The seizure of Libya’s main pre-2013 oil terminals by an opposition force is a blow to the authority of Libya’s fledgling UN-backed Presidency Council. But smart compromises might help restart the flow of oil, as INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP’s Senior Libya analyst CLAUDIA GAZZINI explains in this Q&A.
What has happened on the ground in Libya?
Key crude oil export terminals in eastern Libya were seized on 11 September by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA). This is a force opposed to the fledgling Presidency Council based in Tripoli in the west of the country, backed by the UN and also supported by the US and UK.
At dawn on the first day of the Muslim Eid al-Kebir feast, Haftar’s LNA forces moved into Sidra and Ras Lanuf oil terminals and the Ras Lanuf petrochemical complex in the Gulf of Sirte. By the end of the day they also controlled Zuwetina export terminal, further east. A fifth terminal, in Brega, also changed hands in the following days.
The Petroleum Facilities Guards forces, under local strongman Ibrahim Jadran, a PC ally who has controlled the terminals since 2013, were either on leave for the Muslim holiday or surrendered without putting up significant resistance. With the exception of some clashes in Zuwetina on 11 September and east of Ras Lanuf the next day, the terminals’ takeover has therefore taken place with little bloodshed and no damage to the oil and gas infrastructure. Jadran and his brothers appear to have fled from their homes in Ajdabiya to nearby Brega after coming under attack by rival local factions. They are reportedly attempting a counteroffensive to retake the terminals, requesting help from the Presidency Council.
What does this mean for the UN-backed Libyan Presidency Council? And what is the Presidency Council’s likely reaction?
From a political and military point of view, these developments are a huge setback to the authority of the UN-backed fledgling government in Tripoli. General Haftar does not recognise the Presidency Council’s authority and has refused to place his forces under its command. That these forces have managed to dislodge a strategic (albeit controversial) Presidency Council ally and succeeded (at least so far) in taking Libya’s most important oil terminals is inflammatory.
The Presidency Council, a nine-member body formed after a December 2015 power-sharing deal, appears to be divided on how to respond: several of its members seem to favour a military attempt to regain control; others say they would be willing to accept the status quo on condition the LNA recognises the Presidency Council’s authority. Military factions in central/western Libya that do not fall under the Presidency Council’s authority (including some Tripoli and Misrata militias, and an anti-Haftar force known as the Benghazi Defence Brigade) are also clamouring for a military response.
The situation remains fluid. The decision about how to respond is complicated by the fact that Presidency Council-aligned forces are already stretched in their ongoing battle to retake Sirte from Islamic State fighters and in securing the capital from rival forces. In fact, some in pro-Presidency Council circles fear that deploying men to the terminals will weaken already tenuous security arrangements in the capital and thus provide an opportunity for these anti-Presidency Council militias located on its outskirts to enter the city. Another factor to consider is the popular support that Haftar and the LNA currently enjoy in the east: any military response coming from western Libya is likely to be met with resistance from eastern tribes, especially where it concerns the terminals. But given the tensions that Haftar’s move has provoked, a military attempt on the terminals is certainly possible.
Why does Haftar refuse to recognise the Presidency Council?
Haftar has repeatedly refused to come under the Presidency Council’s authority for both political and military reasons. The political basis for his refusal to recognise the Presidency Council is the fact that the House of Representatives (HoR), the parliament based in Tobruk in the east of the country that appointed him general commander of the Libyan Armed Forces, has yet to officially endorse the December 2015 political agreement. The HoR – or rather, those HoR members still operating in Tobruk – have also repeatedly refused to recognise the cabinet line-up proposed by the Presidency Council.
Haftar and eastern Libyan parliamentarians have demanded revisions to the proposed unity government and to security provisions, specifically regarding the position of the supreme commander of the armed forces (which according to the agreement should be held by the head of the Presidency Council and his five deputies). Haftar thus considers himself as the legitimate head of the Libyan army and accuses Presidency Council-aligned forces in Tripoli of being militias outside state control. Haftar detractors accuse him of using this legal requirement and the war against extremists as a pretext to impose his military rule across Libya. They also accuse him of relying on foreign mercenaries.
What does Haftar hope to achieve by taking over the terminals?
By seizing the oil terminals in the Gulf of Sirte, Haftar and his supporters are trying to achieve a number of goals. First, they hope to consolidate the LNA’s control across eastern Libya. Ever since launching his Operation Dignity in 2014 against extremist groups in Benghazi, forces allied to Haftar have gradually consolidated control over most of the east, from Tobruk to the western outskirts of Benghazi, and across the oil fields in the eastern hinterland. The move on the oil terminals is just a natural extension of this ongoing attempt to expand their control. Secondly, they are hoping to secure the support of tribal leaders and other constituencies opposed to the Presidency Council’s deal with Ibrahim Jadran, whom many across Libya – including within Libya’s National Oil Corporation – consider an unreliable partner. If Haftar were to swiftly reopen the ports and allow the National Oil Corporation to export oil, he could potentially cast himself as the person who allowed Libya’s oil to flow again and put new revenue in the country’s depleted coffers. Most importantly, by controlling the oil terminals, he could increase his bargaining power vis-à-vis the Presidency Council.
