The divisions in Libya are over control of power and wealth, in a country where wealth is derived almost exclusively from oil revenues. As the Tripoli offensive goes on, this source of income will likely become a crucial part of it.
Libya has estimated oil reserves of 48 billion barrels, the largest in Africa and 9th largest in the world. Technically recoverable reserves of shale oil are estimated at 26 billion barrels. Oil and gas exports constitute around 90 percent of Libya's revenue, and any major disruption means a sharp decline in income.
Libya has a typical rentier economy, in which the state is the main employer, providing salaries for almost 1.8 million people, representing close to a third of the total population.
The country’s lucrative oil and gas market attracts fierce global competition, especially among international fossil fuel conglomerates. It also makes controlling this vast natural resource a prime driver of conflict among Libyan groups, with many competing to secure a share of the benefits.
But will the current escalation in violence lead to a wider conflict over the control of Libya’s oil resources?
In 2016, Haftar seized control of the facilities and terminals in Libya’s east, mainly in the oil crescent region, and he later extended his control to facilities in the south, taking the El Sharara and El Feel oilfields. The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli still controls other offshore facilities.
Revenue from oil exports, however, still flows into Libya’s Central Bank in Tripoli, which works alongside the GNA. The National Oil Corporation (NOC), which dominates the country’s oil sector, has tried to stay out of political conflicts and remain a neutral institution.
Adding to the complications of Libya’s conflict dynamics, the unrecognised eastern government allied to Haftar has set up a parallel NOC in Benghazi that has repeatedly tried to sell Libyan oil on the foreign market. Such attempts have been stymied by a UN Security Council resolution preventing illicit crude oil exports.
Recent reports indicate that Haftar is now militarising oil installations in the oil crescent region, and has begun to use oil ports and air fields for war activities.
Following this move, the NOC released a statement condemning the use of its facilities for military purposes, detailing the seizure of the Es Sider airstrip and the docking of warships in the Ras Lanuf terminal by Haftar’s forces.
According to a French presidential official, Haftar complained that he and his forces were not benefiting from oil sales in the east of the country, and also rejected calls for a ceasefire during a recent visit with President Emmanuel Macron.
Despite the fact that Haftar controls most of the oil assets in Libya, his complaints show that he may now be seeking access to income from Libya’s oil wealth. This points to a shift in direction by Haftar, in which he may be willing to drag control over Libya’s oil exports and revenue into the ongoing conflict.
U.S. Africa Command is concerned that Libya’s eight-year civil war could bolster terrorist groups harboured in the country and foster a breeding ground for violent extremist organisations.
Preventing that chaos is a key issue for AFRICOM Commander Gen. Stephen Townsend, who travelled to Tunis, Tunisia with U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland to meet with Libya’s prime minister, Fayez al Sarraj, on Aug. 26. There, the leaders discussed threats from existing violent extremist organisations in Libya, along with the need for a solution to end the civil war.
"Close cooperation is important to address the [violent extremist organisations] threat,” Townsend said in a media release.
In 2018 alone, the Islamic State’s Libya faction claimed it was behind more than a dozen attacks targeting the Libyan government and oil infrastructure, according to AFRICOM. The conflict that has plagued Libya for the past eight years could add fuel to the flame, AFRICOM claims.
“The ongoing fighting and conflict in Libya has the potential to give existing terrorist elements in Libya oxygen," U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Air Force Col. Chris Karns said in an email to Military Times. "This is a situation that is being carefully monitored. Intensified and inclusive dialogue is occurring to work toward a political solution.”
Karns said the chaos exhibited in Libya “presents an opportunity for terror groups to recruit, conduct some basic training and survive," noting that evidence suggests these efforts are occurring.
In response to threats from these groups, AFRICOM conducted six airstrikes in Libya last year and seven in 2017 as part of counter-terrorism operations. But Karns said no airstrikes have been conducted in 2019 because the terrorist threat was “considerably degraded” prior to tensions escalating in Libya in the spring.
But a military strike still remains an option, Karns said, in the event that terror groups regenerate and present additional threats.
