Libya: Negotiate Or Die
Posted – 04th February 2021
Efforts to form a unified government are taking place in Switzerland where the LPDF (Libyan Political Dialogue Forum) is meeting to vote and form a unified government. So far there is deadlock, but participants are willing to try and negotiate a compromise solution. There is growing incentive to do so because Libya’s economic situation is dire and sliding into disaster (mass starvation and widespread bankruptcy) territory. The GNA would be gone now were if not for the Turkish intervention. That may have kept the GNA in business but they only have the support of about ten percent of Libyans. Many Libyans (about a third of the population) ae under some form of GNA control do not approve of how the GNA has performed. Offering the Turks diplomatic and economic benefits in return for intervention is generally regarded, inside and outside Libya, as illegal. Add to that historical Libyan hatred of the Turks and you have GNA leaders willing to compromise despite their Turkish supplied mercenaries and weapons. HoR still controls of Libya and its population.
Who’s Who And What’s What
Libya has been in chaos since a popular uprising in 2011 overthrew the Kaddafi dictatorship and triggered a civil war between an unstable coalition of Islamic militias in the west and a better organized anti-Islamic tribal coalition in the east. The UN tried to be a peacemaker and unifier, and by 2016 had established the GNA (Government of National Accord) based in Tripoli, the traditional capital. Many, if not most, Libyans objected to how the UN imposed the GNA on them and that led to the rival HoR (House of Representatives) government in the east, based in Tobruk. Since then, GNA popularity and reach has declined while that of the HoR has increased.
Despite that the GNA is pushing two myths. One is that the GNA is the legitimate government of Libya and the second is that because they are the legitimate government, the recently arrived Turkish forces are foreign troops legally present in Libya because the GNA asked them in. A majority of Libyans, including most of the people ruled by the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli, want the Turks and their Syrian mercenaries out of the country. The Turks refuse, insisting that they signed a binding agreement with the GNA leader. That leader, GNA prime minister Faiez Serraj was appointed by the UN in 2016 to lead an unelected government that never controlled much besides the cities of Tripoli and, 210 kilometers to the east, Misrata, the third largest city in the country and home of the most radical Islamic militias. Technically Serraj was supposed to be replaced, or reappointed, by the end of 2020 because his four-year term was up. That did not happen either. GNA was created by the UN to unite the entire country while getting a nationwide agreement for elections and a return to stable government. That was never achieved, in large part because the Islamic militias that dominate Tripoli and Misrata can’t agree with each other and most are opposed to any national government that seeks to curb their power and privileges.
Tripoli is the traditional capital and together with nearby Misrata, dominates western Libya. Tripoli is the largest city in the country of six million, containing 20 percent of all Libyans. Misrata has about six percent. Since the UN created the GNA there have not been elections, although the HoR government was created by the last national elections in 2014 and refused to cede power to the GNA because most Libyans considered the GNA something foreigners were trying to impose on them. The HoR was created by an election. While the chosen representatives who could not agree on much, and were not truly representative of the entire population, they were a Libyan creation. The GNA was supposed to solve that problem but couldn’t and to this day the HoR is seen as a more legitimate government by most Libyans. Many senior GNA officials are fed up with five years of frustration and apparently regret supporting the deal with the Turks.
A major problem is that Libya has never been a democracy but rather a collection of powerful tribes and clans presided over by a king (1951-1969) and then a military dictator until 2011. Since then no one has been in charge. There have been some national agreements to keep the oil facilities operating and oil exported and share the income, but now even these are threatened. Libya cannot feed or sustain its six million people without the oil income. Take away the oil and Libya is once again a relatively poor North African country that can only support a few million people, at most. Until the 20th century the population of Libya never exceeded a million people and until the 19th century had never exceeded half a million.
After 2017 GNA was preoccupied with dealing with Islamic militias from Tripoli and Misrata, which were the real power in those two cities and never really comfortable about taking orders from the GNA or anyone else. Meanwhile the HoR connected with the tribes in eastern Libya. These tribes had rallied around former exile Khalifa Hiftar, who had fled Libya in the 1980s after incurring the wrath of dictator Kaddafi. Now an American citizen, Hiftar, a former Libyan Army colonel, managed to revive some of the units of the Kaddafi era military and began taking control of military bases from militias or Islamic terrorists. The eastern tribes demonstrated that most Libyans wanted the Islamic terror groups gone. Hiftar agreed and starting in 2014 began to do just that, as well as expanding the network of tribes that supported him. Hiftar acknowledged the HoR government and remained loyal to it even after it was forced to move to Tobruk by the new GNA. Hiftar was hostile to GNA from the start because of the Islamic militias dominating areas where GNA was supposed to be in charge.
