Small Wars Journal

Libya’s Rivalries, Risks & COVID-19 - Part Two

Fri, 04/17/2020 - 10:08am

Libya’s Rivalries, Risks & COVID-19 - Part Two 

Allyson Christy

Background

The vacuum created in Libya since the ousting of Qaddafi by the west, which contributed to the disintegration of Libya, offers now a safe haven for jihadists in North Africa, destabilizing North Africa and the African Sahel states.          

                                    -- Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, Earthquakes of the Middle East

The Gadaffi regime lasted over 40 years, ending nearly nine years ago with a version of Arab Spring uprising that instead, undercut the likelihood for achieving unity in the north African country, which has the continent’s largest oil reserves. Libya’s spring intensified societal rifts. Disunity became more pronounced between long-standing geographic and tribal grievances that worsened as a transitional government emerged. Porous borders have advantaged militants, jihadists, and trafficking networks. Ushering a General National Congress (GNC) with elections in 2012, followed with problematic acceptance from eastern regions and elsewhere, provoking estrangement, distrust, and more violence. Although liberals and secularists won the majority, they were quickly side-lined by a cohort of Islamist alliances, which essentially became the strongest bloc in parliament.

Militants also attacked the American consulate in Benghazi in September that same year, and with widened security gaps and by 2014, Daesh encroachment had further distressed the chaos, attracting radical and Islamist elements. Some were affiliated with the Ansar Al-Sharia group alleged to the Benghazi attack, and still there were others emboldened by extremist ideologies. Returning fighters declaring allegiance to the so-called Islamic State operated in areas between three coastal provinces from Tripoli to Derna—the latter connected to a strong jihadist history since the 1980s. There were estimates of 5,000 and 6,000 Daesh affiliates by early 2016. Former fighters in Afghanistan against the Soviets and others who had fought in Iraq and most recently in Syria, were also concentrated in Derna. Remarkably, the Libyan tribal system was seen in some respects, as a relevant bulwark and counterweight against growing radicalism, gleaned and bolstered by its moderate vision of Islam. Tribes have continued to provide security and justice services, adding to somewhat a semblance of social stability.

Under the GNC, public office exclusions were sanctioned against previous officials who had served the Gadaffi regime. Concerns about unmatched power prevailed and possibly to some extent, there was slight exaggeration that Islamists in the west were controlling all the political power. Still, the GNC failed at inclusion and ultimately failed at forming a constitution within an official and mandated 18-month deadline. Further challenges developed under General Khalifa Haftar with his Libyan National Army (LNA). Waving anti-terrorism and anti-Islamist banners, Operation Dignity was soon launched against the GNC and its alleged tight-hold of power in both, Tripoli and Benghazi.

Charges of under-representation also forced another election in June 2014, creating a House of Representatives (HoR) intended to replace the GNC—again resulting in a majority win for liberals and former regime supporters. However, the HoR relocated east to Tobruk. In direct protest, non-elected members of the GNC declared the HoR illegitimate, organized a rival National Salvation Government in Tripoli with loose power tied to the GNC, and combined  militias set to counter Haftar from the west with Operation Dawn.

By 2015 the UN assisted in brokering a deal between the HoR and members of the GNC. The Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) essentially created two government institutions—the Tobruk-based HoR and a newly tasked Presidency Council that was expected to preside over a re-organized and re-named Government of National Accord (GNA). Both were installed in Tripoli yet needed HoR endorsement. But that did not happen. Exasperating matters further, some members of the GNC were repositioned to an LPA-enacted consultative body, formally a State Council, which also based itself in Tripoli and complicated the intended government-wide power structure.

Ineffectively from 2014 forward, two predominant authorities have sought to solidify their authorities between eastern and western domains—their respective southern regions including prominent tribes in the east and armed groups and city-states in the west. Hope for a functioning state has been consistently weakened by opposing political parties, election disparities, militias, and grim rivalries. That generalization is too narrow, and Libya’s divisive elements are complicated, having encroached dangerously onto the economy. Just prior to a mid-January effort in bringing the sides together for a peace summit in Berlin, supporters allied with Haftar, which include tribal factions, blocked eastern oil ports and terminals—bringing production to a near shutdown. The country’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) very quickly gauged production losses between January 18 and January 24 at nearly 80%.

Implications

Opposition remains divided between the UN-endorsed GNA led by Fayez Al-Sarraj and still based in Tripoli, and a dissenting HoR that is centered in Tobruk and also convenes in Benghazi. Militarily the HoR supports the purported secularist coalition of the LNA and Haftar, with growing support of foreign actors. As the GNA has gleaned the alleged Islamist support from Qatar and Turkey, the LNA has been backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Ostensibly, it is the anti-Muslim Brotherhood objective, in addition to expunging Turkish influence from Libya and to unite the country, that have compelled support from the latter. The increase in weapons and deployments from outside forces has escalated international friction, particularly due to the influx of Russian mercenaries and Turkey’s interference.

Under Turkish President Erdoğan’s initiative last December to fast-track parliamentary approval for sending additional military provisions to Libya, disregard to a UN embargo demonstrated obvious impudence. An overriding goal at the Berlin conference, in which Turkey attended, was to continue enforcing the UN arms embargo. A suspicious shipment to Tripoli was nonetheless linked to a Lebanese-flagged cargo ship that disappeared from tracking systems after leaving a Turkish port on 24 January, only days after the conference had ended. Satellite images obtained from a BBC investigation team show that the ship named Bana was eventually docked in Tripoli shortly thereafter—arms content substantiated by photos and interviews with five sailors by Italian authorities.

Worries over continued internal rifts and greater instabilities and provoking regional fallout remain consistent. Conflicts have widened over the divisional quagmire, with France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel similarly delineating concerns over risks and their offshore energy interests. Not only ideological and humanitarian anxieties, but economic implications include oil and gas and maritime boundaries, especially with what many see as Turkey’s audacity in setting maritime agreements with Libya. Geo-political implications of economic infringements and rival alliances amid the allegations of importing arms and fighters and links to extremist elements, will increase Libya’s disorder.

The epigraph concisely explains. Political and economic instability invited radical elements, border incursions, lawlessness, and smuggling. Libya is no less distinctive of the chaotic backdrop that has comparably unsettled Iraq and Syria. The country’s oil revenue seems to pivot on the impulses of warring factions. Unyielding conflict leaves state-building by the wayside. As the Corona Virus will undoubtedly spread across Africa, Libya’s situation against internal struggles and a faltering global economy will be dire, throwing the country farther into despair. Such prospects are grim and could possibly push the country to far worse conditions than the 2011 violence. Accepting the fact that there is now a health hazard that has spread across the globe creating ethical challenges, strained human services and world economies are already drastically weighing options.

References

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About the Author(s)

Allyson Christy holds an MA in Intelligence and Terrorism Studies from American Military University, in addition to an Executive Certificate in Counter-Terrorism from the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel. Follow @allysonchristy