The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) presented its written “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to the Senate last week. The analysis confirms that the Islamic State is capable of sustaining insurgencies in both Iraq and Syria, Afghan security continues to “deteriorate,” and al Qaeda remains a threat in several parts of the globe.
The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Mohamed Eljarh, former political consultant to the Libyan Mission to the European Union, to discuss the ongoing conflict in Libya, the current terrorist threat in the country, and prospects for peace.
The Cipher Brief: What is the current state of political affairs in Libya?
Mohamed Eljarh: It has been more than 16 months since the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in the Moroccan city of Skhirat and more than 12 months since the arrival of the UN-backed Presidential Council headed by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj in the capital of Tripoli. However, Libya remains a deeply divided and polarized country – one that lacks any representative or fully legitimate government – and it has witnessed various camps compete for legitimacy and control of key state institutions, such as the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). In addition, an ongoing armed struggle is taking place in various parts of the country. [The conflict] is linked to the ongoing political struggle for control of resources and state institutions.
Within Libya, there are three centers of political power: the UN-backed Presidential Council based in Tripoli, the State Council (formerly known as the General National Congress), which is also based in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives based in Tobrouk. The failure of these three institutions to implement the Libyan Political Agreement has resulted in significant deterioration in living conditions and a precarious security situation where the risk of a full-fledged civil war and reemergence of violent Jihadist groups, such as ISIS, is real.
Additionally, these institutions and competing governments failed to unify key state institutions that were divided back in 2014 when certain Islamist and revolutionary factions in control of the capital Tripoli refused to recognize the June 2014 national election results and the subsequent move of the newly elected House of Representatives to the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk where it has been sitting ever since. Today, Libya has two central banks, two national oil corporations and three competing managements of the Libya’s sovereign fund, the Libyan Investment Authority.
As a result of these failures and the ongoing conflict, a growing number of Libyans, as many as 40 percent, are now living under the poverty line. The poverty issue in Libya is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict and deteriorating economic and financial situation plagued by widespread corruption and poor governance. Three different governments are printing and spending their own cash and allocating their own budgets.
The value of the Libyan dinar has dropped significantly from a rate of 1.32 Libyan dinars to 1 U.S. dollar to as low as 10 Libyan dinars for 1 U.S. dollar in recent weeks. Additionally, there is a major cash liquidity crisis and shortages in fuel, medicine, cooking gas, and basic goods supplies with significant hikes in prices throughout the country.
TCB: Last year, ISIS was kicked out of the coastal city of Sirte by Libyan forces, but there are reports that ISIS may establishing a base in southern Libya. Does the group still maintain a presence in the country?
ME: Political instability, poverty and conflict are key contributing factors to the emergence and rise of jihadist groups. Although ISIS was defeated militarily in Libya and does not control any towns or cities in the country, the environments and factors that gave rise ISIS still exist today, and if not dealt with urgently and properly, will give rise again to ISIS or a much worse Jihadist phenomena.
Currently, there is violent escalation between Libyan National Army forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar on one side and forces loyal to the authorities in Tripoli and Misrata on the other. There is no doubt but that ISIS and other al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups will aim to regroup, strengthen their presence, and potentially expand their control over territory in the southern region.
Local forces in the southern region of Fezzan have already spotted an increase in jihadist activities. There is a real threat that jihadist groups will form deep-rooted connections and networks with criminal gangs in southern Libya. [These gangs] are involved in human and drug trafficking and smuggling activities [that] would provide jihadist groups with a generous source of income to fund their activities and regrouping efforts and would have dangerous consequences not only for Libya, but the entire Sahel and North Africa regions, and of course Europe.
TCB: Has Russia become involved in Libya in any capacity? If so, how? Should the U.S. play a role in Libya, either militarily or by helping to broker a peace deal? If so, to what extent?
ME: Instability in Libya and the legitimacy crisis have created a vacuum in Libya that since 2014 has been filled by jihadist groups such as ISIS or Ansar al-Sharia. But it is not just Jihadist groups that are filling the vacuum in a chaotic Libya. Regional players such as Egypt, Turkey, UAE, and Qatar have been backing opposing sides in the Libyan conflict.
