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StrategyPage.com: Libya: The Turks Don’t Care

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Thursday, 24 November 2022

November 23, 2022: 

The deadlock over elections and a united national government continues. The reason is Turkey’s support for the GNU, which is the weaker of the two factions controlling the country. Turkey is there for petroleum and natural gas. Not what Libya produces, but potential underwater deposits in waters between Libya and Turkey. The GNU illegally signed an agreement with Turkey in order to get Turkish intervention. There is no united government of Libya so the GNU cannot pledge Libya to support the Turkish claims. Greece and the UN as well as most NATO nations oppose Turkey on this issue. Turkey will protect its offshore exploration and extraction operations with its navy and air force. Turkey believes Greece won’t be able to get other NATO members to assist in blocking Turkish oil and natural gas operations in the disputed waters. Both Turkey and Greece are NATO members but the NATO agreement doesn’t cover a situation like this and the Turks are taking advantage of that. The UN believes this deadlock will lead to partition, with Libya becoming two nations. Each will have some of the oil but most will belong to the GNU faction.

Abdulhamid Dbeibah continues to control the GNU (Government of National Unity) as prime minister even though he was officially replaced earlier in 2022. Fathi Bashagha was selected in a UN-supervised election to replace Dbeibah, who was seen as corrupt and dependent on the illegal presence of Turkish troops. Bashagha has tried three times to use force to remove Dbeibah but the pro-Dbeibah militias in Tripoli and surrounding areas have proved too strong to overcome. Some of these militias have benefitted from training and weapons provided by Turkey. The UN is helpless to do anything decisive because Russia is one of the five nations with a permanent veto over UN actions. Russia has allied itself with Turkey and has cut ties with the Bashagha faction. Dbeibah obtained Turkish and now Russian assistance to gradually gain control over the Central Bank of Libya and the National Oil Corporation. That makes it easier to win over tribes and areas that currently support Bashagha, the legitimate head of the GNU.

Dbeibah insists he can only be removed by national elections yet Dbeibah is the biggest obstacle to national elections. Many Libyans see Bashagha as making an effort to get Turkish forces out and hope to obtain active UN support in forcing the Turks out. The UN was hobbled by Russia using its permanent UN veto to block efforts to force the Turks out of Libya. Turkey’s refusal to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine made Russia less inclined to continue using its UN veto to support illegal (according to most UN members) Turkish operations in Libya.

Turkey has resolved its pay and terms-of-service disputes with its Syrian Arab mercenaries in Tripoli. The Syrian mercs have been in Libya for two years, which is longer than they signed up for. That caused problems for Turkey which have been resolved. The eastern (Bashagha) faction forces attacking Tripoli in 2019 found that they could not win once Turkish forces got involved. The Turks made a deal with the GNU in late 2019 and by early 2020 had enough forces in Libya to drive Bashagha forces away from Tripoli.

Libyan economic problems over control of the oil and central bank were settled via a shaky but necessary compromise that keeps the oil flowing to export customers and the central bank paying for food and other benefits seven million Libyans have depended on for half a century. Dbeibah, with help from Turkey and Russia, was able to replace the head of the National Oil Corporation and gain control over oil exports, which have returned to normal levels.

This lack of unity has been around since the decades old dictatorship was overthrown in mid-2011. The UN stepped in with an official presence but because of the militia violence in the capital of Tripoli, the UN mission has been headquartered in neighboring Tunisia. For the same reason Fathi Bashagha, the leader of the eastern Libyan government, does not plan to rule all of Libya from Tripoli until the violent militias there are pacified. This is what the eastern forces were close to accomplishing in 2019 before the Turks got involved.

After 2011 the UN was able to impose control over Libyan oil revenues deposited in European banks, to curb corruption, but benefits for the Libyan population were disrupted and reduced by the continuing disorder. What it comes down to is that there is no sense of national unity. The best post-2011 Libya has been able to do is create somewhat stable coalitions in eastern and western Libya. Partition of Libya into east and west is now seen as a serious solution to the continued deadlock. The UN has become agreeable to the partition solution because the Turks show no sign of leaving and Russia’s continued losses in Ukraine led Russia to depend on Turkey and in Libya Turkey and Russia are now allies.

There is less and less violence in Libya because of the stalemate, and that means there is currently no war in Libya. Over the last decade most of the casualties have come from rival militias in Tripoli fighting each other and the Islamic terrorists in the east and south attacking locals and each other. Libya can best be described as a failed state, similar to what happened to Somalia after the 1990 anti-government rebellion and in Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1987 and again in 2021 when Pakistan-backed Taliban overthrew another Afghan government that had existed since 2002. In Somalia Islamic terrorist groups (mainly al Shabaab) eventually tried to take over, but failed. In Afghanistan it was the Taliban, which took over most of the country in the late 1990s, but was overthrown in late 2001 when the U.S. came to the aid of the tribes that were still fighting the Taliban. The clear lesson here is that someone will have to intervene to prevent Islamic terrorists from gaining too much control over the country, or simply to stop the violence before the economy (oil industry) is destroyed. At the moment no one is stepping forward to intervene, mainly because it is an expensive and thankless job. Someone may still intervene to back the government and that is what the government is hoping for.

The current stalemate was caused when the western GNU officially refused to recognize the eastern (HoR, or House of Representatives) government approval of Fathi Bashagha as the new GNU prime minister. The HoR government represents more Libyans than the Tripoli-based GNA (Government of National Accord). The GNA and HoR are in the process of using the GNU to merge but that process, and the long-sought national elections, are currently blocked by a dispute within the GNU between the newly elected former interior minister Fathi Bashagha as the new GNU prime minister and the original GNU prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, whose term of office ended in December. This dispute has been going on since January and UN efforts to resolve the dispute have failed.

Dbeibah turned out to be corrupt and willing to accept the Turkish presence in Libya. Dbeibah also blocked progress on organizing national elections. Bashagha believes he can organize national elections in 14 months, unless the UN backs Dbeibah or does nothing to block interference from Dbeibah. Bashagha backed Turkish intervention in 2019 and 2020, but turned against the Turks when the Turks indicated they were not leaving Libya.

The December 24 elections did not happen and there are disagreements in Libya and the UN over a new date for national elections. The UN also wants to replace many of the local officials in the GNU. In late 2020 the UN brokered the creation of the GNU, yet another temporary government to unite Libya. The Turks, Russians, GNA, HoR and LNA agreed to withdraw their forces as part of a late 2020 ceasefire/national unification plan. This agreement called for national elections to be held by the end of 2021. That did not happen, mainly because of the continued presence of Turkish forces and disagreements over the new constitution and who can run for office. The Turks realize they don’t have to fight to remain in Libya, just disrupt and delay any efforts, like elections or a UN condemnation, to force them to leave or fight to stay. Haftar and his LNA stayed out of the dispute between Bashagha and Dbeibah. Haftar does not want to be accused of acting like a king maker.

The Arab world condemns Turkish actions in Libya because it is a reminder of centuries of Turkish rule over Arabs. Turkey may have underestimated Arab hostility towards this new Turkish presence in Libya. This revives Arab memories of past Turkish treatment of Libya. The Turks first showed up there in the 1550s as the Ottoman Empire conquered the coastal towns and cities of what is now Libya. Eventually the Turks advanced inland but there was no real incentive to because south of the coast it was mainly desert and, before oil was discovered and developed in the 1960s, there was little of economic value down there. Empires have bills to pay and tend to keep their soldiers where the money is. Arabs believe the Turks are back for more plunder.

>From the 1550s to 1910 Libya was technically a province of the Ottoman Empire. In reality Libya was mainly run by local strongmen who were often Turks gone native. In 1911 Italy took advantage of the Turks’ weak control and invaded. By 1912 Italy controlled what is now Libya. The Italians sent in colonists and brought the industrial revolution to Libya. Italian rule ended in 1943 when Italy, an ally of Germany during World War II (1939-45), surrendered to the allies.

Occupied by allied troops, Libya was given independence in 1951 as a constitutional monarchy. The royal family was led by a prominent local religious leader who became king. Its parliament demonstrated the political divides between eastern and western coastal Libya and the less populous tribal interior. The discovery and development of oil fields down south in the 1960s brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity to Libya. It also brought a military takeover in 1969. This coup was led by Captain Kaddafi, an ambitious communications officer who organized other ambitious young officers into a movement that deposed the king and proceeded to misrule Libya until 2011 when he was overthrown and killed.

The Turks had good relations with the Libyan monarchy but initially less stable and cordial relations with Kaddafi. It took nearly a decade of effort for the Turks to gain the support of Kaddafi. The Turks were a member of NATO and many NATO nations lost billions of dollars in assets when Kaddafi seized foreign assets to support his revolutionary ideas, which included a merger with Egypt. This was rejected by Egypt and throughout the 1970s Egypt sought an opportunity to invade and annex Libya. The Turks were useful in helping convince the Egyptians to back off. Even more convincing was the Egyptian defeat in the 1973 war with Israel which eventually led to peace with Israel and military aid from the United States to guarantee that Libya would never be a threat. Arabs don’t like or trust Turkey and the Turks don’t care.

November 20, 2022: For the second time since 2021 declines in Nigerian production in October meant Libya became the largest oil producer in Africa, with 1.163 million BPD (barrels per day). Nigerian production fell sharply. Normally the largest producers in Africa are Nigeria, Angola and Libya. Angola suffers from some of the same corruption and internal violence problems as Nigeria and for October is in third place behind Libya and Nigeria. Given the investments in oil production, mainly by foreign companies, Nigeria can produce 4 million BPD. That has not happened. The reasons are continuing problems with oil theft gangs and repair/maintenance backlogs, especially of the pipelines, in the Niger River Delta. Then there are the decades of government inability to deal with these problems. That led to a growing number of foreign oil companies selling their Nigerian assets and going elsewhere. In effect, it is more profitable to do business in other countries.

November 19, 2022: Italy has offered police boats for the Libyan Coast Guard to enforce existing agreements between Italy and Libya that oblige Libya to prevent people smugglers from moving illegal migrants to Italy. The smuggling gangs made the Coast Guard a more attractive offer and Italy is trying to persuade Libya to honor its agreements. That is difficult now because Libya is still divided by two political factions that don’t get along. The weaker faction depends on Turkish support to survive.

November 17, 2022: The Greek foreign minister flew into Tripoli but refused to leave the aircraft and left because Greece had been assured that the foreign minister would only meet with the president of the Libyan Presidential council. This was a requirement because the Greeks wanted to discuss the illegal agreements that the Tripoli faction had signed with Turkey last year. At the airport the Greeks realized that the official waiting to greet them was the man who signed the agreement with Turkey which Greece and other European nations consider illegal.

October 11, 2022: The Turkish government called for a ceasefire in Ukraine, while also announcing it will begin exploring Libyan waters for offshore hydro-carbon deposits. Greece has warned it will use all forms of national power to defend its sovereignty against “hostile plans” hatched by Turkey. On October 2 the Greek government said it wants to engage Turkey in constructive dialogue but Turkey must end its “unprecedented escalation of provocations.”

EU naval forces intercepted another ship trying to break the arms embargo on Libya. The ship was carrying 28 armored vehicles.

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