Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Move on oil crescent

Recent successes by Khalifa Haftar against the Petroleum Facilities Guards militia presage a shift in balances in Libya’s delicate internal political fabric, writes Kamel Abdallah

Move on oil crescent
Move on oil crescent
Al-Ahram Weekly

On 11 September, the forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar announced that they had seized control of the oil fields in the area in Libya known as “the petroleum crescent”. Haftar’s forces succeeded in driving out the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG), which had controlled that economically strategic area for nearly three years. As the PFG leadership had recently aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, the Haftar operation may significantly shift political balances, altering the course of the two-year long civil war and severely jeopardising the fragile political agreement signed by Libyan factions in Skhirat in mid-December last year. Rejectionists, one of whom is Haftar, have demanded renewed negotiations over portions of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA).
 
The petroleum crescent contains four main oil exporting ports, including Zueitina and Ras Lanuf, and a large number of oil fields owned and operated by various local and international firms in partnership with the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), the main agency that oversees oil production and trade. The petroleum crescent area extends from the west of Ajdabiya, which is located 160 kilometres south of Benghazi, to Wadi Al-Ahmar to the east of Sirte in the west.  
 
The Haftar campaign in the petroleum crescent area threw an already tense and confused political arena into pandemonium. But while some parties tried to appeal for restraint and prudence, the factions opposed to the LPA sought to take advantage of the situation in order to press for renewed negotiations over this agreement.
 
A crucial factor in the new state of play has to do with the shifting alliances of the PFG, which had controlled the petroleum crescent since 2013. The PFG had been regarded as a militia operating outside the law until the House of Representatives in Tobruk legitimised it and adopted it as an ally in its conflict with the rival government based in Tripoli. The PFG commander Ibrahim Al-Jadhran, a member of the Magharba tribe, was not only allied with the House in Tobruk but also with General Haftar who had supported Al-Jadhran’s forces during the Shorouk (Sunrise) operation in which Libya Dawn forces mostly drawn from Misrata in the west attempted to seize control of the petroleum crescent area. That battle, which took place in late 2014 and early 2015, ended after international mediators persuaded the disputants to cease hostilities.
 
At that point, the UN-sponsored Libya dialogue gained impetus, culminating in the political agreement signed in Skhirat just before 2015 ended. One result of the dialogue process was that the Al-Jadhran faction drew closer to the Misrata camp and eventually came out in support of the LPA and its outputs chief among which are the Presidency Council and the Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj. This would naturally deepen the growing gulf between Al-Jadhran and Haftar who, the former claims, had attempted to have Al-Jadhran assassinated while returning to Ajdabiya from Tobruk in September 2015.

Through his control of the oil exporting ports for three years, Al-Jadhran had leveraged himself into a powerful position in the Libyan political and security equations. Indeed, at some points he appeared in a stronger position than his rival General Haftar until this recent development.  Following his recent victory in the petroleum crescent, Haftar was promoted to the rank of field marshal by the speaker of the House of Representatives.

The Haftar victory was not just military. The Benghazi general had also managed to undermine Al-Jadhran’s support base within the Magharba, the predominant tribe in the petroleum crescent area, by persuading a rival Magharba clan to contest the power of Al-Jadhran’s clan within the tribe. Evidence of the success of this stratagem could be seen in the part played by Saleh Al-Atioush, the historical leader of the tribe, which effectively made it possible for Haftar’s forces to wrest control of the oil exporting ports from Al-Jadhran. This, in turn, has precipitated a major rift within the Magharba tribe, now torn between support for Al-Jadhran and Haftar.

Haftar, for his part, took a number of steps to consolidate his victory and strengthen his negotiating hand. One was to appoint one of Al-Jadhran’s cousins as head of the PFG authority. A second was to place that authority under his direct supervision, rather than under the supervision of the Ministry of Defence to which the PFG had been subordinate before this. However, these steps— establishing personal control over the PFG agency and sowing the seeds of tribal strife — have generated an extremely volatile situation in that crucial area, especially given the fluidity of loyalties of the many stakeholders in the Libyan crisis.  
 
Accordingly, it is difficult to contend that Haftar’s victory is either total or final. While Haftar has undoubtedly strengthened his position in the political, military and negotiation equations, most Libyans believe that militia groups should be removed from the oil ports and other government institutions and organisations. However, there remains the thorny question as to who or which agency does have the right to secure the ports, a controversy that is all the more intractable in view of the differences between Libyans over the very concepts of a national army and police. Also, there is the likelihood that Haftar may not have sufficient opportunity to capitalise on his gains, which may prove ephemeral given the rapidly fluctuating political and military situations in Libya.

Indeed, Al-Jadhran’s surprise attack and momentary recapture of the ports in Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra on Sunday illustrate how precarious and unstable the security situation is in that area. Even if Haftar’s forces immediately reasserted their control thanks to air support from an unannounced party, Al-Jadhran’s counter-offensive, brief as it was, served as a message that he still has the power to seize the initiative and, at the very least, destabilise the petroleum crescent area. Simultaneously, he delivered the message to Haftar and his fellow tribesmen of rival clans that he is still someone to be reckoned with regardless of his setback.

At another level, Haftar’s march on the petroleum crescent triggered sharp tensions within the Presidency Council. While Ali Al-Qatrani and Fathi Al-Mijabri (Al-Jadhran’s man in the council) came out in support of Haftar, three other members — Ahmed Maiteeq, Mohamed Al-Mimari and Musa Al-Kuni Al-Balkani — issued a statement in support of Haftar. The chairman of the nine-member Presidency Council, Fayez Al-Sarraj, caught in the middle between the opposing camps on the council, appealed for calm and called for a dialogue albeit from a weak position.

 The international community also appeared caught by surprise and thrown into confusion by Haftar’s success. Initially, the major powers issued a statement calling on Haftar to withdraw from the petroleum ports, but they shifted their position once Haftar announced that he had handed authority over the ports to the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Tripoli. NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla warmly welcomed Haftar’s action and lifted force majeur on the ports, officially signalling that they would resume oil exports in spite of the still existing risks.

UN Special Envoy to Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Martin Kobler has been trying to persuade the speaker of the House of Representatives and Haftar to enter into the arrangements initiated by the LPA. However, Haftar’s temporary victory has given Aqila Saleh and himself the opportunity to continue to drag their feet and avoid commitment to the LPA as they await the results of the international ministerial meeting on Libya, which is to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York, regarding international arrangements concerning militia groups in Libya.

It is expected that the US and Italy will propose an initiative to bridge the gap between Haftar and Al-Sarraj. The success of such an initiative will be contingent on the position of domestic stakeholders and, above all, Haftar’s adversaries who recently rejected a proposal by regional powers and unveiled by Presidency Council member Ali Al-Qatrani calling for a unified structure for the senior command of the Libyan Army in which General Haftar seeks a place.

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