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Libya: No Political Deal Yet
Libya: No Political Deal Yet
New Libyan Militia’s Oil Strike Risks Wider Conflagration
New Libyan Militia’s Oil Strike Risks Wider Conflagration
President of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord of Libya Faiez Mustafa Serraj attends the 28th Ordinary Summit of the Arab League at the Dead Sea, Jordan March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Hamed

Libya: No Political Deal Yet

On 2 May 2017, the head of Libya’s internationally recognised government, Faiez al-Serraj, and his major military opponent, General Khalifa Haftar, met for the first time in over a year. Crisis Group’s Libya Senior Analyst Claudia Gazzini says talk of a deal is premature.

What do you think of the reported UAE-brokered deal between Serraj and Haftar? Some describe it as a major breakthrough. Do you agree?

The fact that Serraj and Haftar met is undoubtedly a positive development and could signal the opening of new channels of communication. It has been more than a year since their last meeting in Libya. Since then relations between them have been tense, some would even say frozen. The meeting was significant because currently they represent two key actors: respectively, the head of the internationally recognised government and the commander of a military coalition that considers itself the national army (but is not recognised as such by the Serraj government). There can be little hope for a meaningful dialogue over Libya’s future without them.

But that doesn’t mean that we now have a deal. Some Libyan social media outlets suggested that in the course of the Abu Dhabi meeting Serraj and Haftar had reached an understanding. Some Libyan commentators even hailed the supposed terms of what they referred to as an agreement. This is an excessively hopeful depiction of what happened. As far as I understand, one side (Haftar and/or the hosts in the United Arab Emirates) put the outline of a deal on the table, and there is no agreement yet on moving forward on those terms.

Why was there no agreement?

At first sight, the proposed agreement that circulated on social media would seem acceptable as a broad framework. It talks about the unity of the army, fighting terrorism and government restructuring, and proposes holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018. But the devil is in the details. Upon closer analysis, it is a lopsided agreement that does not take into consideration the position and sensitivities of the political and military factions that oppose Haftar. Nor can it win the backing of those who, while recognising Serraj, do not necessarily feel represented by him. This is probably why Serraj did not sign on. It would be better understood as an opening bid in a negotiation.

The main point of contention is the proposed re-composition of the Presidency Council (PC), the UN-backed rump executive headed by Serraj that took office in Tripoli in March 2016. According to the proposed deal, PC membership would be reduced from nine (as configured in the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, although three members have already left) to three. The downsizing in itself is not a problem, since most Libyan stakeholders agree that the PC in its current form is dysfunctional and too large. But under the proposed agreement the new PC’s three members would be Serraj, the head of the House of Representatives (HoR), and the armed forces commander. The latter two are Aghela Saleh and Khalifa Haftar, respectively. Because these two are allied, this setup would give the constituencies they represent (and who have refused to recognise the PC’s authority and legitimacy) the upper hand. I doubt that current PC members would voluntarily give up their positions to this triumvirate.

For many Libyans it is essential that the future army be placed under civilian oversight.

The other issue of contention is how the proposal deals with the army. For many Libyans it is essential that the future army be placed under civilian oversight. The draft proposal says that the army will come under the PC’s authority but, as mentioned above, in its new line-up the PC would include the armed forces commander, so it would not be a truly civilian body. This is a very controversial point that will draw opposition from anti-Haftar activists and various armed factions. The very broad wording regarding “fighting terrorism” is similarly controversial, because anti-Haftar factions routinely accuse him and members of his Libyan National Army of labelling as terrorist anybody who opposes them.

Other provisions, such as the call for national reconciliation and exiles’ right to return, are less controversial and could find broad support. But unfortunately, these are not the issues that will solve the political and institutional mess the country is in.

What about the proposed elections? Can there really be elections within a year?

In principle, if there were a broad political agreement between the various political factions and duelling state institutions, and a rapprochement among the militias, elections could take place next year. But we are not there yet. There is no political, institutional or military agreement in place, so practically, how could elections be staged? Who could pass an electoral law in the absence of a functioning parliament able to reach a quorum? Who will organise the ballot boxes? Who will provide security? Will people be able to campaign freely?

