By Strategy Page
In the coastal city of Sirte (500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi) only a few dozen ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) men are still fighting.
A month ago there were nearly 200 left, in two neighborhoods and several suburbs. Now the only resistance is in the Jizah neighborhoods near the seafront. Thus ends five months of combat to destroy the ISIL effort to establish a major base in Libya.
With the ISIL threat nearly eliminated the major problem is still a lack of national unity. Since 2011 and the demise of dictator Moamar Kaddafi Libya has created three government. First came the General National Congress (or GNC), a temporary group whose main job was to create a new constitution for the voters to decide on. The GNC was to rule until the constitution was approved and elections held. GNC failed to attract the support of all factions or agree on a new constitution. In late 2013 the GNC illegally extended its power for another year.
Despite that scheduled national elections were held in 2014. GNC did not like the composition of the new House of Representatives (HoR) government. The UN recognized the HoR but most of the GNC members (who tended to be more tribal and religiously conservative) refused to give up power, seized control of Tripoli and became known as “the Tripoli government”. The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk and became known as “the Tobruk government”. The HoR rallied most of eastern Libya behind them. The UN recognized the H0R and condemned the GNC.
By early 2016 the UN persuaded most GNC and HoR factions to merge and form the GNA (Government of National Accord). The main obstacles to national unity remain some Islamic terrorist groups and tribal leaders seeking a better deal. The problem is worst in the east where many HoR factions have rallied around the powerful military forces led by general Khalifa Belgacem Hiftar. This HoR government is still based in Tobruk and is meeting with GNA representatives to work out a peace deal. Hiftar is the most powerful man in eastern Libya because for several years he rebuilt and still commands the LNA (the Libyan National Army).
This is made up of what is left of the pre-2011 Libyan Armed Forces and local tribal militias. Hiftar has refused to recognize the GNA in large part because of mutual distrust. Many Libyans fear Hiftar could turn into another military dictator, like the late Kaddafii. Libyans note that next door in Egypt another general recently got elected president and is trying to make his rule permanent.
Hiftar is aware of that and despite his longtime support for democracy in Libya he cannot escape the fact that he is a military man and a very effective one. But over the last few months Hiftar has come under local and international pressure to support the GNA. He may do that but he still has allies among powerful Arab nations, like Egypt and several Gulf oil states. There is growing popular pressure for the GNA to make a deal with the H0R over the Hiftar dispute. HoR and many other groups in the east want Hiftar to continue as head of the Libyan armed forces while the UN backed GNA want to replace him.
Hiftar forces continue to hold eastern oil facilities they had taken during a September offensive. This includes Ras Lanuf (620 kilometers west of Tripoli) and Es Sider/Sidra (20-30 kilometers further west). These have been closed since December 2014. In normal times Es Sider and Ras Lanuf can ship 600,000 barrels a day but remain shut down until the fighting in the area stops. Hiftar also seized the airport outside Ras Lanuf and moved in some of his warplanes.
Hartar was soon able to take the oil port of Zueitina (220 kilometers west of Ras Lanuf and 180 kilometers southwest of Benghazi). In between Ras Lanuf and Zueitina is the oil port at Brega which is still operational and pro-government. Ras Lanuf and Zueitina were loading foreign tankers by the end of the month and Libyan oil exports would double by the end of the year if these ports remained operational. Along with Brega, these three ports can export 800,000 barrels per day.
Hiftar is now threatened by the Misrata militias that were used to drive ISIL out of Sirte as well as Islamic terror groups in Benghazi that are weakened but still manage to make terror attacks against pro-Hiftar groups. Meanwhile in the west one of the local pro-Hiftar groups, a Zintan tribal militia, continues to block the Riyayna pipeline. The pro-Hiftar militias in the west are mainly Berbers, in particular the ZRMC (al Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council).
The ZRMC has been working with Haftar since 2014 and is based in the mountains southwest of Tripoli in and around the Berber town of Zintan. The Berbers have always been hostile to Islamic terrorist groups and early on cleared them out of Zintan and kept them out. The ZRMC attracted new recruits from all over the country because it was seen as a force that could eventually be used to defeat Islamic terrorist groups in Tripoli. But since the GNA showed up some factions of the ZRMC have allied themselves with the new government.
Some 100 kilometers northeast of Benghazi the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has established a military base outside the coastal city of Marj. The base has been there since February 2016 and also hosts French troops who have been assisting the Hiftar forces since 2015. Hiftar has received growing support from Egypt and the UAE.
Although there is a UN arms embargo on all factions in Libya the UAE (and some other Arab states) have always backed the more secular Libyan rebels and recognized (along with Egypt and the UN) the HoR government. But these Arab states also back the GNA while still believing that Hiftar is best suited to continue as military commander. The Marj base receives regular visits by UAE C-130s carrying civilian and military supplies. There are at least three UAE Mirage jet fighters, used mainly for reconnaissance.
The UAE also has at least six AT-802U attack aircraft based there as well as some UH-60 helicopters. The UAE bought 24 AT-802Us in 2015 and is known to have given some to Yemen and Jordan. The AT-802U is an armed version of a popular AT-802 crop duster.
The GNA managed to double oil exports and oil income in the last few months. Production was crippled by lack of GNA control in the east and for nearly a year has been less than 20 percent of what it was (1.6 million barrels a day) before 2011. If the pro-Hiftar forces can be kept from interfering, the GNA feels it has a good chance of getting oil production up to 900,000 barrels a day by the end of 2016. That is 56 percent of the pre-2011 production.
Current production is nearly 700,000 barrels a day. One thing everyone can agree on is that the standard of living has declined sharply since 2011. Per capita income is about 30 percent of what it was in 2011 and that will further decline in 2016 even as oil shipments increase. Mass starvation is no longer a theoretical threat or conspiracy theory. It is happening and that is causing many factions to become cooperative, for now. Inflation, which averaged 8.8 percent in 2015 has more than doubled in 2016 to at least 25 percent.
November 4, 2016: In the east (Benghazi) a pro-Hiftar tribal chief was wounded when a car bomb went off nearby as he left a Mosque. Elsewhere in the city soldiers spotted a suicide bomber and shot him dead before he could detonate his explosives.
November 1, 2016: The U.S. apparently ended its air support for the forces fighting ISIL in Sirte although says the air support can be resumed if needed. The U.S. has provided air support since August 1st but it was only supposed to last a few weeks. Instead it kept getting extended. This air support ultimately amounted to 367 attacks with smart bombs, missiles or precision cannon fire.
The targets were ISIL fortifications, armed vehicles and car and truck bombs (hit before they could be used). These air attacks saved hundreds of lives among the attackers and speeded up the advance. AFRICOM announced today that the air support mission was over.
October 29, 2016: In the east (Benghazi) a mortar shell went off near a meeting of Hiftar supporters, killing one of them and wounding 23.
October 20, 2016: In Tripoli the head of the largest Libyan airline was kidnapped. A week later the airline shut down for three days to try and help resolve the situation.