With the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) threat largely eliminated the major problem remains a lack of national unity.
Since 2011 and the demise of dictator Moamar Kaddafi Libya has created three governments and two of them are now competing for power.
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 and refused to step down. 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 Khalifa Hiftar. This HoR government is still based in Tobruk and is trying to work out a peace deal with GNA.
Hifter remains the most powerful man in eastern Libya. He gained this position by spending several years to rebuild 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 continues to command the LNA and 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 during 2016 Hiftar has come under growing local and international pressure to support the GNA. He may do that but he still has allies among powerful Arab nations, like Egypt. Jordan and the UAE. He also has contacts in Russia, which believes Hiftar is someone who will still wield power when peace returns to Libya and will be able to help Russia to once more become the major arms supplier to Libya.
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 wants 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. Hiftar then seized 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.
A pro-GNA coalition of eastern militias (tribal and Islamic terrorist) recently tried to drive Hiftar forces out of Bin Jawada, a town that is 30 kilometers west of Es Sider. The attack failed.
Meanwhile in the west one of the local pro-Hiftar groups, a Zintan tribal militia, continues to assert its power. 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.
Hiftar was briefly threatened by the Misrata militias that were used to drive ISIL out of Sirte but GNA said this will not happen, largely because the Misrata militia leaders respect the effectiveness of the Hiftar forces and are recovering from the months of combat in Sirte. In addition some Misrata militias are involved with the renewed fighting in Tripoli
Hiftar is seeking to force the GNA to accept him and he is succeeding because he controls key oil export ports, pipelines and oil fields. Unless the oil exports can be resumed in a big way the GNA faces nationwide criticism and violence because that oil income is the basis for the national economy.
By November the GNA had managed to double oil exports and oil income. 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 could be kept from interfering, the GNA felt it had 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. That is not going to happen.
One thing everyone can agree on is that the standard of living has declined sharply since 2011 because of the reduced oil income. 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. Financial reserves (to pay for imports) have gone from $108 billion in 2014 to $45 billion now. The combination of lower oil prices and reduced production means GDP has shrunk by two-thirds because the economy was based on oil income.
There are hundreds of armed factions in Libya, each representing a tribal, geographic, religious or political cause. Too many of these factions are unwilling to cooperate for the common good and instead use their weapons to block others from doing anything positive.
Exploiting and sustaining this sort of factionalism is what kept Libya under the control of a dictatorship since the late 1960s. The 42 years of Kaddafi rule left its mark. Kaddafi was a clever and manipulative dictator who kept a lot of the factionalism alive to prevent any real threat to his rule. He portrayed himself as a populist servant of the people but he was a dictator and in the end that’s what got him overthrown and killed.
Most Libyans grew up under Kaddafi’s erratic and autocratic rule and have little knowledge or experience with democracy. To many Libyans, being a self-righteous bully seems like a proper way to conduct yourself.
After all, it worked for Kaddafi. Old habits are hard to get away from.
UAE Air Support
The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has been quietly providing air support for the Hiftar forces. Some 100 kilometers northeast of Benghazi the UAE 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. 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 two or three UH-60 helicopters and at least three Chinese Wing Loong UAVs.
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 (with bombs, rockets or Hellfire missiles) version of a popular AT-802 crop duster. Unable to obtain armed Predator UAVs from the United States, Gulf Arab states turned to China and purchased quite a few Chinese Wing Loong UAVs.
Each of these can be equipped to carry two BA-7 laser guided missiles (similar to the Hellfire) or two 60 kg (110 pound) GPS guided bombs (similar to the U.S. SDB).
In 2012 Uzbekistan and UAE became the first export customers. Development on Wing Loong began in 2005, first flight was in 2007 and Chinese troops got the first ones in 2008 for further testing. While Wing Loong is similar in shape to the larger American MQ-9 Reaper, in size it’s almost identical to the 1.2 ton Predator.
Wing Loong weighs 1.1 tons, has a 14 meter (46 feet) wingspan, and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. It has max altitude of 5,300 meters (16,400 feet) and an endurance of over 20 hours. Payload is 200 kg.
Promotional pictures of the Wing Loong show it carrying two Blue Arrow (BA) 7 missiles. Each BA 7 weighs 47 kg (103 pounds) and is basically a laser guided anti-tank missile with a max range of 7,000 meters.
China offers the BA 7 at a lower (at least a third lower) price than the $70,000 Hellfire and is willing to negotiate. The Blue Arrow 7 is priced to sell. While some jets and helicopters of the old Libya Air Force are still in service the UAE aircraft have flown over 80 percent of the combat missions in the east.
In the coastal city of Sirte (500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi) GNA declared the city free of ISIL control. The last ISIL held buildings had been cleared over the last week and civilians were seen in the streets celebrating. The six month campaign was helped by American air support for the last four months.
