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After Libya’s Oil Grab, Compromise Could Lead to a Restart of Exports
After Libya’s Oil Grab, Compromise Could Lead to a Restart of Exports
Members of the Libyan army stand after a fire broke out at a car tyre disposal plant during clashes against Islamist gunmen in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on 23 December 2014. AFP/Abdullah Doma
Report 157 / Middle East & North Africa

Libya: Getting Geneva Right

After six months of worsening clashes, Libya is on the brink of all-out civil war and catastrophic state collapse. All parties must press the two rival authorities to join a national unity government, resolutely uphold the UN arms embargo, and persuade regional actors to stop fuelling the conflict.

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Executive Summary

Libya’s deteriorating internal conflict may be nearing a dramatic turning point. Over six months of fighting between two parliaments, their respective governments and allied militias have led to the brink of all-out war. On the current trajectory, the most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse, financial reserves (based on oil and gas revenues and spent on food and refined fuel imports) will be depleted, and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially. Radical groups, already on the rise as the beheading of 21 Egyptians and deadly bombings by the Libyan franchise of the Islamic State (IS) attest, will find fertile ground, while regional involvement – evidenced by retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes – will increase. Actors with a stake in Libya’s future should seize on the UN’s January diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva that points to a possible peaceful way out; but to get a deal between Libyan factions – the best base from which to counter jihadis – they must take more decisive and focused supportive action than they yet have.

Since mid-2014, fighting has spread and intensified. Aerial bombardment and attacks on civilian infrastructure have increased; at least 1,000 Libyans have died (some estimates are as high as 2,500), many of them non-combatants; and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have increased from 100,000 to 400,000. The fledging post-Qadhafi state is beginning to buckle: basic goods and fuel are in short supply; in some urban areas people no longer have reliable access to communications or electricity and are using firewood for cooking. The likelihood of major militia offensives in cities like Benghazi raises the spectre of humanitarian disaster. Moreover, Libya faces the prospect of insolvency within the next few years as a result of falling oil revenue and faltering economic governance, as militias battle for the ultimate prize: its oil infrastructure and financial institutions.

As the crisis has deepened, the positions of the rival camps have hardened, and their rhetoric has become more incendiary. Libyans, who united to overthrow Qadhafi in 2011, now vie for support from regional patrons by casting their dispute in terms of Islamism and anti-Islamism or revolution and counter-revolution. The conflict’s reality, however, is a much more complex, multilayered struggle over the nation’s political and economic structure that has no military solution. A negotiated resolution is the only way forward, but the window is closing fast.

The two rounds of talks the UN hosted in Geneva on 14-15 and 26-27 January 2015 mark a minor breakthrough: for the first time since September 2014, representatives of some of the factions comprising the two main rival blocs met and tentatively agreed to a new framework that will at least extend the talks. This is testimony to the tenacity and relentless shuttle diplomacy of Bernardino León, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative. The road is long, and there will be setbacks, for example if parties refuse to participate or pull out; the General National Council (GNC) in Tripoli only belatedly agreed to participate in the talks, while the Tobruk-based House of Representative (HoR) announced it was suspending its participation in them on 23 February. Yet, this is the only political game in town and the only hope that a breakdown into open warfare can be avoided. To build on León’s initiative and ensure that ongoing discussion produces an agreement with nationwide support, however, members of the international community supporting a negotiated outcome must reframe their approach and do more to support him.

The way in which they have tended to frame the conflict should be modified first. The dominant approach to the parties has been to assess their legitimacy. The question, however, should no longer be which parliament, the HoR or the GNC, is more legitimate or what legal argument can be deployed to buttress that legitimacy. Chaos on the ground and the exclusionary behaviour of both camps have made that moot. An international approach that is premised on the notion the HoR is more legitimate because elected but does not take into account how representative it really is encourages it to pursue a military solution. Conversely, it feeds GNC suspicion that the international community seeks to marginalise or even eradicate the forces that see themselves as “revolutionary” (among them, notably, Islamists), as has happened elsewhere in the region.

Libya needs a negotiated political bargain and an international effort that channels efforts toward that goal. Outside actors will have to offer both sides incentives for participation and make clear that there will be consequences for those who escalate the conflict. Immediate steps should be taken to reduce the arms flow into the country and prevent either camp from taking over its wealth. The alternative would only lead to catastrophe and should not be an option.

