COUP WITHIN A COUP IN LIBYA?
By Barry Webb
A lot has been happening in Libya over the last several months, and now it may be at a major crossroads. Which direction Libya goes will have profound effects upon Europe, NATO, and ultimately U.S. national security. So, before delving into the most recent events, a brief revue of the conflict in Libya might be useful for readers.
The Libyan civil war has come to resemble both Syria, and the 1930s Spanish Civil War, in that numerous outside powers, both great and small, have entered the fray backing one side or the other. Following are the basics:
GOVERNMENT OF NATIONAL ACCORD
On one side there is the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, Libya’s traditional capital and largest city. The elements that came together to form this “accord” were groups of militias formed from groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Ansar ash-shari’a (the supporters of Shari’a law) who were the main factors in the siege of the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012. The “compromise” candidate selected to lead this GNA, was a Tripoli resident of Ottoman Turkish ancestry named Fayez Sirraaj.
Up until last week, the Fayez Sirraaj government was supported by the planet’s top three state sponsors of terrorism: Turkey, Iran, and Qatar. Due to blindness, and lazy, sloppy intelligence, the “international community” recognized the GNA as Libya’s “legitimate” government. Even the United States, too lazy and too blind to move its embassy from Tripoli to Benghazi, like it did during the Obama administration’s take down of Qadhafi, went along with the farce of the GNA.
LIBYAN NATIONAL ARMY
Opposed to the GNA is the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is based in Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi. It is headed by a retired General Khalifa Haftar whose home town is Benghazi. After the fall of Qadhafi, the ansar ash-shari’a took over control of the city and was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt of Muhammad Mursi, whom the Obama adminstration helped promote to that position. The installment of the MB government in Egypt led, of course, to the burning of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the death of an American ambassador and three other Americans. Other allied radical groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS also began moving into Benghazi.
Heartbroken to see what his home town had become, Khalifa Haftar came out of exile and retirement to reconstitute what was left of the old Libyan army, and after many long months of bitter fighting cleaned all the terrorists out of Benghazi. He then used this as a spring board to begin the reconquest of the rest of Libya with the intent of cleaning out all of the terrorist nests in the country.
Gen. Haftar and his LNA are often accused by al-Jazeera Arabic and other opponents of being “Qadhafi the sequel” for the simple fact that he once served in Qadhafi’s army about a half a century ago. In actual fact, after Qadhafi rose to power (late 69) and showed his true colors in the 70s, Haftar broke with him and fled to Chad where he began trying to organize other Libyan exiles into a cohesive group to bring Qadhafi down. This did not meet with any success but it did catch the eye of the CIA (which actually did real intelligence back then) and they hired Haftar to use his facilities in Chad and his expertise in training small resistance groups to train Central Americans to fight the communists in Central America. Haftar later moved to Virginia and became a U.S. Citizen.
So, in spite of his past history of combating dictatorships, aiding the U.S., and even being a U.S. citizen, General Haftar is the man whom the U.S. now prefers to ignore as he his fighting to rid his country of radical Islamists and its take-over by Turkey’s dictator.
General Haftar and his LNA are supported by the moderate, anti Islamists Arab countries of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), as well as getting some limited support from France and a somewhat larger effort by the Russian “private sector” group known as “Wagner.”
The presence of Russians, with the Kremlin’s blessings, and the knee-jerk “Russophobia” of official Washington might explain why the U.S. has so far treated their citizen and former CIA asset with such disdain. However, in this case the U.S. would be wise to put its “Russophobia” aside and give at least moral support to the LNA because the stakes are just too high. Russia, in spite of its amiable, and commercial, connections with both Iran and China, happens to be on the right side in the Libyan fight. Russia, whether the U.S. likes it or not, and though blind to Shi’a terrorism (which stems from its ally Iran) has been one of the leaders against Sunni terrorism. Russia, long a victim of Sunni terrorism on its own soil, was the first major power to begin bombing ISIS facilities in Syria. It was their entry into that war that first began to turn the tide against ISIS in late 2015.