There is no political, institutional or military agreement in place, so practically, how could elections be staged?

It is true that, these questions notwithstanding, many believe that the only way to end Libya’s divisions is through new elections. These are mainly people who support the House of Representatives-linked anti-Islamist factions and who believe that, if given a chance to vote, Libyans will show that the vast majority are against the UN-mediated power-sharing agreement and against Islamists. There is no doubt that Haftar and several other Qadhafi-era figures believe they stand a good chance of winning presidential elections if given a chance to run.

But there also are others who oppose early elections. They either claim that a new constitution should be drafted first or think that in the current institutional mayhem it is better to keep the Presidency Council (PC) as Libya’s internationally-recognised decision-making body.

So is this all just smoke and mirrors?

There have been some signals of possible openings for dialogue in recent weeks but nothing concrete has materialised. The main factions seem keen to hold on to whatever power they still retain rather than engaging in new negotiations. We are still far even from having a new framework agreement’s basic terms of reference. This means that the political crisis (with its violent spillovers) will most likely continue without a decisive settlement in 2017. Although various political actors contest the legitimacy of both the PC and the associated Government of National Accord, a lack of consensus among Libyans, neighbouring states and international stakeholders on what should replace it suggests these institutions will remain in place even as their effectiveness deteriorates and opponents consolidate their positions.

Ordinary Libyans seem to suffer more from the economic downturn than from militia fighting or lack of central government.

Ordinary Libyans seem to suffer more from the economic downturn than from militia fighting or lack of central government. Three years of low oil production have depleted foreign-currency reserves, pushed up prices for imports (most basic goods are imported) and caused liquidity shortages. In many ways people have grown accustomed to constant clashes among armed groups and to the existence of three parallel rival governments (aside from the Tripoli-based internationally recognised government of Serraj, there are two other rival governments respectively headed by Abdullah al-Thinni based in the East and by Khalifa Ghwell in Tripoli). They also no longer labour under the illusion that peace is around the corner (although most really hope it is). But what most people find very difficult to cope with is how much poorer they have become in relative terms due to rising prices and cash shortages.

What would be the risks for Serraj in going along with the proposed outline deal?

It is simply impossible for Serraj to accept this agreement as is. I think he has enough political acumen to understand this himself. The risk to him of accepting a deal like this is that he would not be able to return to Tripoli. Most military factions in the capital and in nearby Misrata, including those that nominally support the PC, oppose the terms of the deal as presented and would consider Serraj’s acceptance as nothing short of capitulation.

Is the proposed agreement supported by the international community?

The agreement as outlined appears to enjoy the support of the UAE, as they arranged and hosted the Haftar-Serraj meeting and have backed Haftar both politically and militarily for the past three years. It is no secret that they wish to see individuals tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist currents removed from power. On that basis, we can suppose that Egypt, too, is pleased with the proposal, but we have yet to see official comment from Cairo, which has agreed to host a follow-up meeting between the two men. Algeria, on the other hand, which took the lead on a competing initiative earlier this year is unlikely to support what it would consider a partisan deal. Likewise, I suppose that Turkey and Qatar, the traditional backers of political and military factions close to anti-Haftar circles in Tripoli and Misrata, would also not support this. Even some Western countries and the UN, which led the 2015-2016 political negotiations, might consider the proposed deal a non-starter for being one-sided and not deriving from serious negotiations, but none have issued official comments so far.

So what should happen to reach a workable deal? 

What happened in Abu Dhabi assumes that any arrangement between Haftar and Serraj will in and of itself be enough to secure a deal. This is not the case. These two men do not represent Libya. There are numerous other groups with political, military and economic weight; any deal must take on board these constituencies as well. Some other things will also need to happen, most importantly greater international convergence on Libya’s future. The Libyan peace process has been adrift for months, partly because of the uncertainty that followed the November 2016 U.S. presidential elections: the Obama administration had been a champion of the UN-driven process, but its successor in Washington has yet to unveil its Libya policy. This has given an opportunity for regional actors to pursue their own initiatives, often acting at cross-purposes.