Last year, Russia started to weigh its options in Libya. It seems that Libya is now part of Moscow’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Initially, Russia seemed to favor the Eastern Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar, as the Russians treated his wounded soldiers, have him medical supplies, and provided private contractors to help with war related activities. However, recently, Russia started to reach out to all Libyan stakeholders and has been working to push forward the peace process and the Libyan Political Agreement. Regionally, Russia is coordinating efforts with Algeria, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
It is clear that Russia is neither keen nor capable of getting involved militarily in Libya. Hence, political and diplomatic involvement is the best option available for Moscow. However, it is important to keep in mind that Libya is important to Russia for obvious economic reasons. Libya is also important to Russia because it is very important to Europe. For Moscow, Libya is another battlefield where [Putin] could twist Europe’s arm.
Russia is getting more involved in Libya while everyone waits to see the Trump Administration’s strategy towards Libya. On April 20, President Trump said, “I do not see a (U.S.) role in Libya” during a joint news conference, moments after Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called the U.S. role in the country “critical.” This confirms fears of many EU leaders that the U.S. might be heading for disengagement in Libya.
However, Trump’s position on Libya could easily flip, as it did in Syria. But it is important for the Trump Administration to have the right strategy in Libya and not just a reactionary, ad-hoc figure-it-out-as-you go approach.
There are two key issues that any strategy towards Libya has to deal with. First, the legitimacy crisis that led to the current constitutional and legal vacuum. Second, there is the issue of political participation of all Libyan factions in producing a legitimate and representative government. The UN-led peace process was meant to solve the legitimacy issue through the dialogue and consensus process, but has failed.
TCB: Where do you see the situation headed in the short term?
ME: It is very likely that the current status quo will continue throughout 2017. It is important to point out that the term of the LPA and the UN-backed government of national accord ends on December 17, 2017. The president of the House of Representatives has already called for the Higher National Elections Commission to prepare for general presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2018. Given that negotiations based peace process did not yield the anticipated results, a democratic, free and fair elections could be the best way to solve the legitimacy and participation issues highlighted above.
What the United States, Europe and the international community at large can do is to put in place mechanisms and guarantees to support the election processes and ensure they are transparent and fair. Most importantly, the international community, through the UN Security Council, must ensure that elections results are respected and protected.
Additionally, Libya would require two key agreements that need to happen simultaneously: first, a Libyan Economic Agreement that deals with the management and distribution of Libya’s wealth and ensures equitable and efficient management and distribution of oil revenues between Libyans; and, second, a Libyan Security Agreement that deals with the issue of disarming militias, collection weapons, and the rebuilding of Libyan Armed Forces under civilian oversight and authority, as well as the protection of borders, vital sites, and installations.
TCB: What do you make of the recent meeting between Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar in the UAE earlier this week.
ME: The meeting in Abu Dhabi and the joint communique issued by Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar is a major breakthrough and a significant step in the right direction. However, there are still many details to be worked out. Additionally, there are enough spoilers in Libya that could ensure the meeting does not result in any real progress on the ground. Some Islamist factions that are loyal to the Libyan Grand Mufti in Tripoli, Jufrah and the city of Derna are likely to reject the meeting and its outcomes. Within the city of Misrata some hardline factions have forcefully closed down the city’s democratically elected municipal council and the city is extremely polarized and divided. The hardliners within the city of Misrata are likely to reject the meeting and its outcome. Most importantly, the meeting must be followed by other steps that widen the participation and support base for the new agreement and the upcoming elections.
The key obstacle facing Libya today is the legitimacy crisis that resulted in institutional and legal vacuum. One way out of this conundrum would be holding parliamentary and presidential elections after speeding up the constitution drafting committee and agreeing a constitution for the country. This will ensure the end of the current institutional divide and restore some confidence in governance and the economy. However, any democratic elections will require guarantees from the international community that the electoral process would be free and fair and that the election results are respected.
This piece was originally published on The Cipher Brief
“It is tempting to think the Syrian civil war will end this year, but that is not the case.”
The United States will be no less engaged with the Middle East in 2017 than it was in 2016. It will, however, be more judicious in its engagement, giving other countries an opening to compete for influence. The competition will play out primarily in and around the Syria-Iraq battlefield, which will continue to implicate its neighbors and countries much farther afield. Developments in the fights inside Syria and Iraq will aggravate sectarian tensions and intensify the ongoing rivalry between Turkey and Iran.