Why is controlling these terminals so important?
The crude oil export terminals in the Gulf of Sirte account for approximately 80% of Libya’s total oil exports (when oil is flowing at full capacity). In a country that depends almost entirely on oil and gas exports for its revenues, it is easy to see why their physical control is strategic. Unfortunately, since mid-2013 these terminals have remained offline, largely due to a power struggle between successive governments and local strongman Jadran, as well as to other political fractures that have divided the country since 2014. This has contributed (among other things) to a collapse of Libya’s oil production and thus a free fall in state revenues. Currently Libya produces approximately 200,000 barrels of crude oil a day, less than a fifth of what it was producing in 2012, and only half of which it appears to be exporting. (Natural-gas exports have not suffered as much, in part because of offshore production). Foreign-currency reserves have plummeted, with less than a year’s worth of funds in state coffers to run government operations and pay public-sector salaries.
At its establishment, one of the Presidency Council’s priorities was to increase oil exports in order to stabilise the economy, restore basic services (such as electricity and water supplies) and also fund future Presidency Council-backed projects. Securing control of the terminals was seen as key to achieving this. For this reason, in mid-2016, the Presidency Council struck an agreement with Jadran: in exchange for his recognition of the Presidency Council’s authority and reopening of the ports, the Presidency Council agreed to confirm him as the head of the Petroleum Facilities Guards in the area and to pay him and its employees. The Presidency Council also promised to create social-development projects in oil-rich areas. The deal appears to have been blessed by the Presidency Council’s international backers, most importantly by the US and UK. The UN special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, also supported the arrangement, visiting Jadran in late July.
The Presidency Council paid a first instalment of around 40 million Libyan dinars (some $30-million) to Jadran in June; future instalments are conditional on the ports’ reopening and resumption of exports. However, no exports from the terminals have taken place thus far. A challenge to Jadran’s ability to reopen the terminals has been the fact that, in the last five months, Haftar-aligned forces gradually gained control of a number of oil fields (such as those in the Zella and Jalo areas) that feed into these terminals.
So is the current situation going to strain Libya’s economy further?
This largely depends on whether or not we are going to see a military response from anti-Haftar forces. An escalation would be disastrous for the current economy because fighting in the terminal area is not likely to be decisive west of Sidra and could actually damage the oil and gas infrastructure and delay further the resumption of oil exports. On the other hand, if LNA forces were to maintain control of the terminals we could see a swifter resumption of oil exports. This might sound paradoxical given the LNA’s hostility to the Presidency Council. However, one has to take into consideration the fact that the National Oil Corporation, the authority that manages the country’s oil production and sales, has a good working relation with the LNA. Over the past two years, the Hariga oil terminal in Tobruk, which is under control of LNA-affiliated forces, has continued to export oil, with revenues from those sales going into accounts of the Tripoli-based Central Bank. So, in principle, there would be no obstacles to resuming exports from these terminals with the LNA in control.
What needs to happen next?
A first urgent step would need to be to de-escalate current tensions and avoid a renewed flare-up. The Presidency Council should refrain from launching a military offensive to recapture the terminals and instead engage in negotiations (either directly or through third parties) with LNA commanders to establish a new security arrangement in the terminals area that would be amenable to the LNA, local tribesmen, the Presidency Council as well as the National Oil Corporation.
From the Presidency Council’s point of view, the incentive to pursue this line of action rather than military confrontation would be the quick resumption of oil exports and resulting flow of revenues, beneficial to both itself and the population at large. With the economy collapsing, the Presidency Council has the responsibility to factor in such considerations rather than pursue military objectives that would likely lead to prolonged conflict, with severe consequences for the population. The Presidency Council’s international backers should also refrain from encouraging a military response, and instead should call for a freezing of hostilities in order to allow negotiations to take place. In this regard, the US and neighbouring Egypt, who have been backing respectively the Presidency Council-aligned and Haftar-aligned forces, have a key role to play. They, too, have an interest in encouraging steps that would help improve the economy.
From its side, the LNA must stand by its promise to work through the internationally recognised National Oil Corporation, as per UN Security Council resolutions, and collaborate in ensuring a rapid resumption of oil exports from the terminals under its control. The LNA and its local allies must also refrain from targeting people’s homes and ensure that these forces do not interfere in civilian life, limiting themselves to guarding oil facilities. DM
Photo: A file picture dated 26 December 2014 showing smoke rising from a large fuel depot fire, al-Sidra, Libya, during fighting. EPA/STRINGER
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved