New Libyan Militia’s Oil Strike Risks Wider Conflagration
New Libyan Militia’s Oil Strike Risks Wider Conflagration
Buildings destroyed by fighting line a road in Benghazi, on 19 July 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Claudia Gazzini.
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 11 minutes

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.

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