Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Olya Kay exclusively for SouthFront
Recently, the media’s attention focused on the crisis in the Persian Gulf, where U.S. administration provoked a conflict between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and their allies with Qatar, by receiving large-scale defense orders from both sides and then becoming a neutral arbitrator. The media also focused on the situation in Syria and Iraq, on the imminent change of power in Algeria, and on the confrontation between the countries of the Horn of Africa. As a result, the media has been fully distracted from the events in Libya.
Meanwhile, the situation in Libya is unfolding, affecting not only its regional players but also the U.S. and the E.U. This article considers current events in the country, basing its analysis on materials of the Institute of Middle East expert, A. Bystrov.
Money for a barrel
The House of Representatives of Libya – the parliament sitting in the east of the country – made a recent announcement regarding its decision to withdraw from the agreement on the formation of a unified National Oil Corporation (NOC) and transfer of oil ports to this unified body. This decision was made by the parliamentary committee on energy. Earlier, a similar decision was made by the temporary government of A. Abdurrahman al-Tani. The parliamentarians are urging the army to transfer control over the terminals to institutions, which obey the authorities in the east. Recall that on March 3 the “oil crescent” (the coast of the Gulf of Sirte) sustained a massive attack from the “Benghazi Defense Brigades” (BDB). This formation was created in the summer of 2016. Its purpose – to confront eastern authorities, loyal to the Libyan National Army (LNA), currently under the command of Field Marshal K. Haftar. The BDB militants managed to seize the largest oil-loading terminals in the country, located on the coast of the Mediterranean coast – Ras Lanuf and Sidr.
On the eve of the decision made by the Chambers, the LNA launched a counter attack removing the radicals from the ports. The army gained control of the ports, without first establishing, to whom they will be transferred. The NOC is led by M. Sanalla and it is based in Tripoli. The Army transferred control over the terminals they acquired in September 2016 to NOC. There is a parallel structure in Benghazi. It also subordinates to the eastern authorities and is part of NOC. Thus, Tobruk retaliated against the Tripolitan and Misrata clans, where the essence of tribal clashes is reduced to control over the oil fields and export of black gold.
The BDB were created with Qatari money and with the logistical support of the Misrata. Their purpose was to repel Haftar forces, since the Misrata did not want to fight with the Tobruk army themselves. Their actions were not resisted by the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), F. Saraj, who prevented attempts to monopolize the oil industry under Haftar’s control. This also explains Saraj’s agreement to an armed confrontation of local tribes which are loyal to him, Tuba and Misrata volunteers, with Haftar’s expansionaries in Fezzan. This is the struggle of Paris and Rome for business guarantees in the oil industry of Libya to either French or Italian companies.
Another step taken by Saraj against Haftar’s monopoly over the oil fields was the concentration of export operations in the NOC under the leadership of Sanalla. Tobruk’s attempts to launch exports through the “Benghazi” NOC were not successful: on the international sites, the Tripolitan NOC was officially accredited. Tobruk tried to put an end to this, but so far, the result is unclear. The period of reconciliation between Sanalla and Saraj passed, and each began to play their own game. The Premier is trying to concentrate the flow of exports in his hands. The decree of Tobruk is evidence of his actions in this dispute.
We note that on June 13 Libya’s NOC made an interim deal to resume output with a German company Wintershall. This can strengthen Saraj’s position. In May, Libya came out producing 160,000 barrels per day. Now that figure increased to 830,000 barrels. The arrangement allows for an immediate resumption of production at Wintershall’s NC 96 and NC 97 concession areas in eastern Libya. This also allows them to increase production in the fields that have the same infrastructure as their own, primarily Abu Affitel, operated by Mellitah Oil & Gas, which currently produces 70 thousand barrels. These actions will allow Libya to reach the daily production levels of a million barrels of oil in the coming months.
Wintershall, operating on the Libyan market since 1956, is in disagreement with NOC over taxes. NOC refers to the 2010 agreement with Wintershall, which sought the increase the taxes, and means that Wintershall is a billion dollars in default. The Germans cite the decision of the Libyan government on preferential taxation, provided for by the old concession agreement, which canceled the regulations of the former Libyan regime. Saraj here acted on the side of the Germans, signing an agreement with them to bypass the claims of the NOC. To do this, he issued a resolution through the Presidential counsel in March, dissolving the powers of the Ministry of Fuel and Energy of Libya and the transfer of most of the agency’s authority to the national Libyan companies and to parts of foreign corporations.
This caused a sharp reaction from Sanalla, who claims that Saraj created conditions for himself and his cabinet to enter separate production sharing agreements with all the major players in the market. After Sanaj passed the resolution, Sanalla cut off Wintershall’s access to the export pipeline, forcing it to shut down production. He believes that the prerogative to create contractual relations should belong to an independent body, meaning that oil production would lie within the economic sphere, not a political one. All this complicates the government’s plans to increase oil production and exports. Experts believe that this interim deal will force heads of the GNA and NOC to compromise. But it seems that Tobruk is actively working on creating alternative instruments for the extraction and export of hydrocarbons.
Libyan swan, cancer, and pike
The LNA is fighting against extremists in Benghazi, among them the militants of the Islamic State (IS) and the formations associated with Al-Qaeda (both organizations are banned in Russia). Since mid-November 2016, the army attacked western quarters and is focused on removing extremists from the strongholds in the north. Officially, Benghazi was freed from Islamists six months ago, according to Haftar’s statements, which as it turns out, are not true. Same applies to the rest of Libya. Speeches from local politicians are based on their hope to receive additional funding from external sponsors and as a rule, are based on their agreements with local tribes. Meanwhile, the sheikhs of these tribes change their mind often, depending on who pays more for their loyalty. The only factor that affects their long-term loyalty is threat of destruction for a large part of their tribe.
This was the case in Fezzan. It experienced massive air raids conducted by the Haftar Air Force (or, more precisely, the UAE Air Force planes, piloted by American mercenaries) on the tribes of Tuba. This caused their sheikhs to reflect if it was correct to support the Italian plan for the Rome Agreement and if it was correct to oppose Tobruk. However, there is only a handful of planes and many tribes. Which means that the first cause of instability in Libya is the inability of any force to inflict a decisive military defeat on its opponents. It appears they are fighting on a quilt, a quilt made of various patchworks, consisting of various tribes with ever-changing political preferences of their local sheikhs.
The second reason – weak sponsors of political and clan forces in Libya. Today, there are several external players operating within Libya and they are pulling the country in different directions. Alliance of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and until recently France was betting on the armed forces of Tobruk, that is, Haftar. The solid level of financial and technical support of these formations (“Blackouts”, the UAE Air Force, Egyptian and French special forces, UAE’s sponsorship for purchase of weapons and ammunition in Belarus) proved insufficient for power domination and political monopoly of Haftar, not only in Libya, but also in the east of the country (recall, the “Islamist Oasis” in Derna) and in the region of the “oil crescent”.
Unpredictable consequences are the reason for the weakness of Haftar’s military capabilities as well as the reluctance of his foreign patrons to openly participate in combat. The French and Egyptian special forces conduct very limited operations. To control the sheikhs, Haftar’s sponsors need constant armed pressure. Such pressure can cause an outrage within the international community and put a stain on Tobruk’s reputation – making it seem an agent of external factions. This will undermine Haftar’s legitimacy in the eyes of the population.
However, opposition forces in Libya maintain their combat potential through their sponsors. The slogan “Libyans will not tolerate foreign interference” was launched by Qatar to protect their allies – the Misrata and Tripolitan clans, from defeat in case of large-scale foreign intervention. This is the second center of power in Libya, which is also quite circumstantial. But neither Qatar nor its allies have the strength or the ability to openly participate in military operations to support groups that are loyal to them.
The third center of power is Saraj’s government of national consent. It does not have military capabilities, but has international recognition and enjoys the support of Rome. This was demonstrated in mid-June when Saraj and the “second man” of his presidential council, A. Maytigi, travelled to Brussels for a visit. They met with A. Alfano, a member of the Italian Foreign Ministry, through lobbyists of Rome in Brussels, with F.Mogerini, the coordinator of the international activities of the EU, with the president of the EU Parliament A. Tajjani. Meetings were also organized with NATO Secretary General J. Stoltenberg and President of the European Commission J.C. Junker. This trip serves as a demonstration of Brussel’s support for Saraj and the structures he heads, to oppose Tobruk and Haftar. Lack of coordination between foreign players (in EU between the Italians and the French) is one of the main reasons why Libya remains in a power vacuum.
The exclusionary “roadmap”
In mid-July, Saraj proposed a new “roadmap” to overcome the crisis. The plan includes holding general presidential and parliamentary elections in March 2018, cessation of all military operations except for the fight against terrorism, and a project which will form joint committees of the House of Representatives (unicameral Parliament) and the State Council, with an aim to begin the integration of disjointed state institutions. He plans to create the Supreme Council of National Reconciliation, to establish reconciliation committees between cities and to study the mechanisms which will introduce transitional justice, reparations and general amnesty.
Recall that after the talks on May 2 in Abu Dhabi between Saraj and the commander of the Libyan National Army, Haftar, an agreement was reached to create a national authority and national law enforcement agencies. To ensure their formation, working groups will be created, and after the agreement is signed, presidential and parliamentary elections will be held within six months. Meanwhile, Saraj tries to position himself and the Cabinet of Ministers as an intermediary neutral body, outside of the conflict. Detachments, which with certain reservations remain the “armed forces of the government of the national accord” (the Misrata brigades and the Tripolitan Brotherhoods-Muslims) are declared by Saraj as a “front” with which he has no affiliation. At the same time, he claims to have the potential to organize negotiations with them.
This agreement, alarmed field commanders from Misrata, who saw themselves outside of the emerging power structure. They fear their isolation if an alliance is formed between Haftar and Saraj. That alliance looks disturbing considering Misrata’s declining support from Turkey and Qatar, countries whose attention was diverted to the current crisis in the GCC. There is no united front in Misrata. Some field commanders are seeking a compromise with Haftar, the others are determined to fight. They are concerned about Haftar’s contracts with the Americans: on July 2 he was received by the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, P. Bodde and Commander of African forces T. Waldhaus. This implies that Washington is leaning towards Haftar. In the meantime, the Misurates hope for U.S. neutrality, since their brigades, led by military instructors and the US Air Force, fought to liberate Sirt from IS supporters.
On July 2, the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Arab Republic, M. Héguassy, met with a delegation from Misrata. They discussed an avenue for conducting direct consultations between Misrata and Haftar. The Egyptians are trying to erode Qatari-Turkish front in eastern Libya to strengthen Haftar’s position. They are using part of Misrata’s elites that are ready for compromise. Much depends on Misrata’s position during clashes between Haftar’s forces and his opposition. If Misrata supports the opposition with aviation, it will mean victory for the wing, which opposes dialogue with Tobruk.
The legacy of Gaddafi
The son of Gaddafi, S. al-Islam was liberated in early June by the soldiers of the Zintan clan in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. This stimulated a rivalry, among those competing for power, to gain sympathy of the tribes considered to be pro-Gaddafi. On the flip side, those who seek power should not allow al-Islam the opportunity to become the center of power, claiming to unite all Libyans. The liberation of S. al-Islam is a premise for creating a system of communication with pro-Gaddafi forces and persuading them to join an alliance. It is also a means of acquiring financial holdings of Gaddafi, currently held abroad. The latter can be difficult, return of financial capital is a distant perspective. The involvement of armed tribal forces on the other hand, is an urgent matter of principle.
The son of the Colonel lives under house arrest in Zintan, or under protection with his uncle at Al-Beida in Cyrenaica, where his mother, S. Farkas’ house is located. He was at the forefront of the former Libyan leader’s program (2007-2010) for the liberation, rehabilitation and return to society of leaders and militants associated with Al-Qaeda. The leaders of the Libyan Combat Group (LCG) A. Belkhadj, S. al-Saadi and H. Al-Sharif, have several hundred supporters today. Belkhadj fled to Turkey after the last battles in Tripoli, but he retained his influence in the capital. He is a big businessman in the sectors of logistics and banking and is ready to compromise with the head of the Zintan clan through S. al-Islam. Belkhadj will free himself Qatar’s influence if there is there are real prospects for dialogue.
Another likely partner for negotiations is the leader of the “liberal wing” in Libya, M. Jibril, who was a protégé of al-Islam and is currently associated with Tobruk. Gaddafi’s son has an advantage – he is fully aware of various secrets held by these men. On the other hand, he is unpopular with the Tuba in Fezzan. His relationship with the Tuaregs is better, but al-Islam cannot forget that the Tuaregs passed Zintan to his clan in 2011. Also, most Islamists are reluctant to believe the son of the former Libyan leader. As such, there is no question of his return to power, he is only needed for his knowledge and ability to liaison.
Saraj and Haftar stepped up their act in the sphere of tribal diplomacy. The first, started nominating representatives of various tribes, to the military bloc of his government, thereby ensuring the tribes’ loyalty to him. Meanwhile, the head of government is losing control over Tuba in Fezzan. They threaten to break the Roman treaty which calls for a creation of “border guards” with Tuareg and Aulyad Suleiman tribes. If this happens, it won’t be so much a defeat for Saraj as it will be for Rome.
Haftar began, in addition to managing Tuba, consulting with the tribal elites of Tarhouni, who were the main suppliers of personnel for the army and security forces, prior to Gaddafi’s overthrow. Gaddafi’s other son, Khamis, considered moving to Tarhouni with his 32nd brigade. This way he could organize a stronghold of resistance. Tarhouni control several areas of Tripoli and several regions of the capital, which makes them indispensable allies in establishing control over the capital. If the Tarhouni recognize Haftar’s rule, he will receive a strong base of support.
Prominent Tripolitan field commander H. Tajuri, whose strength is the main military support for Saraj in Tripoli, also began to show activity through his contacts with the “former”. During the clashes, his troops liberated the capital’s prison, guarded by Islamists of H. al-Sharif. This prison held a number of VIP personnel of the former regime. They were transferred to the villas in the areas of Tajuri headquarters in Tripoli. On June 12, during a break in Ramadan, Iftar Tajuri held a dinner at the Radisson Blu Hotel. His guests included S. Gaddafi, former Prime Minister A. Zeid Dorda and former chief of the intelligence services A. Sennousi, among others. The field commander is trying to establish contacts with representatives of the tribes of Gaddaf, Charian and Megrahi, to which these individuals belong. These maneuvers were accelerated after Haftar and Saraj had their meeting, which indicates that Tajura, whose troops played a major role in the liberation of Tripoli from the forces of the Islamist al-Kh Gveylya started his game for power.
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Institute of Middle East