Resisting the Temptation About Syria
It is tempting to think the Syrian civil war will end in 2017, now that the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad have retaken the critical city of Aleppo. Indeed, they now control a few major cities and have the luxury of consolidating the gains they have made. But the conflict will not end, at least not in 2017. The loyalists are simply pulled in too many directions to achieve a decisive victory. In addition to holding their territory in the north, they must now try to clear the rebels located between Aleppo and Damascus and around Damascus itself. They will also be drawn to areas held by the Islamic State in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where their comrades are currently besieged. Retaking territory in the energy belt around Palmyra will be a priority too. Put differently, there is still a lot work left for them to do, and any number of things can shift the balance of power in such a conflict-ridden country.
The constraints on the loyalists, however, are but one factor preventing the conflict’s resolution. In 2017, the presence of foreign powers will also complicate the Syrian battlefield, much as it has in years past. The United States will adapt its strategy in Syria, favoring one that more selectively aids specific groups in the fight against the Islamic State rather than those fighting the al-Assad government. Washington will, for example, continue to back Kurdish forces but will curb support for rebels in Idlib. The consequences of which will be threefold. First, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will have to increase their support for the rebels, including the more radical ones, the United States has forsaken. Second, their support will give radical elements room to thrive, as will the reduced oversight associated with Washington’s disengagement. Third, Russia will be able to cooperate more tactically with the United States and its allies as it tries to exact concessions, including the easing of sanctions, in a broader negotiation with Washington.
Notably, Russia will cooperate only insofar as it helps Moscow achieves those goals, but given Moscow’s limited influence on the ground in Syria, there is only so much it can actually do. Still, that will not stop Russia from trying to replace Washington as the primary arbiter of Syrian negotiation.
While other powers are preoccupied with the fight against the Islamic State, Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in northern Syria and Iraq, driven as it is by its imperative to block Kurdish expansion. In Syria, the presence of Russian troops will probably prevent Turkey from venturing any farther south than al Bab in northern Aleppo. From al Bab, Turkey will try to drive eastward toward the town of Manbij to divide and thus weaken areas held by the Kurds. Turkey will also lobby for a bigger role in anti-Islamic State operations in Raqqa. Turkey will deploy more of its own forces in the Syrian fight, both to obstruct the expansion of Syrian Kurdish forces and degrade the Islamic State.
There are, of course, some drawbacks to Turkey’s strategy. Namely, it runs the risk of clashes with Russian and Syrian Kurdish forces. Ankara will thus have to concentrate on maintaining closer ties with Moscow to avoid complications on the battlefield, even as it manages tensions with the United States over Washington’s continued support for the Kurds.
In Iraq, too, Turkey will extend its influence in the north – notably, to where the Ottoman Empire’s border was once drawn through Sinjar, Mosul, Erbil and Kirkuk. And as it does, it will compete with Iran for influence in the power vacuum left by the Islamic State’s defeat in Mosul. Baghdad, for its part, will struggle to control Nineveh province once the Islamic State loses Mosul. Meanwhile, Turkey will bolster its proxies to position itself as the patron state of the region’s Sunnis.
Turkey’s resurgence threatens Iran’s arc of influence across northern Syria and Iraq, and Tehran has plenty of ways it can respond. The government will encourage Shiites in Baghdad to resist what they will characterize as a Turkish occupation. It will also rely on Shiite militias to block Ankara by contesting territory and exploiting divisions among Iraqi Kurds. Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, who have comparatively less influence Iraq, will rely on Turkey to uphold Sunni interests.
The fall of Mosul will further divide Iraq’s Kurds. The inevitable scramble for territory and influence will pit the Turkey-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is more closely aligned with Iran. Kirkuk, a city and province awash in oil, will be particularly contentious. The KDP will try to keep what it has gained there, while Baghdad, backed by Iran, will try to take it back. This will impede sustainable cooperation in energy production and revenue-sharing operations between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.
For all of Turkey’s challenges abroad, it has no shortage of them at home. Kurdish militant attacks are a perennial problem, of course, and Ankara’s role in strangling Islamic State escape routes in Syria will meanwhile make it a prime target for attacks in 2017. But perhaps more important, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will hold a referendum in 2017 on constitutional amendments meant to strengthen the presidency under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP has still has substantial support despite a highly polarized electorate, but the economy it helms is shaky. Turkey’s dollar-denominated debt will grow as the dollar strengthens, and the lira’s instability will spook investors, who are already alarmed about the country’s political crackdowns. Those crackdowns will also complicate Turkey’s EU accession talks. Not that Turkey expected to make much progress in that regard; it simply needs to keep the dialogue going over migrant controls to keep a foothold in the West and to maintain market access to the European Union.
2017 will test the durability of U.S.-Iranian relations. The new U.S. government is expected to be less tolerant of what it sees as Iranian aggression — naval harassment and ballistic missile testing, for example — even if it does not directly infringe on the nuclear deal. Strong U.S. responses to such aggression would, from Iran’s point of view, be a violation of the agreement, but Iran can be expected to challenge the agreement only if the United States does first. (Russia stands to benefit from U.S.-Iranian tensions. In its search for additional leverage against the United States, it will tighten its relationship with Iran through economic and military deals, knowing that Tehran will use Russia to balance against Washington as the questions emerge about the nuclear deal’s viability.)
Still, the Iran deal will survive the year, despite U.S. threats to the contrary. For all the heated rhetoric surrounding U.S.-Iranian relations, Washington has little interest in becoming mired in further Middle East conflicts, least of which with Iran. Likewise, Iran needs to boost its economy, something it will not be able to do without the foreign trade, investment and interaction the nuclear deal allows.
The Iranian economy, in fact, will be perhaps the determining factor in the presidential election, scheduled to take place in May. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate by Iran’s standards, will try to argue that the partial removal of sanctions and the stabilization of the inflation rate will benefit ordinary Iranians. His hard-line opponents in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps accuse him of being soft on the United States, however, and conceding too much control of the economy to international parties.
Regardless of the election’s outcome, Iran will remain under the influence of conservative politicians. And these politicians are beholden to the supreme leader, who distrusts the United States but also understands the need to re-enter the global economy. The gradual increase of oil production will help in that regard, but questions surrounding the sustainability of the Iran nuclear deal, not to mention the direction of U.S. policy, could prevent Iran from achieving its economic goals.
Saudi Arabia will relish the deterioration of U.S.-Iran relations. And, like Turkey, it will be driven to bolster its regional proxy battles with Iran. However, Riyadh will have to weigh expensive foreign campaigns against mounting pressures at home. After slashing capital expenditures and trimming its public sector bill in 2016, Saudi Arabia will be able to reduce its budget deficit in 2017. Still, the path to reform has been slow and bumpy, and it will be difficult for Saudi Arabia to translate its ambitious Vision 2030 and Vision 2020 plans into tangible directives its struggling private sector can follow. With more than four times more money set aside this year than last for implementing Vision 2020 directives, Saudi leaders will pressure the public and private sector to begin shifting operations accordingly and create more jobs.
Meanwhile, Riyadh will prepare for Saudi Aramco’s initial public offering, which will take place in 2018, and will broaden the scope of its Public Investment Fund to adopt riskier investments abroad in a bid to turn its wealth repository into a true sovereign wealth fund. Mimicking countries like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia will continue to diversify its overseas investments into various tech sectors — a tried and true way to generate revenue in the long term. The United Arab Emirates will lead a Gulf-wide initiative and put technical preparations in place to set up a standard value-added tax levied at 5 percent. The initiative is slated to kick off in early 2018.
Saudi citizens will clamor for change as the drive toward reform presses on, but the government will prioritize the economy over social reform. Even a modest social reform risks alienating the Saudi religious establishment, whose support for the House of Saud will need to manage homegrown jihadist threats.
The rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council will act in concert to curb Iranian influence and defend against common economic and security threats. But there are cracks in the façade of unity. Saudi Arabia will struggle to steer Yemen toward a negotiated settlement while the United Arab Emirates firms up its position in southern Yemen. Oman, known for its relative neutrality, will not participate in the GCC’s antagonizing of Iran.
These same dynamics will appear in the GCC’s foreign policy in North Africa. Saudi Arabia will continue to give its allies economic and security support in exchange for their support of its foreign policy in places like Yemen and Syria. The United Arab Emirates will be a more moderate voice, however, and in its moderation it will undermine the credibility of Saudi Arabia.
Egypt will be economically stable enough in 2017 to formulate a foreign policy independent of Saudi interests. To that end, it will try to attract funding from as many external partners as possible. Now that Cairo has devalued its currency, agreed to a deal with the International Monetary Fund and enacted more fuel subsidy reforms, it must implement more fundamental, structural reform, such as reducing public sector wages and raising tax revenue. The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be only modestly successful in that regard, hamstrung as it is by the legislature and the people, who bear the brunt of the country’s economic malaise.