THE LIBYAN HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
In the aftermath of the downfall of Qadhafi, elections were held in June of 2014 to select a House of Representatives. The Islamists were defeated in this election by a collection of moderates and aging academics. This HoR assumed power in August of 2014 headed by ‘Aqil Saleh ‘Issa, but a Libyan court, based in Tripoli, ruled that the HoR was unconstitutional because only 18% of eligible voters turned out for the election. Therefore, the HoR should be dissolved.
‘Aqil Saleh and the HoR refused to accept that decision, considering it to be a “coup” because the court decision was made at gunpoint (the guns being held by the Islamists). ‘Aqil Saleh and the HoR then fled to the far east city of Tobruk where they took up residence in a hotel there and began holding their meetings in the lobby of the hotel.
More recently, the HoR while somewhat independent has become an ally of the LNA vs. the GNA.
THE CURRENT LIBYAN CIVIL WAR
After having achieved some success in cleaning the Islamists out of most of the cities and towns in the east and south of Libya, Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the LNA decided to make play for the big prize. In April of 2019 they began their besiege and attack against Libya’s traditional capital of Tripoli in hopes of dislodging the GNA and the Islamists.
With little progress in that venture having been made by the summer of 2019, they launched a second prong–this one along the Mediterranean coast of Libya where they swept up remaining pockets of resistance including in the city of Sirte. Sirte holds symbolic importance for several reasons. One, is that it is halfway between Benghazi and Tripoli, and is the only city of noteworthy size in that entire region. Two, is that Sirte was the home town of former dictator Mu’ammar Qadhadi. In fact, the Qadhafi clan is still very important throughout the environs of Sirte. Third, the late leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made Sirte ISIS’s “second capital” during ISIS’s hay day.
Because of the ISIS presence, the LNA’s victories there and their cleaning the terrorists out of that city was considered to be a major milestone and a serious blow to the GNA. Holding Sirte also then gave the LNA a clear shot at sweeping hundreds of klms further west to the city of Misrata, a Mediterranean port city replete with Islamists and allied to the GNA. It is geographically in between Sirte and Tripoli. The Misratta port and airfield are Turkey’s main channels by which it unloads weapons and mercenaries for use by the GNA.
In the meantime, Russia’s “Wagner” group sent a few hundred of their folks to Libya to aid the LNA with intelligence, training, tactics, and strategy. The Wagner effort was/is allegedly financed by the UAE, and not by Russia. Turkey also began stepping up its support of the GNA by embedding advisors and operating drones often from ships anchored just off the coast of Libya.
NEAR COLLAPSE OF THE GNA
By January of 2020 the LNA had made enough progress in taking chunks of Tripoli, its surrounding suburbs, and the eastern outskirts of Misrata, that total victory was in sight. But the “international community” would have none of that. Taking over a major city house-by-house is brutal and requires massive destruction and massive casualties–just ask the people of Mosul, Iraq, or Aleppo Syria for just a couple of recent examples. So a ceasefire summit was prepared to take place in Berlin, Germany in January of 2020. Gen. Haftar at first did not want to attend. Why lift your foot off the gas pedal when victory is in sight? But massive international pressure was placed on him to attend–including by his Russian and UAE supporters.
Turkey’s Erdogan used the ceasefire to convey thousands of Syrian mercenaries, many of them battle-hardened veterans of the Syrian civil war, to Libya. Additional massive shiploads of weapons were also sent in along with more Turkish advisors, training officers, and other support personnel. Then, once the GNA forces, now with a sturdy Turkish backbone, felt strong enough and confident enough they went on the offensive.
The LNA which up until then had pretty much had its way now found itself thrown back on its heels. The end result of this new Turkish/GNA push was that the LNA gave up many of the gains they had made over the summer and fall. In some cases they were physically pushed back, and in other cases they withdrew from some of the Tripoli suburbs without a fight.
The LNA also gave up some of the gains it had made along Libya’s coast, withdrawing entirely from the environs of Misrata and redeploying in the above-mentioned Sirte. That left absolutely nothing in the way of the Turkish/GNA forces between Misrata and Sirte.
Virtually drooling at the prospect, Erdogan poured even more weapons of all sorts into their staging area in Misrata via ship and airplane, and transferred thousands more Syrian mercenaries. Erdogan made countless blustering threats about how they were going to overrun Sirte and take over all of Libya eliminating Gen. Haftar from the equation entirely. They also began advancing troops and equipment from Misrata in the direction of Sirte.
RED LINES IN THE SAND
It was in this environment that Egypt drew their red line in the sand letting Turkey know that they would consider an attack on Sirte to be a direct threat to Egypt’s national security. They backed up this proclamation with massive war games on their border with Libya using all branches of the Egyptian military, including hundreds of tanks and APCs. Sirte has a special symbolic significance for Egypt in addition to the three reasons mentioned above:
On the front cover of my book (mentioned below) I have a photo of ISIS thugs marching 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians along Libya’s Mediterranean coast where they became the “stars” of an ISIS beheading video. This atrocity took place near Sirte where ISIS had set up their second “capital.” Egyptian responded with an air raid against ISIS facilities in Sirte.
It was also in the environment of Turkey’s increased aggressiveness in Libya that Russia sent an undisclosed number of fourth generation MIG-29s (reports vary from 2 to 14), while claiming, of course, that they knew nothing about it. It is also not known whether or not these MIGs went to the Wagner group or the LNA. But, at any rate, by some strange coincidence, shortly after these MIG-29s arrived in Libya, an advanced Turkish radar and anti-aircraft installation near Misrata was mysteriously bombed out in the middle of the night without having been detected by the Turkish radar.
The LNA then issued a warning saying that “there is more of this to come.” Previously, the LNA “airforce” consisted of 3 or 4 old MIG-17s and 19s left over from the Qadhafi and Cold War eras. So, it is not known whether or not the handful of LNA pilots almost overnight became trained to pilot a fourth-generation jet and successfully complete a mission, or whether Russian pilots had also accompanied the MIG-29s on their trip to Libya–and then stayed around to have some fun.
In spite of Turkey’s continued build-up of troops and equipment, and in spite of Erdogan’s continued threats, and in spite of the LNA claiming on Arabic TV channels that the attack could come any day, after more than three weeks of this, the attack has failed to materialize. Egypt’s line in the sand, and massive demonstration of power on Libya’s border may have done the trick, at least for the time being.
During this lull Egypt presented to the world its peace plan: All foreign troops, and mercenaries must leave Libya, then internationally-supervised elections should take place to choose a new all-Libya government.
This offer was of course, ignored by the other side.
‘Aqil Saleh, the aging head of the Libyan HoR in Tobruk then presented his own idea: All foreign troops and mercenaries leave Libya, internationally supervised elections would follow, and once selected, the new government would convene in the new Capital of Libya . . . to be Sirte, the half-way point between Benghazi and Tripoli. This would also bring to an end the old rivalry between Benghazi and Tripoli that goes back to pre-Qadhafi days.
Surprisingly, Fayez Sirraaj agreed to accept those terms, and he met with ‘Aqil Saleh and photos of the two of them shaking hands made the rounds in the world’s media.
But Erdogan blew a gasket. Word has it that he was totally furious, because that would derail his goal of total conquest.
DAY BY DAY BLOWS
On 24 August, al-Arabiya.net reported that Sirraaj had accepted the HoR’s peace initiative under pressure from Germany. This same posting reported on Erdogan’s anger over Sirraaj’s agreement for peace.
Another development that has come into play is that several months ago the people in Libya’s western GNA-controlled cities have been holding demonstrations against the Turkish presence. In late August these demonstrations then turned against the GNA itself complaining about corruption and the lack of services. They then quickly escalated to calling for the GNA in general and Sirraaj in particular to get lost.
According to the above-mentioned 24 August report, the demonstrators burned tires in the street (a tactic used all over the Arab world during the Arab Spring protests), and closed off many of the capital’s streets. Militia supportive of Sirraaj then arrested many of the protestors and tossed them into prison. Turkish-supported militia used live rounds on the demonstrators.
