Libya’s ‘third government’ stirs up more conflict
TUNIS - Libya’s UN-backed government, designed to restore stability to the conflict-torn country and ward off the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS), is becoming a de facto third government in Libya, amplifying civil strife already afflicting the North African state.
If the situation were to continue, Libya’s divides will widen, allowing ISIS fighters to win more territory and increase security threats to Libya’s neighbours — Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Niger, Chad and Mali — experts say.
“Libya faces implosion at any time as there is no negotiated solution in the near future. With the UN-backed government, we have three governments now and Libya is becoming a time bomb in the process,” said Hatem Ben Salem, head of Tunisian Strategic Studies Institute, a think-tank affiliated to the presidency.
The new government’s predicament was underscored by the choice of venue for the signing ceremony of the agreement: Skhirat, Morocco. The Libyan capital, Tripoli, was deemed too unsafe.
Libya already had two warring parliaments with their respective governments: The internationally recognised House of Representatives in Tobruk and the pro-Islamist General National Congress in Tripoli. If both agree on one thing it is their rejection of the UN-backed unity government.
Underlining the fact that the unity government is perceived as a foreign project with no tangible support in Libya, that government led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is mostly based in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.
Sarraj recently travelled from Tunis to convey his government’s condolences to the families of the victims of an ISIS bomb attack in Zliten, in western Libya. However, he left hastily because of hostility towards him and Libyan reports that authorities had foiled a planned bomb attack against his convoy.
An ISIS affiliate in eastern Libya claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bomb attack on January 7th that targeted a police base in Zliten. At least 60 police officers were killed and another 200 were wounded.
On January 11th, the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) emptied oil storage tanks at the Ras Lanuf terminal as a precaution after ISIS militants attacked the country’s two biggest oil ports. Each of the tanks was estimated to contain 420,000-460,000 barrels of oil.
ISIS attacked oil terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, which lie between Sirte, which is controlled by the militant group, and the eastern city of Benghazi.
The attacks triggered several days of clashes between militants and the Petroleum Defence Guards. Five oil storage tanks in Es Sider and two others at the Ras Lanuf facility about 20 km away caught fire. The Petroleum Defence Guards lost 18 members in the attacks.
Since losing Tripoli to a rival government, Libya’s official government, based in the east, has appointed its own NOC management. So far, foreign oil buyers have sought to ignore the conflict by continuing to pay through the state’s NOC and the central bank in Tripoli, using a system in place for decades under Qaddafi.
French former senior intelligence officer Alain Rodier, director of research at the French Centre for Research on Intelligence, blamed ISIS’s incursion on oil facilities for the increased Libyan infighting, including between Libyan Army commander Khalifa Haftar and the newly named government.
“The problem does not really lie on the strength of Daesh (an Arabic acronym for ISIS) in Libya but it is the impossibility of unifying the forces which must oppose it,” Rodier said.
“(Despite naming Sarraj’s government), Libya is still divided between two governments — one in Tobruk recognised until now by the international community and the other in Tripoli bolstered behind the scenes by a Qatari-Turkish alliance which advances the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.
Taking advantage of the split in the government in eastern Libya, ISIS fighters attempted attacks on additional oil facilities but were turned back by assaults from unidentified drones, according to Libyan media reports.
“Adding another layer of complication to the situation, there is a split within Tobruk camp: General Khalifa Haftar, who is the chief of the legal army is falling afoul of Ibrahim al Jadhran, commander of the Petroleum Defence Guards, the militias that protect oil facilities,” added Rodier.
Rodier and other security experts said while a central government vacuum and political rivalry and infighting permitted the ISIS military offensive, Libya bears no similarities to Syria and Iraq for the growth of the militant group. There is no Shia minority against which to whip up hatred as ISIS does in Syria and Iraq. Jews or Christians have virtually no presence in Libya nor is there even a government to target.
But if the vacuum endures, ISIS may turn into a force that cannot be ignored along with a patchwork of militias and other terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate Ansar al-Sharia.
ISIS’s threat, oil wealth and migrants’ smuggling clearly motivate the European Union and its Western allies to bolster the UN-backed government and display its impatience with Libyan factions opposition to the Sarraj cabinet.
“Each day that passes without the reconciliation process in Libya advancing is a day gained by Daesh,” said Martin Kobler, the UN special envoy for Libya.
For most Libyans, the situation is increasingly painful. They cite increasing numbers of kidnappings, rapes and other acts of violence. Economic difficulties are mounting as shown with the recent closure of banks in eastern areas as money liquidity dried up.
“They took away Libya from us. There are criminals everywhere. When we get out from our homes each morning, we are not sure whether we return home whole. People are killed by criminals for no reason. We feel insecure all the day,” said Mohamed Mismari, a 32- year old power utility employee in Tripoli on a recent visit to Tunis.
“We support any entity or person who has the sheer force to beat these criminals and restore peace but, for now, we see no one. The new government? Do they even have the power to protect themselves in Tripoli before they can promise us security and prosperity?” he asked.