By Ethan Chorin
On September 21, I flew from Alexandria, Egypt, to Beida, Libya. I had not been back to Eastern Libya since the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, where I had been working on a medical infrastructure project.
I was returning to interview senior Libyan officials for a forthcoming book, and to try to determine if recent dramatic events in the Libya’s East might offer a way out the torturous conflict.
Two weeks ago, General Khalifa Heftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, elicited a strong rebuke from several Western countries, including the U.S., and U.K., after the Army took back several of Libya’s main oil exporting ports from an entrenched militia led by strongman Ibrahim Jathran, who had auctioned his ‘protection services’ to the highest bidders.
General Heftar has been painted by the U.N., and the West as a key obstacle to peace for his refusal to endorse the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, and his ambiguous personal ambitions. But many of Heftar’s stated objections have merit. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives, to which Heftar and the Libyan National Army answer, has twice refused to ratify the Unity government, as required by the political agreement that produced that body. One fear is that integration of the Army into the Unity structure, will lead to its evisceration.
The easiest route to Eastern Libya runs through Egypt – and this is not by accident. Egypt has been a strong supporter of the House of Representatives, and Heftar, which the body recently promoted to the rank of ‘Field Marshal’. As with other of Libya’s neighbors, it is intensely concerned about that country’s instability, and has historic claims the border regions. The fact that I was was meeting the coordinator of my trip, a colonel proximate to Heftar, in Cairo, was clearly indicative of the strength of that relationship.
A stolid man in his 40s, the colonel explained in painstaking detail how the Libyan National Army had slowly changed the balance in Eastern Libya, starting with clearing most of Benghazi of ISIS (there remain pockets on the outlying areas, and the coastal town of Derna). According to Heftar’s staff, these areas are fully surrounded – though they still constitute a threat, as evidenced by rockets fired from those areas into Benghazi proper last week. Mines and booby-traps set by retreating jihadi fighters are one of the biggest dangers to Army forces and civilians alike in Benghazi, and medical facilities are woefully inadequate to cope with the carnage.
For all of the vitriol aimed at Heftar, he and Army Chief of Staff Abdulrazek Al Nadoori, have in two years created a command and control structure that spans the country, from Benghazi to the Western Mountains: “We have about 6000 officers now,” the colonel said, and the number is growing at 400 a year, from all parts of Libya. We have built 2-year training centers for officers in Tobruk and Marj, and basic training facilities for soldiers in other towns in the East.” Whatever the exact numbers, and its weak-points, the Libyan National Army presents a stark contrast to the militia warfare that prevails in the country’s North-West. And the situation in the Eastern part of the country is a reflection of that.
I asked the colonel about the impact of the U.S. bombing of ISIS in Sirte, set to continue for at least another month. He said the attacks, while neutralizing part of the ISIS contingent, were also causing a displacement of fighters back South towards Algeria and Niger, and West, into Tripoli (the seat of the Government of National Accord) and Tunisia. As detailed by recent articles in the Francophone press, this situation is highly concerning to Libya’s neighbors, who fear yet another ‘blowback’ from the Libya conflict.
As for the oilfields takeover, the colonel explained that this was done bloodlessly, in part through support of Eastern tribal notables, who prearranged a partial stand down of Jathran’s men. The oil facilities were subsequently turned over to the National Oil Company administration, and the first oil lifting in many months left Eastern Libya shortly thereafter.
Deplaning at Beida’s Labraq airport, 172 km from Benghazi, my first impression was of quasi-order, at best. I was met by a couple of young men in their 20’s wearing polo shirts and carrying satellite phones. My passport was stamped, and I was led through series of back alleys to a new Toyota Landcruiser without plates, and destination unclear. I was supposed to be taken to Al Marj, Heftar’s headquarters, but spent the night in Beida instead, where I heard sporadic gunfire during the night. During the day, the situation was calm, and I was met by Protocol. Municipal police patrolled the streets in new, well-marked cars. And, unlike previous trips, I saw many fewer guns. Trash appeared to be being collected. I received texts from recently returned Libyan contacts in Benghazi, saying that the city was “battered, but getting back to some kind of normal.”
Ethan Chorin , I have spent more than 18 years working in Africa and the Middle East as an energy and port executive, a U.S. diplomat and currently, as CEO of Perim Associates LLC, and Editor of AR3 Magazine (www.africar3.com). I am interested in post-conflict stabilization, entrepot cities and topics in renewable energy. I am the author of two books on Libya, Exit the Colonel (Public Affairs, 2012), and Translating Libya (Darf, 2015). A two-time Fulbright Fellow (Yemen, Jordan), I hold a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in Agricultural and Resource Economics, an M.A. from Stanford in International Policy Studies, and a B.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Yale.