“We won’t discuss circumstances or situations that merit an airstrike because we don’t want to give terror groups any advantage,” Karns said.
The U.S. had a small presence of troops in Libya starting in 2011 after dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown. They were there to help local forces extinguish Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked militants in Libya, who were conducting attacks and working on recruitment efforts.
But in April, U.S. forces were pulled from Libya due to heightened unrest, after Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter’s Libyan National Army launched an offensive against the U.S. and United Nations-backed government in Tripoli. Hifter, a former CIA asset, was exiled during Gadhafi’s leadership, and settled in Langley, Virginia, in the 1990s. He eventually obtained U.S. citizenship before returning to Libya in 2011.
Before Hifter’s offensive on Tripoli, both the Libyan National Army and the Government of National Accord recognised by the United Nations were involved in “actively reducing” terror threats from violent extremist groups, a defence official told the Air Force Times.
There are currently no U.S. troops in Libya, said Karns. AFRICOM is interested in bringing U.S. troops back to Libya, but was tight-lipped about when and how many troops would return.
“When conditions merit a return, we won’t look to signal numbers or capabilities to Violent Extremist Organisations wishing to do harm,” Karns said.
“We emphasised to Prime Minister Sarraj the importance of supporting a diplomatic solution to put an end to the current conflict,” Townsend said in an AFRICOM news release.
Townsend and Norland also met with the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, Ghassan Salame, to examine ways the U.S military and the UN could advance a political agreement in Libya.
Rumours of French military intervention in Libya have abounded for some time; France was a key member of the NATO coalition that helped to topple the Gaddafi regime in 2011, and reports indicate that the country's armed forces may still be playing some role in the civil war. But to what benefit? Why would France want to involve itself in another foreign entanglement, and, more to the point, why would it want to back someone like Khalifa Haftar, a warlord whose broad LNA coalition also includes Salafist elements. The answer might be Total.
Total S.A. is a French multinational oil & gas company headquartered in Paris. Founded in 1924, it is considered one of the 7 "Supermajor" oil companies in the world, with a declared revenue of over $209 billion in 2018 and a long history of controversies. Total S.A. has long played a role in the Libyan petroleum industry, one that expanded last year, when the company purchased a 16.33% stake in Libya's Waha Concessions for $450 million. Total S.A. stated that this acquisition would give the company access to reserves & resources in excess of 500 million barrels of oil, with immediate production of 50k barrels per day, and exploration access to 53k square km. covered by the concession in the Sirte basin.
In order to profit from their significant investments in Libya, Total S.A. needs security & and access to port terminals, many of which are in the east - an area under the control of the Libyan National Army - so a basic understanding between France & Haftar would be expected. But why go further than that? Why supply the LNA with modern weaponry and get more deeply involved in the civil war? It's highly probable that, compared to the fractious & militia-driven GNA in Tripoli, the Macron government feels Haftar is the best bet for Libya's security; a strongman figure who can keep the lid on the violence, at least enough so that the oil flows uninterrupted.
Looks like Total S.A. has total control over France's foreign policy in Libya.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) is the leading group in western Libya, as well as the United Nations (UN) recognised government of the country. However, at present, the GNA mainly controls a swath of land along western Libya’s coast and other localities in that vicinity, while the rest of the country is either controlled by the Tobruk-based Libya National Army (LNA) or tribal and militia leaders. From afar, the GNA at first glance has the same organisation as any normal government, with different ministries as well as other services, but regardless of its efforts to enforce the rule of law in the areas under their influence they are far from a cohesive government. The Tripoli administration relies heavily on a wide array of militias, for security as well as other government-related services.
The GNA’s dependency on these groups is highly problematic, as often the militias have turned against each other for influence in the country, mostly related to financial deals and gains, namely the provision of security for a specific neighbourhood or city. Likewise, the groups have different ideologies, including secular militias and other with strong Islamist leanings. As such, in light of its weak character the GNA does not have either the power or the legitimacy to enforce its authority and create accountability methods for the forces aligned with it.