The attackers killed about 700 ISIL men and captured over a thousand. Many more were wounded or demoralized and fled. ISIL says the loss of Sirte is temporary but Libyans doubt there will be any ISIL comeback largely because the group is widely hated for their use of suicide bombers, including women, who end up killing more civilians than security personnel.
The GNA head of intelligence pointed out that most of the dead ISIL men in Sirte came from Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Nigeria (in that order) and most surviving ISIL men seem to be trying to return home. Thus ends the ISIL effort to establish a major base in Libya.
December 1, 2016: Fighting has broken out in Tripoli between pro-GNA militias and militias that had turned to criminal activities full time. Some of these militias insist they are fighting because they are still loyal to the Tripoli government that the GNA replaced in early 2016. But the real reason is money. Many militias have turned to extortion, theft and smuggling (of drugs, people and so on) to survive (at first) and now more aggressively to get rich. The people smuggling to Europe is particularly lucrative. And with ISIL now largely destroyed in Libya the people smuggling operations that ISIL controlled are seeking new protectors.
November 30, 2016: In Benghazi Hiftar forces defeated one of the last active Islamic terrorist militias in the coastal city. This was a great relief to the UN and other foreign aid groups because the Islamic terrorist militias would often attack aid convoys and warehouses for supplies. This fighting has been particularly intense since early November and left over a hundred people dead or wounded.
November 29, 2016: General Khalifa Hiftar made his second trip to Moscow. This is important because Russia is one of the few countries that can veto proposed UN resolutions. Hiftar visits Egypt regularly and visited Russia in late June. Hiftar has managed to keep Egypt, a few other Arab states and Russia providing support. Egypt allows banned goods (like weapons and ammo) cross the border unhindered. Russia is known to have printed new currency for HoR earlier in 2016 and has provided unspecified military support. Russia also provides HoR with some support inside the UN. Hiftar has recently visited Egypt and Jordan.
November 28, 2016: France believes a recent airstrike in southern Libya killed Islamic terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The French fighters were operating from a carrier off the Libyan coast. The U.S. has long offered a $5 million reward for information that would lead to the death or capture of Belmokhtar. He is a veteran AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) leader and the founder and leader of AQIM affiliate al Mourabitoun. Belmokhtar was responsible for many high-profile attacks in Libya, Algeria, Niger and Mali. Al Mourabitoun and AQIM continue to survive in Libya because of the chaos there. He has survived several attempts (in 2013, 2014 and 2015) to kill him and has a reputation for being elusive.
November 25, 2016: In the east Tunisia revealed that it had allowed the United States to base several UAVs at a Tunisian airbase, along with fewer than a hundred American military personnel to take care of the aircraft. These UAVs are mainly used to patrol the Libyan border and occasionally deeper into Libya. Tunisia also revealed that its counter-terrorism efforts have been more successful this year, with an average of 85 Islamic terrorists being arrested each month. That is 55 percent higher than in 2015.
November 20, 2016: In the south (Sabha) fighting between Awlad Suleiman and Gaddadfa tribesmen broke out and left 20 dead and over fifty wounded. Tribal violence down there is usually over who controls smuggling routes and has been flaring up regularly since the 2011 revolution. The most recent fighting was triggered by a pet money belonging to one tribe attacking a girl from another tribe. Most of the violence down here is in or near the town of Sabha, which is 770 kilometers south of Tripoli and astride the main road going to the Niger border. It is the biggest city in the largely desert south. 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 is 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. After 2011 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. There they constantly skirmished 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. Kaddafi tended to support Arab domination over black Africans, something many Arabs still support. 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 have worked out agreements on dividing smuggling business but discipline in the tribes is not all that tight and fights keep breaking out.
November 17, 2016: Algeria quietly intervened to get three engineers (two Italian and one Canadian) freed in southwestern Libya. Italy gave credit to Libyan officials but had gone to Algeria for help because Italy knew that Algeria had contacts and influence with the Tuareg tribes in the area where the three men were taken captive on September 19th. The kidnapping was organized by Abdellah Belakahal, an Algerian Islamic terrorist, one of many who have fled to Libya (and other African nations) after the Islamic terrorists lost their war with the Algerian government in the late 1990s. The kidnappers demanded $4.4 million in ransom. The Algerian government told Italy and Canada that they would do what they could and that apparently worked.
November 14, 2016: In the south (Sabha) a UAV missile attack killed AQIM chief recruiter Abu Talha al Hassnawi. He had previously been working out of the coastal city of Sirte but fled south when the fighting there got too intense after August. Hassnawi was seen in Sabha meeting with another AQIM leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar
November 13, 2016: In the east, across the border in Tunisia, security forces found three arms caches over two days. The weapons belonged to Libyan Islamic terrorist groups (mainly ISIL) that have been trying to establish branches in Tunisia.