For any breakthrough to happen, regional and international actors should agree to at least a basic idea of what they would like to achieve and halt their military support for the various Libyan factions. There is also an urgent need to appoint a new UN special representative to replace the outgoing one, Martin Kobler, whose departure was initially announced in December 2016. This new UN special representative is needed to coordinate and converge the various initiatives now on the table, even while leaving it to Libyans to lead the process and its direction.

Buildings destroyed by fighting line a road in Benghazi, on 19 July 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Claudia Gazzini.

New Libyan Militia’s Oil Strike Risks Wider Conflagration

Libyan factions are once again fighting for control of key oil installations in the Gulf of Sirte’s “oil crescent”. The latest offensive risks reducing Libya’s oil production and is undermining efforts to broker a peace deal. In this Q&A Claudia Gazzini, Senior Analyst for Libya, assesses the fallout.

Fighting broke out again in Libya on 3 March 2017, with an attack on oil facilities in the Gulf of Sirte led by a new formation known as the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB). Should the outside world be concerned?

The fighting is mostly local so far. The main parties are General Khalifa Haftar, the main military power in the east, whose forces seized the Sirte “oil crescent” in September 2016, and a group formed last year called the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB), which is mainly based in western Libya.

The main risks are that the fighting could spread to the eastern port of Benghazi, Libya’s second city, the BDB’s stated objective; that oil exports and then oil production, already slightly down due to the clashes, could fall further at a time when the country is in dire need of cash flow; and that the violence could further damage efforts to knit back, in a more inclusive fashion, the eastern and western halves of Libya around the internationally recognised administration, the Government of National Accord (GNA).

What is the BDB and what is its link to Benghazi?

The BDB (in Arabic, Soraya Difaa Benghazi) was formed in 2016 and is a loose coalition of fighters, some of whom – as the name of the group implies – are from Benghazi in the east of the country but have fled to western Libya. Much of the BDB is based in the west, between Tripoli, Misrata and Jufra. They have no official status and their political allegiance is varied: most of the fighters nominally support the internationally recognised Presidency Council (PC) and the GNA in Tripoli, but a smaller group recognises the rival government in Tripoli, led by Khalifa Ghwell, and his ally Sadiq al-Ghariani, the hardline Islamist Mufti of Tripoli. Some have no political affiliation at all.

The primary aim of the BDB is to open a supply route to Benghazi, specifically to the Ganfouda neighbourhood which has been under siege for several months.

The relationship between the BDB and the PC/GNA is complex and somewhat unclear. While the GNA’s Minister of Defense, al-Mahdi al-Barghati, supports the group, as do some members of the PC, the PC has officially condemned the attack and stated it had no ties to the BDB. The core fighters of the BDB are young people from Benghazi who vowed to push Haftar’s forces out of the city but they are also joined by other groups, including former members of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist  group that has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the UN. It also includes supporters of Ibrahim Jedran, a local strongman who used to control the oil terminals in the area prior to being ousted by Haftar in September 2016.

What unites the BDB is that they oppose Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) is the dominant force in Benghazi and the rest of eastern Libya.

Can you tell us what has happened and why this attack is important?

This is the third time the BDB carried out an offensive in the Gulf of Sirte. There was one attack in July 2016 further east towards Benghazi. Another last December struck around the Gulf of Sirte’s oil facilities, mainly in Sidra and Ras Lanuf. In both cases the BDB was pushed back. This time, however, it managed to take control of the oil facilities in Sidra and Ras Lanuf and have moved further east towards Brega, some 200km west of Benghazi.

This advance took place with limited clashes and, fortunately, no damage to the oil facilities. The BDB managed to oust the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) headed by Muftah Magharief, a force allied to Haftar, from the key oil terminals of Sidra and Ras Lanuf. Since the attack, the BDB has reportedly handed over control of the facilities to other PFG forces loyal to Idris Bukhamada, another local commander whom the PC appointed as the new head of the PFG just a week before the offensive. The BDB claims that its aim was to expel Haftar’s forces, but not keep control of the facilities – it has stated it intends to proceed further east and reach Benghazi. Nonetheless, Crisis Group sources knowledgeable about the situation in the Gulf of Sirte say neither Bukhamada nor new PFG forces under him have physically taken over security of the oil terminals – BDB forces are still stationed there.

