Libya's conflict revolves around power and oil

Libya's conflict revolves around power and oil
Comment: Battles over the oil crescent and the capital are framing the ongoing civil war, writes Guma El-Gamaty.
7 min read
16 Mar, 2017
GNA troops have battled IS affiliates in Sirte, while also fighting in Tripoli [AFP]

The conflict between competing groups and factions in Libya that has been marring the country since the fall of the Gaddafi regime is not showing any signs of easing. In fact, it is rapidly intensifying.

In reality, it's a conflict over power and wealth, in a country that is very rich in natural resources but which has experienced no form of constitutional rule for nearly half a century.

As soon as the one-man absolute rule of Muammar Gaddafi was dismantled six years ago, Libyans found themselves with an aftermath of a political and security vacuum. The inability of the Libyan people to peacefully agree upon a new constitution and begin the process of state building, guaranteeing a fair sharing of power and wealth, has led to the conflict being experienced today.

There have been two main escalation points in the past two weeks that have raised the intensity of violence and war.

One is to be found in the "oil crescent" ports based in the middle of the Libyan coast. The other in the capital city, Tripoli, where almost half of the Libyan population - around three million people - are residing.

The oil crescent, "the strategic area, which contains a large concentration of the country's oil production, has been a point of contention among the rival factions fighting for control of the country", reports Zineb Abdessadok for Al Jazeera.

Ideally, the oil crescent region and other oil facilities in the country should be spared completely from the conflict

Clearly, whosoever controls the oil crescent region, effectively controls the oil and Libya's wealth, while whosoever controls Tripoli, where the Government of National Accord (GNA) is currently based, effectively controls the seat of power in the country.

Military control of the oil crescent has changed hands twice in the past six months. Forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar swiftly took over the oil installations on 11 September, expelling a local militia headed by Ibrahim Jadhran.

After two previous failed attempts, a faction opposed to Haftar, calling itself the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) marched again on March 3, taking control of the oil crescent region with very little resistance. A spokesman for the BDB, claimed that "the aim of the operation was to help those who had been displaced return to their homes - in Benghazi - after years of displacement".

Ideally, the oil crescent region and other oil facilities in the country should be spared completely from the conflict. Oil wealth is the main source of income for Libya and its people, with any damage or hindrance to its production and export having direct consequences for the entire population.

Any reduction or halt in oil exports, which recently rose to more than 700,000 barrels per day, will shatter attempts to replenish depleting Libyan financial reserves and deepen the economic suffering of the Libyan people.

Read more: Tripoli ceasefire declared after ex-PM injured in shootout

The BDB control of the oil crescent region only lasted ten days, before forces loyal to Haftar, aided by airstrikes, advanced on them from the east on 13 March - regaining control and expelling the BDB forces westwards.

The swift recapturing of the oil ports by Haftar's forces shows that the conflict between Libya's competing factions is not easing up.

"It is not yet clear who will win the fight for the oil crescent, but the rift between east and west will certainly deepen. If fighting continues near the terminals, oil exports will be halted," reported Wolfgang Pusztal and Arnaud Delalande for Middle East Eye.

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Capital gains

Meanwhile, heavy fighting also flared up yet again in the capital, Tripoli, and quickly spread to several heavily populated parts of the city - creating havoc and forcing civilians to remain indoors.

The fighting broke out on Tuesday 14 March between armed groups aligned to the UN-backed GNA and groups supporting the previous administration, the non-recognised government of "National Salvation", established in Tripoli in the summer of 2014.

"By Wednesday, guards belonging to the Central Security of Abu Salim brigade, which is aligned with the GNA, were posted outside the Rixos hotel complex, where the head of the National Salvation Government, Khalifa Ghwell, had established a base," reported Reuters.

The Rixos compound had also earlier become the place of residence for the recently established Libyan State Council, an advisory body to the GNA, before it was expelled to other premises by Ghwell's backers a few months ago.

Read more: Exclusive interview with Abdulrahman Sewehli, president of the Libyan State Council

Khalifa Ghwell was himself reportedly injured in the latest fighting, just before he escaped the compound with his followers.

"The offices of a television station sympathetic to the self-declared National Salvation Government were burned down in the clashes and the channel went off air. A hospital was also hit," Reuters reported.

The heavy fighting in Tripoli has been the most widespread witnessed in the city for a long time. Schools and government offices in Tripoli have been closed because of the deteriorating security situation. The ferocity of the fighting indicates an intention by the groups aligned with and supporting the GNA to expel groups which oppose the GNA and to the entire UN-sponsored political deal.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the political polarisation in Libya is deadlocked around two main factions seeking to impose their control

If the pro-GNA security forces seize the upper hand and bring the whole of Tripoli under their control, this will help to strengthen the position of the GNA - which has so far failed to impose its authority and make a difference to improving the plight of Libyans in general. 

It is becoming increasingly evident that the political polarisation in Libya is deadlocked around two main factions seeking to impose their control and authority on the entire country.

The first is the UN-backed, internationally recognised GNA, based in Tripoli and supported by security forces who are currently waging an operation in the capital to eliminate the threat from opposing groups.

The other side is General Haftar and his supporters, based mainly in the east of the country. Haftar has been appointed as general commander of the army by the House of Representatives (HoR), based in Tobruk. Although the HoR is recognised by many as the parliament of Libya, the rival administration, headed by Abdullah Thinni, is not internationally recognised.

Haftar has, however, been enjoying political and logistical support from Egypt, UAE, Jordan, France and recently Russia, and dominates the eastern administration, defying the GNA's authority.

Opponents of Haftar accuse him of working to achieve his ambition of ruling Libya and turning back the clock to before the 2011 revolution, and to the days of one-man military rule.

The escalation and intensity of the recent military clashes, both in the oil crescent region and in the capital, reflect the worrying reality that Libya remains in a deep state of civil war. The conflict, as it stands, has no end in sight and could continue for years to come, following similar trends of instability that have been blighting Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.

There are many factors driving this conflict, including the inability of Libyan factions to resolve their differences through dialogue, reconciliation and consensus.

But the most influential factor is regional and international interference, with foreign countries competing for influence in shaping Libya's new order, in a way that serves their own interests above those of libya's people. Arab and other countries are providing support to the Libyan factions they back, by financing and arming them to fight a proxy war on their behalf.

Most European countries, on the other hand, seem to be concerned with two main issues vis-a-vis Libya; terrorism and illegal immigration.

Once these two sources of threats are eliminated or significantly reduced, then Europe is content with pursuing a "containment" policy in Libya. As long as the immediate danger to Europe is minimised, there will be no urgency to help resolve the internal conflict and divisions among Libyans.

Unfortunately, as long as there is rivalry and divergence in the ambitions and politics of countries interfering in Libya, combined with the willingness of Libyan individuals and groups to be used as proxies for outside players, then there will be a prolonged period of violence, suffering and discord.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab