Last week, forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar regained control of Libya’s coastal “Oil Crescent”, a bay, roughly 200km long, which extends between the oil ports of Sirte and Ras Lanuf. The area along this coastal strip contains 60 per cent of Libya’s proven oil reserve. This comes less than two weeks since a tribal force called the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB), loyal to the Tripoli-based government of National Accord (GNA), took control of the oil fields.
In fact, the conflict for the control of Libya’s strategic oil fields started soon after the regime of former leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in the summer of 2011. Until September 2016, when forces loyal to General Haftar took control, the oil fields were managed by the Oil Installation Guards. A local tribal force loyal to the GNA. The seizure of the main oil fields by General Haftar was seen as turning point in Libya’s six-year old civil war. Yet, while Haftar was trying to amass local and external backing to advance towards the capital, Tripoli, BDB launched an offensive from Jufra in the south, and quickly grabbed control of the Oil Crescent.
The intensity of the present conflict in Libya results from the fact that no single armed group has been able to tip the balance of power on the ground in its favour. In this conflict, the Oil Crescent is a vital bargaining chip.
Haftar’s control of the vital oil-producing region put him in a better position to change the terms of the controversial Sukhairat Agreement to make it better suits his interests. The Sukhairat Agreement, signed by parts of Libya’s political forces in the eponymous Moroccan city in December 2015 sought to establish a political process to end the civil conflict.
Supported by Aguila Saleh, speaker of the House of Representatives, Haftar insists on the implementation of Article 13 of the Sukhairat Agreement, which stipulates that the House of Representatives, also known as the “Tobruk Parliament” is the country’s sole legitimate legislature, responsible for ratifying the government and for legislating during the interim period.
Article 8 of the same text gives the Libyan presidency the right to nominate all of the major positions within the state apparatus. Haftar has refused to accept that part of the Sukhairat Agreement, which would leave a number of key positions — including the Chief of Libyan Intelligence and the Chief of the Armed Forces — at the discretion of Libya’s Presidential Council, the leadership body of the Tripoli-based government of Fayez Al Sarraj.
Since capturing Tripoli in March of 2016, the Presidential Council has not been able to provide leadership for the country. Its writ does not even extend to all of the territory nominally under its control in western Libya. Frictions and fighting amongst rival armed groups in Tripoli reflect on the ability of the Presidential Council to address a modicum of economic and security concerns of the civilians living in its areas, much less to govern Libya.
On top of that it has so far failed to consolidate its military forces into a centralised force. In sum, Libya’s Presidential Council has not been able to strengthen its rule in the west of Libya or to win foreign backers. Even the windfall of the Oil Crescent landing in their laps for a brief period has proven to be too much for the GNA/Presidential Council.
The GNA’s Minister of Defence was not able to protect the oil installations along the coast in the requisite speed, even with the assistance of the Oil Installation Guards. During the Munich Security Forum last February, Al Sarraj called upon Nato to assist him in the restructuring of his military and security forces. Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg promised to look into Al Sarraj’s request; but no sign has so far emerged that Nato is willing to deliver.
Given Libya’s complex tribal composition, as well as the matrix of international interests at work, it seems that no single party to Libya’s multi-layered and multi-faceted civil war will ever triumph entirely. The only way out for the country would be for the political factions to work together towards a peaceful reconstruction of Libya. The alternative would be for a continuation of the ongoing conflict and the furtherance of political interests at odds with the national interests of the Libyan people and their right to live in dignity and peace, in a country with a representative form of government.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.