In sum, the UN Security Council and others supportive of a negotiated political solution should:

  • de-emphasise “legitimacy” in public statements and instead put the onus on participation in the UN-led negotiations and on behaviour on the ground, notably adherence to ceasefires and calls to de-escalate. Rather than interpreting the legal and constitutional consequences of the Supreme Court’s ambiguous ruling on this question, they should indicate that those consequences are best negotiated as part of a wider roadmap toward a new constitution and permanent representative institutions;
  • be more forthright in confronting regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support – notably Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and encourage them to press their Libyan allies to negotiate in good faith in pursuit of a political settlement. Military intervention on counter-terrorism grounds, as requested by Egypt, would torpedo the political process, and for now should be opposed. Regional actors who attempt to support negotiations, notably Algeria and Tunisia, should be encouraged and helped;
  • devise, without prejudice to the UN’s efforts to achieve reconciliation, political and military strategies to fight terrorism in coordination with Libyan political forces from both camps but refrain from supporting outside military intervention to combat the IS. The GNC and its supporters should unambiguously condemn IS actions, and the HoR should refrain from politicising them.
  • keep in place the UN arms embargo, expressly reject its full or partial lifting and strengthen its implementation to the extent possible;
  • consider UN sanctions against individuals only if so advised by the Secretary-General and his representative. If enacted, they should be linked to the political process and applied or lifted according to transparent criteria for individuals on all sides, focusing on incitement to or participation in violence; and
  • protect the neutrality and independence of financial and petroleum institutions: the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Company (NOC) and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA); and ensure that these manage the national wealth to address the basic needs of the people and contribute to a negotiated political solution.

Tripoli/Brussels, 26 February 2015

Oil terminal of the Sirte Oil Company in Brega, Libya, in June 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Claudia Gazzini

After Libya’s Oil Grab, Compromise Could Lead to a Restart of Exports

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 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 (PC) based in Tripoli in the west of the country, backed by the UN and also supported by the U.S. 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 (PFG) 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 counter-offensive to retake the terminals, requesting help from the PC.

Map of Libya showing major oil installations. CRISIS GROUP/Claudia Gazzini

What does this mean for the UN-backed Libyan PC? And what is the PC’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 PC’s authority and has refused to place his forces under its command. That these forces have managed to dislodge a strategic (albeit controversial) PC ally and succeeded (at least so far) in taking Libya’s most important oil terminals is inflammatory.

The PC, 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 PC’s authority. Military factions in central/western Libya that do not fall under the PC’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 Prize: Libya's Hydrocarbon Wealth

In this video, our Senior Libya Analyst, Claudia Gazzini, explains the overlapping struggles to control Libya's vast oil wealth. Crisis Group

The situation remains fluid. The decision about how to respond is complicated by the fact that PC-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-PC 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-PC 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 PC?

Haftar has repeatedly refused to come under the PC’s authority for both political and military reasons. The political basis for his refusal to recognise the PC 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 PC.

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 PC and his five deputies). Haftar thus considers himself as the legitimate head of the Libyan army and accuses PC-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 PC’s deal with Ibrahim Jadran, whom many across Libya – including within Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) – consider an unreliable partner. If Haftar were to swiftly reopen the ports and allow the NOC 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 PC.

Heavy smoke rises from Brega oil refinery, June 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Claudia Gazzini

Why is controlling these terminals so important?

The crude oil export terminals in the Gulf of Sirte account for approximately 80 per cent 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 PC’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 PC-backed projects. Securing control of the terminals was seen as key to achieving this. For this reason, in mid-2016, the PC struck an agreement with Jadran: in exchange for his recognition of the PC’s authority and reopening of the ports, the PC agreed to confirm him as the head of the Petroleum Facilities Guards in the area and to pay him and its employees. The PC also promised to create social-development projects in oil-rich areas. The deal appears to have been blessed by the PC’s international backers, most importantly by the U.S. and UK. The UN special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, also supported the arrangement, visiting Jadran in late July.

The PC 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 PC. However, one has to take into consideration the fact that the NOC, 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 PC 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 PC as well as the NOC.

From the PC’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 PC 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 PC’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 U.S. and neighbouring Egypt, who have been backing respectively the PC-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 NOC, 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.