by Wayne White
Libya remains broken and violent. Secular forces made gains against Muslim extremists in Benghazi recently, but the advantage has shifted from side to side since early this year. And two rival governments vying for power amidst a near lawless country with open borders is an ideal setting for the outflow of everything from heightened concerns to munitions and fighters. Yet Libya keeps boiling away on the global back burner.
After failed attempts earlier this year, ex-army General Khalifa Haftar (or Hiftar) recently launched another drive to wrest Benghazi from extremist militias led by the al-Qaeda-associated Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL). Haftar was bolstered on Oct. 20 when the legitimate parliament elected in June, the House of Representatives (HOR), sanctioned Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” as an “operation of the Libyan Army.”
The HOR was forced to take refuge in the small city of Tobruk near the Egyptian border in August. Militant Islamic militias comprising “Libya Dawn” seized Tripoli and re-reinstalled much of the former interim parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), as a rival government. With much of Benghazi under extremist control and experiencing violence, the desperate HOR probably backed Haftar because he best represents its majority secular composition. Furthermore, Haftar is also based in eastern Libya and had already attracted the loyalty of military units such as the Special Forces and the Air Force.
Haftar, in turn, drew some added military strength for his new offensive from army units previously on the sidelines. Two key army units (the 21st Brigade and the 204th Tank Brigade) joined Haftar’s forces for the first time. Egypt also increased its support. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi apparently promised HOR Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni on Oct. 8 greater coordination overall and training for the Libyan Army. In addition, Cairo seems to have supported Haftar’s forces with airstrikes against ASL positions on Oct. 15 and Oct. 23.
Benghazi’s airport fell to Haftar and Libyan Army units on Oct. 9, with further advances beyond it toward the city’s center. According to some sources, ASL leader Mohammed al-Zahawi may have died from wounds on the Oct. 22. The next day, Haftar’s combined forces overran a key extremist militia base. However, over the weekend ASL struck back, trying to retake the base, with fighting spreading to Benghazi University—over 130 have died so far.
Promising advances against the extremists in Benghazi notwithstanding, HOR Foreign Minister Mohamed Dayri raised on Oct. 23 the possibility of negotiating a settlement with the GNC that could allow the HOR to return to Tripoli. Never mind Thinni’s bombast 6 days earlier about conquering Tripoli. Dayri’s nod toward the renegade GNC signals considerable HOR uncertainty over the long-term military fortunes of Haftar and the small Libyan Army in a country awash with robust militias.
Despite the HOR-GNC standoff, Libyan oil exports have rebounded to around 800,000 per day (the highest this year, but less than 50% of normal). The huge tumble in oil revenues since 2013 has forced the HOR to implement unpopular budget cuts and draw down currency reserves. As the legal government, it must pay, for example, salaries of all government, military, police, and national oil company employees regardless of location, alignment, or work status. Since both “governments” want basic salaries paid nationwide, neither has an interest in disrupting crude exports.
Libya could, however, encounter future financial problems with international financial institutions because although the HOR is located in the east, the Libyan Central Bank is in GNC-controlled Tripoli. The GNC has not yet interfered with the bank’s transactions, but that might not last.
The governmental face-off and continuing disarray in Libya may generate another wave of militant-fed violence that would further unsettle the region. Egyptian President Sisi has embarked on a new binge of security measures after 30 Egyptian soldiers died in a bomb attack on Oct. 24 in Sinai (the worst to date). The likely culprit, Sinai-based al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, receives munitions from Libyan extremists in Benghazi. Cairo has been unable to block this smuggling. Sisi’s Oct. 8 meeting with Thinni and Egypt’s involvement in air strikes on Benghazi in support of Haftar clearly relate to the threat Libya’s unsubdued extremists pose to Egyptian authorities.
There is meanwhile mounting concern again over the movement of Libyan munitions and militants into the Sahel. Last year, Muslim extremists (many from Libya or using it for safe haven) paired with Tuareg separatists in a bid to seize control of Mali. The offensive was crushed by French forces, assisted by some moderate African troops. With French and US drones along with French combat troops keeping watch over northern Mali and Niger, a militant arms convoy carrying 3 tons of arms from Libya to Mali was destroyed in early October (along with the capture of several al-Qaeda linked combatants).
In response, France is preparing to base a small French force in Mali just 60 miles from a jihadi-controlled area of southwestern Libya. Washington may move 120 US troops focused mainly on intelligence gathering from Niger’s capital Niamey to the desert city of Agadez, nearly 500 miles closer to Libya. Even impoverished Niger, alarmed by signs of rising militant activity along its Libyan border, recently bought a reconnaissance aircraft from France.
Farther north, despite political strides this year toward domestic stability, Tunisia has taken a hit from Libya’s chaos. Fitch Ratings assigned Tunisia last week a long-term financial “Negative Outlook” because “Libya’s fragmentation has destabilized the region,” and many Libyans have flooded into Tunisia. Tens of thousands of Libyan refugees from embattled Tripoli, mostly professionals and their families, have fled across the border but Libyan ASL cadres have been a source of Tunisian violence this year.
NATO and the broader international community are well aware of Libya’s plight and its implications. Thinni recently huddled with senior officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the one other party in the Arab world in addition to Egypt that has been involved in providing military support for the HOR and Haftar.
Despite repeated warnings and pleas for international focus on Libya from the UN envoy Bernardino Leon, no robust effort to grapple with Libya’s problems or mediate among its various power brokers materialized. A low-profile effort by Leon last month netted predictably few results. In the face of challenges such as Ukraine, the Islamic State, and Ebola, Libya will continue to fester and inflict collateral damage on countries unfortunate enough to be located in its vicinity.