Egypt will meanwhile remain involved in Libya, where Egyptian and Emirati support for nationalist Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who commands the Libyan National Army, is beginning to pay off. Hifter will be able to strengthen his military and political control in eastern Libya and will expand his control into Western Libya, but he will be unable to do so entirely. The Libyan National Army will try to rally militias to its cause, but not all of them will want to fight for Hifter. Regardless, Hifter’s divisiveness is bound to impede U.N.-led negotiations to form and approve a unity government. And so Libya will continue to be a battlespace among rival militias that will limit the potential for a lasting peace deal in 2017. Whoever wins this competition will win Libya’s oil wealth.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, will lose a lot of its power but will find refuge and allies in the far reaches of Libya. At the same time, al Qaeda-linked militias will continue to quietly expand their influence.
The Islamic State will lose power elsewhere too. Military campaigns in Iraq and Syria will degrade the group as a conventional military force but will do little to degrade it as terrorist or insurgent force. Dispersed throughout the areas they once controlled, remnants of the Islamic State will remain relevant by exploiting ethnic and sectarian divisions throughout Iraq and Syria. Terrorist attacks will therefore return to Iraq in spectacular form. (Despite the military setbacks in Iraq, the Islamic State will have a little more latitude to operate in Syria, where the coalition effort to fight Islamic State is far more convoluted.)
Islamic State attacks abroad, however, will be a much more limited threat. Militants returning home from Iraq and Syria are certainly a risk for Western countries, but they are a risk that will be mitigated by heightened awareness and intelligence oversight and increased risk of interdiction. More resourceful grassroots terrorists that do not have to rely on extensive networks and capabilities will be the bigger threat from Islamic State in 2017, especially for the West.
While the Islamic State has commanded the attention of the international community, al Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding itself, honing its capabilities in multiple theaters to stage its comeback. Al Qaeda nodes that have restyled themselves under various names in Libya, Algeria, Mali, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are likely to become more active and influential. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is particularly concerning. The tacit agreement it had with Saudi Arabia in Yemen has broken down, making the kingdom a viable target for the jihadist group.
Jihadists will remain active elsewhere, too, though their attacks will be relatively unsophisticated. If attacks become more complex in places like Indonesia and Bangladesh, it means more experienced fighters in the Middle East successfully found their way back home.
In Nigeria, Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, better known by its former name, Boko Haram, will continue to adopt al Qaeda’s targeting strategy, which focuses on military and Western targets while refraining from attacking civilians and Muslims. The faction of the group under the leadership of Abubaker Shekau, however, will continue to attack mosques, Muslims, markets, civilians and other soft targets.
2017 will present Israel with a variety of opportunities, the biggest of which will come from its security guarantor, the United States. With Republicans firmly in control of the executive and legislative branches of government in the U.S., Israel will have freer rein to pursue its interests without rebuke. The country will benefit from a more assertive U.S. policy on Iran, and through Washington may try to place even more restrictions on Iranian uranium enrichment — after all, the new U.S. administration is liable to be more receptive to intelligence collected on Iran, especially if it points to infractions of the nuclear deal. An emboldened Israel will also probably accelerate settlement development in the West Bank, even if doing so incites attacks from Palestinian militants. An escalation in Israeli-Palestinian frictions will stress Israel’s relationships with Jordan and Egypt, both facing internal stresses of their own. (The Palestinian issue will also notably be a source of competition between Turkey and Egypt. Ankara will try to develop better relations with Palestinian groups while managing a normalized but still tense relationship with Israel.)
But 2017 will also present Israel with a variety of challenges. To its north, it will have to contend with Hezbollah, arguably more powerful and experienced than it has been in years thanks to its heavy participation in the Syrian civil war. But Hezbollah has its hands full. It will consolidate territory in Syria for regime loyalists, it will fend off political challenges in Lebanon and it will meanwhile keep its eye on Israel. Worried about Hezbollah’s military strength, cognizant that it will have a window of opportunity, and unencumbered by Washington’s reproach, Israel is likely to intensify its operations in Syria and Lebanon in an attempt to weaken Hezbollah and limit their access to advanced weaponry.
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2017 Annual Forecast series on PolicyLabs:
- An Overview
- East Asia
- Latin America
- Middle East and North Africa
- South Asia
- Sub-Saharan Africa
2017 Annual Forecast is republished with permission of Stratfor