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Libya: The Incredible Irrelevance of America

‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Haftar’s retreat from Tripoli should not be confused with Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Haftar was foolish to try to capture the Libyan capital – it even surprised his foreign backers – but he probably won’t have to retreat very far. His main force is still intact, and it doesn’t snow much in Libya.

It’s probably too generous to call what has been going on in Libya a civil war. After long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the country actually disintegrated into a series of city-states ruled by rival Islamist militias – and every petty warlord got foreign backers because of Libya’s oil wealth.

Fifty years ago Khalifa Haftar was one of the young officers who helped Gaddafi overthrow the monarchy. 25 years ago he was a CIA asset living in Virginia and promising to overthrow Gaddafi. Five years ago he became the commander of the Libyan National Army and started subjugating the ‘Islamist and terrorist’ militias that then dominated the east of the country (Cyrenaica).

As he gained control of Cyrenaica and then the desert south of the country Haftar’s foreign backers multiplied – France, Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates – for that’s where most of the oilfields, pipelines and oil terminals are. They also liked his strong anti-Islamist line. But they weren’t really interested in reuniting Libya, whereas Haftar was.

The various Islamist militias that dominate the capital, Tripoli, and the broader western region of Tripolitania are really just local boys defending their protection rackets. They have no loyalty to the unelected Government of National Accord (GNA) that the United Nations calls legitimate. However the GNA has gained the support of Turkey, probably the strongest country in the Middle East.

Why? Partly because under President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan Turkey has become the key supporter of pro-Islamist regimes and parties throughout the Arab world (the GNA is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood), and partly because of oil.

Still with me? Don’t bother to take notes; there won’t be a test.

Turkey didn’t instantly give military aid to the GNA when Haftar sent his forces west fourteen months ago to attack Tripoli. That had to wait until Erdoğan had extorted a deal last December in which Libya promised to sell Turkey lots of oil and gas (although it couldn’t deliver until Haftar was defeated).

The leader of the GNA, Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, also had to agree to a deal in which Turkey and Libya carved up seabed rights in the Mediterranean in a way that gave Turkey valuable gas fields and froze both Greece and Cyprus out. (Both strongly objected, of course.) And then Turkey started sending arms, Arab mercenaries (also Islamist), armed drones, and Turkish military ‘advisers’ to Libya.

By early this year Haftar was also getting a lot of foreign help: arms shipments from the UAE and Egypt, thousands of mercenaries from Sudan, Chad and Niger, and even a couple of thousand Russian ex-special forces troops now working for the Wagner Group of mercenaries. But Turkey’s bid was higher.

Haftar’s last assault on Tripoli failed late last month, and the GNA-Turkish counter-offensive has already retaken all of western Libya. As I write militias from Tripoli and Arab mercenaries provided by Turkey are fighting in the outskirts of Sirte, Libya’s third city and the gateway to the ‘Oil Crescent’, where the sea terminals of the pipelines are. If they take those, Haftar will be toast.

Except that the ‘alliance of evil’, as Erdoğan calls Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the UAE, won’t let that happen. More importantly, Russia won’t let it happen – and Russia flew more than a dozen state-of-the-art combat planes into a Haftar-controlled airbase last month.

Russia doesn’t want to put its own troops on the ground in Libya to save its man, any more than it did in Syria, but air-power alone can probably save him. It doesn’t want a full military confrontation over Turkey either, any more than it did in Syria. But it will probably get its way in Libya anyway, or most of its way, at least – like it did in Syria.

And what’s extraordinary is that despite key words like ‘oil’ and ‘Middle East’ and ‘Russia’ scattered all through this article, it hasn’t been necessary to mention the United States even once. There was a telephone call between Erdoğan and Donald Trump on Monday, but it’s unlikely to be relevant to the outcome.