On 25 August, al-arabiya.net reported that the Libyan protestors had besieged the home of GNA leader Sirraaj. Sirraaj’s supporters then forced the protestors to disperse.
One interesting thing about these protests is that they are chanting the same slogans used by demonstrators across the Arab world during the Arab Spring, namely al-sha’ab yoreed asqaat an-nizhaam (the people want to bring down the regime), and irhal (get lost).
On 28 August, al-arabiya.net reported that “associates” of the GNA raided the homes of some of the protest leaders who had broken the curfew set a few nights previously by Sirraaj. The same report claimed that the protests had spread to other cities in the west, besides Tripoli. Protesters were now shouting slogans against the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the GNA itself. Live rounds were again used against the protesters.
In a separate report dated 28 August, al-alarbiya.net reported that the GNA interior minister promised to defend the protestors (apparently against the militias that were using live rounds). But, meanwhile “the security apparatus” (apparently of the Ministry of Interior itself) was arresting some of the protestors.
Some of the complaints being listed now by the protestors included: Corruption, the electricity going out, government workers not getting paid, and no jobs for the folks.
On 29 August, al-Arabiya.net reported that GNA head Fayez Sirraaj had detained Minister of the Interior Fathi Basha Ghaa for questioning regarding his statement about “defending the protestors.”
A subsequent al-Arabiyya report on 29 August had Sirraaj halting Interior Minister Fathi Basha Ghaa’s activities as Interior Minister on the suspicion that he was planning a coup with the aid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the talk show hosts raised eyebrows over this because Sirraaj (at least until recently) had also been a darling of the MB. So was this the MB fighting the MB? Or, MB militias from Misrata (Fathi Basha’s town) trying to wrest control from the MB militias in Tripoli (Sirraaj’s home town)?
“Who’s on first? No Who is on second.”
Demonstrations against the GNA have continued, protesting the conditions as mentioned above.
“Who’s on first?” As Abbot and Costello would say. Over the last couple of months the situation inside of the GNA has gotten confused. Are these demonstrations for the purpose of bringing down the GNA and ending the Libyan Civil War, or is Turkey now using these very demonstrations to scuttle the GNA/HoR peace attempts and increase its hold over the GNA?
What appears to be the case is that the demonstrations were initially spontaneous, although I had suspicions at first that either LNA or Egyptian intelligence was involved because of the types of slogans being chanted and the fact that they were aimed at getting the Turks out and bringing the GNA down. However, it appears that the demonstrations were then hijacked by the GNA Interior Minister Fathi Basha Ghaa–under Erdogan’s orders.
Sirraaj may have initially accepted ‘Aqeel Saleh’s offer of a peace proposal sensing that his own position was growing increasingly weak with both his own population in Tripoli, and the pressure coming from Misratta and the Interior minister. He may have been seeking a way out of that increasingly tight situation.
It was in this environment that Erdogan summoned Sirraaj to Ankara for a little chewing out. I don’t know what was said during that meeting but it was probably something along the lines of “play ball and you can remain on the team.” Talk of a Sirraaj/Saleh peace have ceased, as have the demonstrations for the time being. The last several days Morocco has been hosting peace talks of a sort “between the two sides in Libya” but none of the major players are involved from either the GNA, LNA, or the HoR.
Any possibility for peace in Libya depends entirely upon Erdogan’s non-existent will to pull out. Therefore, what appears to be developing is a sort of “stalemate” whereby Erdogan will hold off on attacking Sirte out of fear he might actually lose, all the while allowing phony “peace talks” between minor leaguers to take place to assuage international opinion. In the meantime Erdogan is quite happy to continue to strengthen his position in the western portion of Libya, because the western portion is all he really needs to continue to destabilize nearby countries such as Tunisia and the those in the African Sahel.
Barry Webb has logged a 25-year career as an Arabist for the NSA, has two MA degrees in related subject matter, and is currently a Senior Fellow with Americans for Intelligence Reform www.intelreform.org. He is the author of Confessions of an (ex) NSA spy: Why America and its Allies are Losing the War on Terror. His website is www.barrywebbauthor.com