Libya: Reunification Anxiety


August 23, 2023: Formation of a national government continues to be blocked by the refusal of Russia and Turkey to withdraw their troops until they receive guarantees that their interests in Libya are respected. The UN and NATO oppose that because the Turkey-backed Tripoli faction wants to legitimize an illegal treaty signed by them in 2019 granting Turkey some of Greece’s offshore oil and natural gas rights in an area between Libya and Turkey. This treaty ignored existing, and internationally recognized, Greek claims on that area. Turkey and Greece are both NATO members and NATO backs Greece in this matter. Turkey won’t withdraw its forces from Libya until a new national Libyan government assures the Turks that the illegal agreement is confirmed by a national Libyan government. Many people in both factions do not want to be stuck with a treaty that the UN and NATO consider illegal. Russia is no friend of NATO and is currently at war with NATO-backed forces in Ukraine. Turkey is a NATO member but, while most other NATO members would like to expel the Turks from NATO, there is no legal mechanism for that. Turks and Russians are troublemakers in Europe and Libya is a North African example of that mischief.

As international disputes go, Libya is a rather small affair. There is not much in Libya. The population is six or seven million and the major economic asset is oil. The Libyan National Oil Corporation has restored normal oil production levels of 1.2 million BPD (barrels per day) and seeks to increase it to two million BPD by 2027. The main obstacles to this are the various tribal leaders who demand cash in return for not disrupting production. Officially the tribes are providing “oil field guards'', but the main threat is the tribal militias. Nationalism in Libya is not as powerful as loyalty to a tribe or urban militia. Before oil was discovered Libya was a place where there wasn't much there there. There is some Arab support, mainly because of historical dislike of Turkey. The Arab world condemns the current Turkish actions in Libya because it is a reminder of centuries of Turkish rule over Arabs. Turkey may have underestimated Arab hostility towards this new presence in Libya. This revives Arab memories of past Turkish treatment of Libya. 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 it was mainly desert and, before oil was discovered and developed in the 1960s, there was little of economic value down there. Empires have bills to pay and tend to keep their soldiers where the money is. Arabs believe the Turks are back for more plunder. From the 1550s to 1910 Libya was technically a province of the Ottoman Empire. In reality Libya was mainly run by local strongmen who were often Turks gone native. In 1911 Italy took advantage of the Turks’ weak control 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 (1939-45), 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. Its 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 Captain Kaddafi, an ambitious communications officer who organized other like-minded young officers into a movement that deposed the king and proceeded to misrule Libya until 2011 when Kaddafi was overthrown and killed. After a decade of squabbling and feuding there was an agreement to hold national elections at the end of 2021. That deadline came and went because the feuds between local factions as well as the presence of Turkish and Russian forces blocked formation of a national government.

The Turks had good relations with the Libyan monarchy but initially less stable and cordial relations with Kaddafi. It took nearly a decade of effort for the Turks to gain the support of Kaddafi. The Turks were a member of NATO and many NATO nations lost billions of dollars in assets when Kaddafi seized foreign assets to support his revolutionary ideas, which included a merger with Egypt. This was rejected by Egypt and throughout the 1970s Egypt sought an opportunity to invade and annex Libya. The Turks were useful in helping convince the Egyptians to back off. Even more convincing was the Egyptian defeat in the 1973 war with Israel which eventually led to peace with Israel and military aid from the United States to guarantee that Libya would never be a threat. Arabs don’t like or trust Turkey and the Turks don’t care. That’s what scares the Libyans. The local oil production is not sufficient to attract attention from major NATO nations. The Russian influence in Libya has diminished since Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, failed to achieve a quick victory and is now stuck in a morass of its own making. The Ukrainians received major support from NATO nations that enabled Ukrainian forces to go on the offensive in mid-2023. The Russians are losing ground and the situation in Ukraine takes priority over what Russia had going on in Libya. There are still enough Russian troops in Libya to prevent Turkey from taking control of whatever they want. In this case the Russians have a lot of local support. Libyans see the Russians as a foreign occupier that doesn’t want to be there while the Turks have ambitious plans for a continued presence in Libya.

August 20, 2023: The Central Bank of Libya has reunited, after being divided into two semi-autonomous branches. One of these represented the government in Tripoli and the other the eastern government in Benghazi. Libya hired Deloitte, a major Western financial services firm, to assist with the reunification.

August 17, 2023: Medical teams from Spain and Egypt arrived in Tripoli to treat the wounded from recent militia fighting.

August 14, 2023: In Tripoli, there was a battle involving two government (GNU)-backed militias. One of these militias was the 444th Brigade which is affiliated with the Defense Ministry and is considered disciplined and reliable. Another militia, the SDF (Special Deterrence Force) began as and remains an Islamic militia that served as a police force in Tripoli and the airport outside Tripoli. The 444th and SDF have clashed several times since 2017, usually over who controls what. The 444th is dominant in Tripoli while the SDF controls access to the airport. The current clash between the 444th and the SDF lasted two days and left 55 dead and 146 wounded. Violence like this has been rare in and around Tripoli since 2019 and is a reminder that there is still potential for a lot more violence as long as there are numerous armed factions and no national government. Because there is still no national government to exercise control over militias, especially those in Tripoli, rival militias often confront, and sometimes fight each other as peaceful solutions to disputes cannot be agreed on. Most other major cities in Libya have one faction or another in control of the city. Tripoli has not achieved that degree of unity yet.

August 10, 2023: In the south, on the Chad border, there was another battle in Chad between Chad troops and rebels based in Libya. This one if several border areas with similar violence. Libya’s neighbor’s want to see a unified Libyan government able to help in eliminating this border violence.




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