Haftar’s forces were able to push back previous attacks and have been holding these oil facilities since last September. Why have they lost control of the oil terminals now?

It’s hard to know exactly what happened on the ground but it is clear that Haftar’s forces have been spread thin over the last few months. The bulk of his LNA forces that were stationed in and around the oil terminals were relocated elsewhere, meaning that the facilities were defended mainly by Haftar-aligned PFG forces, without a lot of military backing. When the BDB attacked the area, the PFG quickly retreated east. The other important difference in this attack seems to be that the forces from the BDB came from multiple directions, learning the lessons of their previous strategic mistakes, such as travelling in big convoys on the main tarmac road across the oil terminal area and thus rendering themselves vulnerable to Haftar’s air force. This time, however, they came from the desert, from the west, and from the south, which caught the PFG by surprise. There are allegations that the BDB also used some form of surface-to-air defence mechanism, which protected them from airstrikes. Whether this equipment was provided by foreign backers, Libyan allies or simply purchased on the local weapons market remains unclear. Since Friday’s attack, eastern forces have also launched airstrikes in an attempt to regain control.

How is the BDB viewed in Libya?

The BDB is controversial. Beyond General Haftar’s forces, the political authorities in the east (where another government, not recognised by the international community, operates) consider it to be a terrorist group. In an email to Crisis Group, the foreign minister of this east-based government, Mohamed Dayri, called the perpetrators of the attack “groups which are evidently affiliated with and supported by al-Qaeda”. This is a charge rejected by the BDB, although some of its defenders admit that its fighters include what they say are “moderate” members of Ansar al-Sharia. As is often the case in Libya, the picture is blurred: a number of al-Qaeda linked social media outlets have reported on the BDB offensive, and an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram even posted a video of the BDB forces inside the ports.

The attack sets the stage for an escalation in the conflict, especially if the various political and military actors in Libya begin reaching out to their international allies.

But it is not only people in eastern Libya who consider this group problematic. In 2016, when the first attack by the BDB took place, the PC issued a statement labelling the BDB as a terrorist group it included some members of Ansar al-Sharia. This time they condemned the attack calling it a “dangerous escalation” but did not say the BDB is a terrorist group. Yet public opinion in western Libya appears to have changed recently, as the BDB is viewed more sympathetically by those in Tripoli and Misrata, and it is often portrayed simplistically as an anti-Haftar force. Consequently, the BDB continues to be joined by some fighters from the area of the oil terminals in the Gulf of Sirte, mainly those who are disgruntled with Haftar and are seeking to return to their areas in a more powerful position.

The BDB has announced its solidarity with other groups under siege by Haftar’s forces in Benghazi, and is threatening to march on the city. Could this be the beginning of a bigger conflagration?

It could certainly be the opening of a frontline between military forces in the east under Haftar and military forces from Tripoli and Misrata in the west. It is clear that the primary aim of the BDB is to open a supply route to Benghazi, specifically to the Ganfouda neighbourhood which has been under siege for several months by Haftar’s forces, and allow the return of displaced families. If they are able to advance to Benghazi, this would mean a new escalation of fighting in and around the city.

Of course, there will be political ramifications as well because this attack and the movement of the BDB through the oil crescent was condemned by the parliament in the east, the House of Representatives (HoR). Several dozen of its members have since voted to withdraw from the ongoing UN-backed dialogue that was supposed to put an end to the political fractures that have divided Libya since 2014. HoR members also appear to have rescinded their support for renegotiation of the Libyan Political Agreement, the UN-brokered deal that has failed to take hold since it was signed in December 2015.