Hiftar sees the recent Turkish intervention as yet another obstacle to national unity. Turkey supports Islamic government which most Libyans oppose. People in Tripoli and Misrata have come to loathe Islamic government because the Islamic militias have not brought peace and prosperity but perpetual violence and poverty. The Turks intervened because GNA prime minister Serraj signed an agreement with Turkey in November 2019 that gives Turkey oil rights over large offshore areas that overlap with Greek claims. In return Turkey agreed to provide military assistance to prevent the LNA from seizing control of Tripoli and eliminating the GNA as a government that controlled any Libyan territory. This Turkey deal was declared illegal by most other Mediterranean nations and, technically, GNA did not have the authority to make such a deal. The UN refuses to abandon its failed GNA experiment and has so far done nothing to discourage Turkey from its expansion into Libya and central Mediterranean waters that other nations have existing rights to. The UN is backing yet another peace conference (LPDF) in an effort to get the HoR and GNA to agree to form a united government. The biggest obstacle to that is Turkey, which the UN refuses to take on.
While Turkey is seen as an invader, Russia, whose forces have been supporting the LNA since 2016, is seen as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria but are actually fighting each other in Libya. Well, not exactly fighting anymore but maintaining armed forces and confronting each other in anticipation of a peaceful settlement. In addition to Russia the LNA is backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Libya fighting resulted in NATO countries openly backing Greece in the maritime dispute with Turkey that led to the Libya invasion.
In Turkey the pro-government media continue to tout 2020 as a successful international political year for Turkey. There is reason to treat that as spin and propaganda, and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s critics in Turkey and beyond its borders do just that. Erdogan, also known (behind his back) as Sultan Recep, contends Turkey has stabilized Libya and the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. His critics say Libya is a quagmire, as it was for the Ottoman Empire and now for 21st century Turkey. Within Turkey getting involved in Syria and Azerbaijan has some support, but many Turks regard the Libyan intervention with suspicion. All three interventions put Turkey at odds with Russia.
The Libyan GNA forces are a hybrid, since several thousand Syrian mercenaries supplied by Turkey now protect the GNA. The LNA forces have far more foreign supporters including Egypt, the UAE, Russia and France. Italy and other NATO countries dependent on Libyan natural gas tend to support the GNA. However, many Turks wonder why Erdogan would want to make enemies of Egypt, the UAE and fellow NATO member France. Erdogan’s fencing with the U.S. has also been counter-productive. In December 2021 the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Turkey for procuring the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system. The Americans contend that Turkish acquisition of the S-400 gives Russia a potential electronic intelligence source for Russia that could threatens NATO aircraft and air defense systems. The U.S. says the S-400 could reveal the positions of stealthy NATO aircraft, like the F-35 stealth fighter. The U.S. has already removed Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
February 2, 2021: In Switzerland the 74 members of the LPDF carried out its first vote to select a three-member presidential council that would preside over a united Libya. GNA and HoR agreed that all LPDF members would vote for three council members, one of each of the three regions (east, west and south). Candidates must get 75 percent of the votes to become a council member. In the first round of voting no one reached 75 percent. The most successful candidates got 22 percent (for the west region), 39 percent for the east and 42 percent for the south. It is expected the process will continue until all three regions have a council member who could put together enough factions to get 75 percent of the vote. Failing to achieve this goal is not really an option because Libya faces mass starvation, renewed fighting with the hated Turks involved and all manner of other bad things.
Back in Libya, off the coast, the LNA seized another cargo ship that entered the eastern HoR governments no-sail zone. The most recent seizure is a 6,300-ton vessel registered in Russia. The LNA has neem trying to halt the flow of Turkish weapons and mercenaries by sea. This forces the Turks to rely more are air transport, which is a lot more expensive, and less available, that ships.
February 1, 2021: State-owned and GNA controlled Libyan Airlines faces a shutdown because aircraft maintainers, who have not been paid for a year, are refusing to maintain aircraft until they are paid. Libyan Airlines is the successor of the Kaddafi-era state airline and currently has fourteen aircraft. Lack of oil income has also caused fuel shortages in Tripoli and Misrata because there is not enough cash to pay for refined fuel deliveries. The HoR has fewer financial problems because it is better organized, less corrupt and used to doing more with less.
January 31, 2021: Libyan government employees were told that the promised 20 percent pay increase that was supposed to start in January will be delayed one or two months because of cash shortages. The raise is needed to deal with accelerating inflation.
January 28, 2021: In Tripoli rival militias resumed fighting. 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 deal with it. 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.
January 26, 2021: In Tarhuna (65 kilometers southeast of Tripoli) tribal leaders met and agreed that the GNA was responsible for the growing violence in and around the city and appeared unable or unwilling to deal with it. LNA forces took control of Tarhuna in April 2019 as part of its attack on Tripoli. In mid-2020 Turkish mercenaries led a successful effort to drive the LNA out Tarhuna, which is astride a key road and was used by the LNA as a support base. The Tarhuna tribes were never happy with GNA rule and like the Turks even less.
January 25, 2021: A national poll was conducted to measure support for the GNA. Only 12 percent of Libyans consider GNA performance adequate, while 84 considered GNA performance to be very poor. The results were not surprising although the extent of animosity towards the GNA was.
January 24, 2021: The PFGs (Petroleum Facilities Guards) announced they would shut down oil exports if they did not receive back pay and other promised benefits. The PFGs have long been seen as a permanent source of corruption. PFGs are tribal militias hired (or bribed) by previous post-2011 governments to keep oil fields, pipelines and port facilities secure. Soon 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 crises is still approaching. General Hiftar and the HoR government have been successful negotiating with the PFGs and offering a better deal (larger share of oil income) and less corruption. Hiftar 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 there 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.
January 23, 2021: Today is the deadline, agreed to by GNA and HoR at a UN organized ceasefire conference in October 2020, for foreign troops to leave the country. None of them did. It’s estimated that there are over 20,000 armed foreigners in Libya. Over a third are Islamic terrorists. About half the armed men in the country are Syrian Arab mercenaries working for Turkey and the rest are Syrian Arab mercenaries hired by Russia to assist the LNA. There are also about a thousand Russian military contractors, special operations troops, technicians, pilots and advisors. Matching that are nearly as many troops from Arab allies of the LNA. Lastly there are another hundred or so special operations troops from various nations who mainly act as observers for their governments.
When Russia began hiring Syrian mercenaries, most for service in Syria and later at least 2,000 for use in Libya, they had an edge in recruiting the best and most reliable Syrian Arabs. This was because the Turks were detested by Syrians as an old nemesis once more invading Arab territory. The Russians were seen as true allies because the Russians did not want to control any territory, but did rent a few bases and sell military equipment to Arabs. The Russians had been doing this in Syria for over half a century. In contrast the Turks had occupied and ruled most Arab territory for centuries, and were often quite brutal about it. That imperial rule only a century ago and is still remembered. The Russian offer the same pay as the Turks, but not the incentive of a residency permit in Turkey. The Iranians are also hiring again, but they, like the Turks, are seen as foreign invaders and don’t get the most reliable recruits.
January 22, 2021: The GNA referred to aerial and satellite photos showing LNA forces, with the help of Russian mercenaries, digging a long and deep trench in west of Sirte and make it more difficult for Turkish mercenaries to take Sirte from the LNA. The GNA said this was illegal as was the participation of foreign troops who were supposed to be gone by tomorrow. Sirte is a key coastal city 500 kilometers east of Tripoli and 560 kilometers west of Benghazi (the largest HoR city) and unexpectedly fell to LNA in January 2020. The LNA has been trying to subdue Sirte for years. The LNA eliminated the Islamic terror groups that had, since 2016, operated south of the city but were unable to bring order to Sirte itself. Until the LNA took over, most of the Sirte militias were loyal to the GNA, if only because the GNA didn’t try to control what the Sirte militias did. That included working with people smugglers and living off the local population. Shutting down this sort of thing is why the LNA has been able to take control of most of the country. At the end of 2019 the LNA was carrying out airstrikes on the Sirte militias and planning a ground offensive as soon as Tripoli was taken. But LNA leaders had also been negotiating with some of the larger militias in Sirte and finally got a key militia to switch sides. The other militias realized that put them at a serious disadvantage and accepted a peace deal that put the LNA in charge of the city. This was a major, and unexpected, loss for the GNA. As a result, since January the UN-backed government only controls two cities; Tripoli and Misrata. In July 2020 some newly arrived Turkish Syrian Arab mercenaries moved on Sirte but were halted by a growing LNA force assembled to defend the city.
The Turks attacking Sirte threatened to bring Egyptian forces into Libya. Turkey began negotiating with Russia and Qatar to try and avoid a clash with the Egyptians. Russia has long backed the LNA while Qatar (and less openly, Iran) have been backing the GNA and now the Turks in Libya. This is all part of the other war between Iran and most Arab oil states, except Qatar. That’s Arabian politics with Qatar quarreling many of its fellow Arabian monarchs. This is more family feud than grand diplomacy but it does have Qatar financing the GNA while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE back the GNA opposition (H0R government and the LNA).
January 19, 2021: In Egypt, for the second time since October, Egypt is hosting peace negotiations between the two rival government in Libya. The GNA and HoR are now seriously trying to work out details of a united, elected government.
January 7, 2021: Turkish and French diplomats confirmed they are holding discussions with the goal of normalizing relations. Turkey’s foreign minister said that his nation wants to improve relations with France. Turkey and France remain at odds over Libya, Syria, maritime boundary issues in the eastern Mediterranean and the Azeri-Armenia war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
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