NARCO Analysis: The State of Play in Libya

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

With the Democratic National Convention underway and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pending acceptance speech as the Democratic presidential nominee, Libya and the aftermath of its 2011 revolution are hanging in the air like a noxious fog. Leaving aside the question of whether Secretary of State Clinton was the architect of the NATO campaign that contributed to Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi’s fall (answer: she wasn’t), there are certainly going to be a lot of politically charged Libya references from the commentariat in the coming days.

But what really is the state of play in Libya? Short answer: it’s bad.

But it’s not all ISIS, jihadis, and Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. Instead it’s complicated and the solutions are not easy, involving multiple domestic actors, not all of whom are all bad and not all of whom are all good. It involves international actors, some working in concert with the US and some working against it, including some erstwhile US allies. And it involves technical aspects of the hydrocarbons industry. Libya’s all-important oil sector is no longer just about turning on and off the spigot. Now it needs difficult, lengthy, technical repairs.

How did Libya get to this disastrous state? Since the revolution, it has been through a succession of governments, each more impotent than the last. It follows, then, that the most recent is the most impotent yet. The Government of National Accord (GNA), formed under the auspices of UN-led negotiations last year, doesn’t exert any authority in Libya. None. A big fat goose egg of power. In fact, after more than 100 days in Libya it still hasn’t been able to quit the mothballed navy base where it first landed on the shores of Tripoli.

The biggest question these days is if the GNA is not salvageable (and it’s increasingly looking like it just plain isn’t), what replaces it? Hands down, the most powerful and adroit political and military constituency in Libya hails from Misrata. The Misratans only reluctantly acquiesced to the GNA, but having done so, they’ve been able to gradually influence it, much to the dismay of other regional constituencies that saw the GNA as a zero sum game.

But Misratans are not terribly well-liked in most parts of Libya save, perhaps, Misrata. In fact, another regional group, the Zintanis, is in direct competition with the Misratans. The Zintanis have two trump cards. They’re playing one and saving the other for when the stakes are real high. The first is their control of a pipeline carrying oil to export terminals on the coast. The Zintanis have shut the pipeline in order to deprive the GNA of the oil revenue upon which it desperately depends. The second card is Seif al-Islam, Muammar Qadhafi’s son. The Zintanis captured Seif in 2011. And have held him ever since. If they can’t force the GNA to fold by playing the pipeline card, they can still play the Seif card when the timing is right.

Libya’s other powerful actor is General Khalifa Haftar, a defector from the Qadhafi regime who set himself up in McLean(!), Virginia for two decades before heading back to Libya after the revolution was already in full swing. Haftar has styled himself the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), but at this stage, the LNA is not the national army of Libya, but rather just an opportunistic name for another militia. Haftar claims that he is battling terrorists, but his definition of “terrorist” is increasingly anyone who opposes him on any given day. Recently, the bodies of a dozen men were found in a Benghazi neighborhood ostensibly under Haftar’s control. Their hands were bound and they had been shot.

If not the GNA then, then what? The problem here is that no one really knows. So the international community is doubling down on the GNA. For better or worse. And it’s looking a lot like worse.

But worse doesn’t necessarily mean an Islamic State safe haven a hop, skip, and a jump from southern Europe. This was the big fear earlier in the year, with the Islamic State having established a stronghold in a Libyan town that was reportedly home to as many as 6000 Islamic State fighters. Beginning in May, however, a two-pronged offensive led by militias allied with the GNA – but importantly, not part of the GNA – crushed the Islamic State. Misratan forces pushed in from the west and Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) forces backstopped the east. It bears mentioning that the PFG doesn’t really guard petroleum facilities anymore as its name would suggest, but instead is simply yet another militia. It also bears mentioning that Haftar’s LNA, whose core mission is allegedly combating terrorists, was nowhere to be seen.

The Islamic State is hanging on in the center of Sirte with fewer than 300 fighters, but that’s about it. The question here, though, is where did all of the Islamic State fighters go? One answer is that the earlier troop strength estimates were way, way off. Another more desirable, but less likely answer is that they’re dead. A third and scarier possibility is that they’ve dispersed throughout Libya and gone to ground. Rumors of sleeper cells in Tripoli are rampant.

But even with the Islamic State problem degraded, Libya still has a radical Islamist problem. A new Islamist militia, the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), has formed in Benghazi to “protect” the city from the LNA. But the BDB is anti-western. And it is anti-GNA. And it was lauded in a recent communique from al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa. And that’s not all. There is still Ansar al-Sharia, there is the Shura Council of Mujahidin in Derna, the Shura Council of Revolutionaries in Benghazi. And there is probably al-Qaeda itself somewhere down in Libya’s southwest corner.

As if a complete lack of governance, warring militias, and a deeply rooted radical Islamist problem wasn’t bad enough, the economy is in shambles. To be fair, Libya did not have much of an economy before the revolution – companies drilled holes in the ground, took out oil, put the oil on ships and sold it. Libya then used the money to buy everything it needed. Everything. Before the revolution it imported 70% of its food. That percentage has only gone up and up and up.

But at the same time, the amount of oil being put on ships has gone down and down and down. So too has the price that Libya gets for its oil. Prior to the revolution, Libya was pumping 1.3 million barrels per day and it was getting about US$100 per barrel. That’s some pretty good math. Today, Libya exports less than 300,000 barrels per day. And oil is around US$40 per barrel. The math isn’t looking so good anymore.

But Libya’s oil problem is complicated too. Initially, oil sector disruptions were the result of political grievances. Oil fields were shut in. Pipelines were closed down. Lifting terminals were blockaded. Once those political grievances were satisfied, fields were brought back on line, pipelines opened, and blockades ended. The problems the sector now faces are technical. Terminals have been catastrophically damaged. Pipelines are corroded. And reservoirs may be permanently degraded. Even if the security situation permitted repairs to be undertaken (which it doesn’t), the repairs would take money (which Libya doesn’t have) and time (which Libya doesn’t have much of either).

At risk of sounding callous, if there’s any good news here it’s that at the end of the day Libya is a Libya problem. There is a very high likelihood of episodic spillover into neighboring states, but nothing to suggest that Libyan contagion would be fatal or even debilitating to the broader region. Egypt is bolstering its security in its Western Desert, not least to protect its own hydrocarbons activities. Algeria to the west is a fortress (once bitten, twice shy). And more and more foreign troops are being based in Tunisia.

During a coffee break on the sidelines of Libya workshop in Washington, DC a couple of months back, a retired two star general surmised that some wars just need to be fought out. Fighters will fight until they get tired of fighting. Until then, no amount of cajoling will get them to stop. And in his estimation, that’s unfortunately where Libya is at.

Whose fault is that? Ultimately, it’s the Libyans’ own fault. Over the last five years, they’ve made choices, they’ve formed allegiances, they’ve permitted themselves to be proxies for different foreign powers, and they’ve been led to the water more than once. Whether they drank or not, was up to them.


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