya cannot maintain its existence as an independent state. Regional and tribal divisions have always been stronger in Libya than in neighboring states like Algeria, Egypt and Sudan. These neighbors have maintained their national unity for centuries with Egypt being one the oldest nation-states in the world. The implication is that Libya is worse than a failed state, it was never really a unified state at all. Over half a century of oil wealth created a unique incentive to unite under a monarchy, then a more durable dictatorship that eventually failed in 2011. If the stubborn factions don’t unite, “Libya” as a unified state will disappear and more traditional and ancient regions and city-states will return, each with a portion of the oil wealth and unable to prevent neighbors from annexing neighboring portions of what used to be Libya that are worth having because of the oil and natural gas. Egypt has been planning for something like this since the oil and natural gas were discovered. Now the opportunities for annexation have never been better.

July 1, 2022: In the east (Tobruk) an angry crowd set fire to the parliament building, causing considerable damage. This angry demonstration was but one of several breaking out in all Libyan cities with a major presence of GNA or HoR facilities. There has always been more of this violence in Tripoli but now there is a lot more of it because the electrical power is on only six hours a day, if that. Libya imports all its food and the war in Ukraine has disrupted grain exports by Russia and Ukraine, which account for about 30 percent of such exports worldwide. The government deadlock has disrupted a lot of other necessities, like meeting the payroll.

June 27, 2022: Turkey still maintains several thousand Syrian Arab mercenaries in Syria. These cost the Turks about $5 million a month for pay, supplies and transportation back to Syria when their term of service is completed or for a vacation in the middle of their tour. There are also a few hundred Turks, most of them military personnel to supervise operations. The Turks are dealing with low morale because the Syrians are not returning to Syria on time, or at all for the 30-day vacations. This has caused more mercs to simply desert and cross the border into Algeria where they can contact family in Syria or elsewhere and arrange passage back to Syria and somewhere that the Turks have no control over.

The Russia presence is much (about 80 percent less) smaller and the Russians are having a harder time paying for it. The Arab mercs get from $800 to $2,000 a month depending on rank and experience. It’s less dangerous than working for the Turks in Syria but is far from home and among fellow-Arabs who see them as traitors to the Arab cause because they serve the Turkish oppressor of most Arabs before the Ottoman Empire fell a century ago.

June 22, 2022: In Tripoli there was another violent clash between rival militias that left one militiaman and a civilian bystander dead. These clashes in the capital are the main source of casualties during periods of relative peace in the rest of Libya. GNA efforts to use some of its new, Turkish trained or advised military units to deal with this violence failed when the military units took sides and fought each other. There has been increased militia violence in and around Tripoli since mid-2018 that the GNA was unable to deal with. There was a truce of sorts when the LNA began its offensive to take Tripoli in early 2019. The LNA almost succeeded but the Turks arrived at the end of 2019 and forced the LNA to back off. By mid-2020 the Tripoli militias felt safe enough to resume fighting each other.

 

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