The likeliest outcome is that Turkey backs off, there is a ceasefire of some sort that freezes the lines, and there is a de facto division of Libya with a Haftar-led Russian client state in the east that shares the oil revenues with Tripoli. And then there will be a generation of quarrels over the shares.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Russia…Syria”)

Libya: The Hesitation Two-Step

When “Prime Minister” Fayez al-Sarraj of the “Government of National Accord” GNA) arrived in Libya a month ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that it was “not the time for obstructionists to hold back progress.” A noble sentiment, but it does make you want to ask Kerry: When would be the right time for obstructionists to hold back progress? Next Tuesday?

It was just one more slice of the meaningless waffle that passes for policy statements when Western statesmen discuss what to do about the Libya mess. The country has collapsed into violence and chaos since NATO bombers (with sporadic help from local militias) drove long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011, and Kerry has no good plan for dealing with it.

Sarraj’s GNA merely adds a third contender to the two rival governments that already claim to rule the country, and not one of them actually controls much territory. It is the hundreds of militias that really control Libya’s territory, and the fortunes of the contending governments rise and fall depending on how many militias will agree to back them (in return for various favours and subsidies, of course).

Western governments are finally paying attention to Libya mainly because ISIS (Islamic State) fighters are active there, and because refugees are flowing into Europe from Libya again now that the route through Turkey and Greece has been blocked.

The Italian, British and French governments have been talking about sending 6,000 troops into Libya to train a Libyan army that could take on ISIS and defeat it. There are already American, British, French and Italian special forces teams in the country, and there have been at least four American air strikes against ISIS camps in Libya since December.

It all sounds like a full-scale Western military intervention in Libya is imminent – except that it has been sounding like that for the past six months, and the intervention still hasn’t happened. There is a curious reluctance to take the final step.

The Western interventionists are right to hesitate. The fear that ISIS will take over most of Libya if they don’t put troops in is grossly exaggerated: lately ISIS has been losing ground in Libya, not gaining it. More importantly, ISIS can never be eliminated entirely unless there is a single, legitimate Libyan government backed by a disciplined army.

So the first priority for the Western powers is to create a government that has the legal authority to invite Western troops in to help. “The GNA [Government of National Accord] is the only entity that can unify the country,” Kerry explained. “It is the only way to generate the cohesion necessary to defeat Daesh [IS].”

So the Western great powers have just created such a government, using the United Nations as their vehicle. The GNA is not a Libyan initiative; its members were picked by foreigners, and and that is how Fayez Sarraj found himself the prime minister of the Government of National Accord.

Farraj is a respected non-partisan figure, the kind of person who gets appointed to head up a National Commission for this or that. If either of the existing claimants to be the Libyan government were inclined to hand over power to the GNA, Farraj would be just the sort of reassuring chap to win them over.

But neither contender – the General National Congress in the capital, Tripoli, or the elected House of Representatives in Tobruk, a thousand kilometres to the east – is inclined to do anything of the sort. Indeed, Farraj was unable to fly into Tripoli with his retinue because the General National Congress closed the airport. He only finally arrived by sea, thanks to the US Navy.

Ordinary Libyans might support the GNA, if only out of despair. They are heartily sick of the inter-militia fighting, the financial chaos, and the lack of any government services, and they might well accept a foreign-backed “government” with lots of money and troops at its disposal. But it’s not ordinary Libyans who have to be convinced to hand over power. It’s the local politicians and the militias who control them, and they won’t do it.

Maybe foreign firepower could compel them to accept the GNA’s authority, but the Western powers are not willing to commit their troops to that sort of open-ended military operation. They just want to go after ISIS and the people-smugglers, and if the GNA can give them the legal cover to do that, it will have served its purpose.

And even then they may decide in the end not to commit Western troops on the ground, because ISIS is not really such a big deal in Libya. Amongst the several hundred thousand members of the innumerable Libyan militia groups, ISIS has at most 5,000 fighters.

It does some spectacularly nasty things, like murdering 22 Egyptian Christian foreign workers on a beach last January, but it only controls one smallish city (Sirte) and an adjacent stretch of coastline. The hesitation two-step may continue.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Farraj…Navy”)