Politicians in the east are now even less willing to keep open channels of communication with the Presidency Council in Tripoli. The PC’s appointment of a new PFG head while the BDB offensive was being planned is, from the perspective of one eastern politician we spoke to, “politically insane and morally unacceptable, as it amounts to cooperating closely with al-Qaeda and at least being its accomplices in an escalation of the military situation”.

There are many unanswered questions about the relationship between the BDB and at least some members of internationally backed Government of National Accord – particularly the Minister of Defence, al-Mahdi al-Barghati, as Crisis Group described after the failed December 2016 offensive. In any case, the attack sets the stage for an escalation in the conflict, especially if the various political and military actors in Libya begin reaching out to their international allies to either support this attack or to take measures to counter it.

Oil production and exports have increased over the last six months from a low of around 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) last year to over 700,000 bpd at the beginning of 2017.  If some of these facilities become blocked as a result of the attack, what will the economic consequences be?

Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), which is the state-owned entity that manages hydrocarbon production and exports, has had to relocate all its staff from the oil export terminals of Sidra and Ras Lanuf to nearby housing facilities. At the moment, the NOC is unable to load ships and therefore crude oil exports are probably going to decrease in the next few weeks.

If the situation on the ground does not change, a further decrease in crude oil production can also be expected. Since Friday’s attack, oil production dipped by more than 10 per cent to 620,000 bpd.

This comes at a very difficult time, as Libya has already suffered more than three years of negative growth; it has a huge deficit due to closures in the oil fields and terminals, and only since last September has oil production increased. The country needs the revenue from oil exports in order to stay afloat financially. If oil production continues to decrease because of the insecurity in these key oil terminals, then the outlook will continue to look bleak for Libyans who are already suffering from the economic downfall.

Libya’s neighbours have recently attempted to encourage a dialogue between the Tripoli-based GNA and the eastern government that backs General Haftar. How does the latest offensive affect those efforts?

The latest BDB offensive is certainly going to undermine these initiatives by Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, and puts in doubt their hopes of arranging a joint summit.

An important player in the dialogue is Egypt and its response will be important. Cairo is an ally of General Haftar and has mostly backed him over the past few years. Egypt has continued to militarily support Haftar while also offering diplomatic support to the internationally recognised Presidency Council. Although Egypt would like to see the two come together, it sees the BDB as linked to hardline Islamist and possibly jihadist groups and will find it difficult to accept its control of oil terminals or advance toward Benghazi.

The country needs the revenue from oil exports in order to stay afloat financially.

Since the latest fighting erupted, Egypt has issued a statement asking all parties to go to the negotiating table to continue dialogue and to find an agreement over the control over the oil terminals. But a more steadfast reaction is likely in the near future if this offensive on the ground continues.

It is noteworthy that the BDB attack was also condemned by a joint statement by the UK, the U.S., and France. But another important western player in Libya – Italy – adopted a more pragmatic stance: Italian officials did not condemn the BDB offensive and praised the deployment of pro-PC forces in the oil crescent as “a step in the right direction”. It is unclear what deployment they are referring to since, as mentioned earlier, PC-appointed PFG forces have not been deployed yet.

Does a negotiated solution over the management of the oil facilities seem likely?

A central problem appears to be that Libya’s NOC, in charge of managing these oil facilities, has had absolutely no contact with the BDB fighters who are now in control on the ground, and has not been made party to any agreement about assigning the control of these oil facilities to a new PFG force. There are some local-level negotiations taking place between tribal leaders in the area, but these mainly concern whether or not the tribes in the Gulf of Sirte will tolerate the forces of the BDB in the area and let them proceed towards Benghazi.

It is possible these negotiations will be able to de-escalate the rising tensions in the short term. But in order to strike a more durable settlement over the management of oil wealth in the bigger picture of Libya, there has to be more dramatic rethinking of the situation by all parties. Specifically, what needs to be negotiated is the security structure of who is in charge of securing Libya’s oil fields and terminals, with which forces and under whose command. Making progress in these talks, even in the absence of a broader political deal, will be crucial first step to reaching a grand bargain over Libya’s national oil wealth and in stabilising the country’s frail economy.