An essential part of the European Union (EU) plan to thwart migration into its borders has been its collaboration with the GNA, which includes the payment of large sums of money in order to avoid migrants from reaching the EU through Libya. Under this agreement, the GNA established numerous detention centres and different mechanisms to keep migrants in Libya. Given the large number of migrants and asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe, the GNA lacks the means to enforce this policy by itself, thus relying on allies militias to do so. Indeed, the militias have clear incentives to take part on the tasks, as they receive EU money from the GNA for each migrant in their detention centres. In this context, dealing with the migration problem has become a lucrative business for many militias operating in western Libya.
Taking the above into consideration, it is not a surprise that migrants, to some extent, have unfortunately transformed into a sort of commodity for militias and gangs operating in Libya, who seek to profit at any cost from the people attempting to reach the EU. There have been multiple accounts of human rights abuses within militia-run detention centres across western Libya, including torture, extortion, forced labour, sexual assault and even slavery. As well, even in cases were migrants are not exposed to these abuses, they are held in harrowing conditions, as often militias attempt to have a bigger number of migrants under their control to maximise their profits, without having proper infrastructure.
This situation poses numerous moral as well as legal questions for the Tripoli government, particularly regarding its willingness and capacity to adhere to international law that would, in turn, provide the government with legitimacy vis-a-vis the international community.
Following extensive lobbying by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) chief Ghassan Salame, on July 9-10 respectively both factions the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libya National Army (LNA) agreed to a ceasefire amid the holiday of Eid al-Adha. Both the work of Salame and subsequently the agreement for a ceasefire was widely lauded by the international community and many people thought that this might represent the first sign of light after a long and dark tunnel, represented by the at least 1,000 deaths since April.
The UN released a statement on July 14 congratulating the goodwill of the parts and claiming a “significant reduction of violence” amid the truce, despite the fact that a car bomb near a shopping mall in Benghazi killed thee UN staff members less than 24 hours after the beginning of the truce. Indeed, numerous other instances of violence took place in the following days, including intermittent fighting in Tripoli’s suburbs of Wadi Rabia and the Salahaddin area as well as grad rocket attacks against Mitiga Airport, Libya’s only operational terminal.
While UNSMIL intentions are positive and attempt to bring stability to the Libyan people, unfortunately, their ambitions and plans are far detached from the reality on the ground. That the organisation released the August 14 statement sends a worrying message to the international community and more importantly to the warring factions, as if the international community understands their efforts to de-escalate the violence while no paying attention to the violations. Yes, some might argue that the statement did emphasise and condemned the violations, however, that should have been the main focus of the statement, as neither of the parts adhered to the truce, let alone showed any glimpse of hope that the Eid truce could be turned into a long ceasefire.
Despite the UN’s multiple efforts, unfortunately, UNSMIL is not strong enough as to brokerage a permanent ceasefire in the Libyan conflict, as it lacks the leverage and real international backing to force the different factions into the negotiation table. Moreover, that the own UN-recognised government, the GNA relies heavily on a plethora of militias from different backgrounds and interests for its security, illustrates the weak security infrastructure in the country. Often these militias have fought each other over influence. As such, theoretically, even if Salame achieves a ceasefire with the LNA, who guarantees that the militias that united to fight Haftar will not turn to each other over influence in Tripoli once again?
Additionally, it remains unclear whether the international backers, public and covert of each of the warring factions have any intention of abiding by a potential ceasefire, and would not lure their affiliates to continue the fighting. In this sense, not only a lot of intertwined interests are in play in Libya domestically but also at an international level, thus making a lasting ceasefire a far-fetched concept as of today.
After multiple speculations at the beginning of the campaign regarding whether the Libya National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar was going to be able to seize power in Tripoli ousting the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), nowadays the battlefield stands still. After a major push by the LNA forces in April, mainly capitalising on Haftar’s strategy of allying himself with several militias and tribal leaders in western Libya, who were overzealous of the GNA administration, the campaign came to a complete halt.
The turning point of this standoff and the current war of attrition has two causes. Firstly, Haftar was overconfident in his capacity to overrun Tripoli, not forecasting the fact that most militias in the city would remain united against his forces. Secondly, the lack of cohesion within his alliances in western Libya, which led to the fall of his logistic stronghold for the Tripoli campaign, the town of Gharyan. In fact, there are multiple accounts of the betrayal of several local militias in the town, who aligned themselves with the GNA offensive against the stronghold.
Since then, and mostly over the recent month, the war in and around Tripoli has shifted and is now mostly focused on airstrikes from both sides, nonetheless, the LNA and its alleged international sponsors, namely the UAE and Egypt have taken the leading role. Indeed, the LNA has conducted a series of questionable strikes leaving considerable civilian death tolls. The most notorious being the strike that killed more than 50 migrants in July as well as the latest attack against a city hall council meeting in the southern city of Murzuq. These strikes have caused an international outcry with many actors in the international arena accusing the LNA of war crimes, thus considerably jeopardising the legitimacy that Haftar has tried to portray.
If the LNA wants to turn the tables on the battlefield and garner international support or at least tolerance, he must halt the air campaign and attempt to lure influential tribes in western Libya towards his camp. In this scenario, the move that would have the biggest geopolitical impact would be to convince the neutral city of Bani Walid to join his camp. The de-facto city-state is home to the powerful Warfalla tribe, which makes up 1.5 million out of 6 million Libyans throughout the country and is a former Qadhafi stronghold that did not accept the former ruler’s ouster in 2011. The city held out against rebels for two months longer than the capital.
Indeed, Bani Walid has such an important social influence in Libya that the leaders of the city were able to broker a ceasefire between several militias fighting in Tripoli in 208 after the UN repeatedly failed to do so. With that said, the biggest challenge for Haftar, in this case, is that the city’s elders council decided to remain neutral despite the multiple financial incentives offered by the LNA, which could alleviate the dire economic situation of the locale. The decision mostly steams from the fact that Bani Walid functions in a tribal manner, with the council being the decision-makers, thus they do not want to relinquish their power in favour of someone like Haftar, who is perceived as an authoritarian.
Overall, it seems that as long as Haftar does not make significant changes to his political strategies, no considerable changes will take place in the battle for Tripoli. Conversely, if the airstrike campaign continues to target sensitive objectives, leading to additional civilian casualties, he might lose further international support, increasing his isolation and chances to succeed.
One of the many complexities that characterise the Libyan conflict is the myriad of international actors with intertwined interests that play a part in supporting the different warring factions. One of the main players in this chessboard is Turkey, one of the most important supporters and arguably the main arms provider of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). In this context, Ankara has a public military agreement with the Tripoli-based authorities despite the ongoing arms embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) since 2011. Even though President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that there is nothing illegal in this deal, as the GNA is the UN-recognised and thus the legitimate government of Libya, many countries have criticised Turkey’s involvement. Therefore, the question that comes forward is, what is in stake for Turkey in Libya?
Overall, Turkey’s ambition to become a regional power in the Middle East has been jeopardised by its frictions with several major Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, with only Qatar being Ankara’s close ally in the Gulf region. In this context, President Erdogan’s strategy in the region is to attempt to gravitate as many Arab countries as possible under his realm, making Libya an excellent candidate to bolster his camp. In this sense, Libya has become another camp in the ongoing ideological war between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE against Qatar and Turkey. The latter since the beginning of the Arab Spring have sponsored the idea of political Islam, often supporting groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has brought them at odds with the Saudi camp.
As such, considering that Libya National Army’s (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar is a staunch detractor of political Islam, he has gained the support of the Saudi camp, thus placing a clear line between the LNA/Saudi axis and the GNA/Turkish axis.
As part of its foreign policy strategy, Turkey has been increasingly using its military power as a tool, with military bases in Qatar and Somalia, and its activities in Sudan, thus its current involvement supporting the UN-recognised government, is perceived by Turkey as a way to establish a military presence there in the near future. Additionally, historically speaking, Turkey had notable commercial ties with Libya during the Qaddafi times, with billions of dollars in investments as well as a sizeable number of Turkish nationals operating in Libya. Given its already established economic assets in the country, it seems natural that Ankara may want to maintain its influence in Libya in order to take a leading role not only in the country's reconstruction efforts but also as a leading economic partner in the long term.
Whether Turkey’s strategy in Libya will bear fruits in the near future remains an open question, nonetheless what it is for sure is that Ankara’s involvement in the conflict, as well as the other international actors' interest, adds another layer of complexity in reaching a solution.
In the wake of the current power struggle that is taking place in Libya, one of the main angles that, to some extent, fuel instability is the involvement and interests of foreign actors in the conflict and their open or covert support to any of the sides taking part in the fighting. One highly controversial issue that has been brought up by numerous analysts and diplomats is the alleged French support to the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar, despite the fact that the European Union (EU) and the UN back the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
These suspicions were exacerbated by the discovery of French-owned advanced Javelin missiles of US origin at the LNA command centre of Garyhan following the GNA’s capture of the town. In the midst of extensive international outcry, the French governments issued a statement on July 10 arguing that the Javelins were not provided to the LNA but were rather “abandoned” by French troops that were previously in the area. Thus, amid the confusion that arose from the statement, several questions remain. What were French troops doing in Libya? And secondly, are they still deployed there?
It is important to note that the French army has an extensive presence in Africa, particularly in its former colonies across the Sahel, just south of Libya. The most notable of this is Operation Barkhane, established to fight militancy in Mali and with operations in the former as well as Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. During the past couple of years, Barkhane has conducted extensive operations against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and to a lesser extent against the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). Taking the above into consideration, amid the power vacuum left in southern Libya since the launch of Haftar’s Tripoli campaign, IS has attempted to establish a foothold in southern Libya, engaging in guerilla warfare against troops as well as partaking in illegal activities.
Even though there is no official confirmation that France is involved in anti-insurgency activities in Libya, it sounds reasonable to assume that avoiding the growth and entrenchment of IS in southern Libya would be a priority in France’s geopolitical strategy in the region. Indeed, said entrenchment could potentially lead to greater coordination amongst IS-affiliated and create a continuous corridor linking the Sahel and Sahara regions. In fact, the group has become more reliant on sub-Saharan African personnel in its post-territorial phase and has simultaneously deepened its connections with Libya’s desert smuggling networks, which connect North Africa to the Sahel.
Such coordination would seriously jeopardise stability in the region, and pose a serious threat to French interests in the region, including the supply of Uranium from Niger, which represents the main source of the mineral used in French nuclear facilities. Likewise, considering the already increased involvement of IS in the smuggling networks, wide-IS cooperation could spark a rise in people smuggling across the region, which subsequently will increase the influx of people into Europe, worsening the already dire migration crisis.
Libya has long been a barometer of the stability or more specifically, the lack of it in the Sahara and the Sahel regions. This reality was explicitly emphasised by Niger’s Interior Minister, Mohamed Bazoum, who stated amid an interview that violence in Libya is “fuel on the fire” in terms of its impacts on regional stability, fearing that the continuation of violence will eventually spill over and worsen the security landscape in the region.
In fact, the Libyan crisis and lack of law enforcement across its vast territory have been one of the main drivers on the increase of transnational criminal networks specialised in human and drug trafficking as well as the steep increase in inter-communal violence and militancy across the Sahel. Indeed, the fall of the Gadaffi regime in 2011, had a direct impact on the surge in militancy and armed conflicts in the Sahel, due to the proliferation of weapons hailing from Libya into Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso among other countries after the disintegration of the state. Thus, the ongoing battle across Tripoli has brought extreme concern among regional leaders, who see the continuation of this violence as a direct threat to their stability.
Since the beginning of the LNA offensive against Tripoli on April 4, the Islamic State (IS) is trying to exploit the void left by the LNA and its allies in southern Libya in order to reassert their influence and establish a foothold following it loses in Benghazi and Sirte. IS has restructured its organisation in the country, organising themselves in Sarayas, small strike platoons of up to 30 men in order to conduct operations on villages and security forces via attacks on security garrisons or road ambushes. Over the last couple of months IS has increased their attacks and clashes with LNA forces around the Haruj Mountains, which given their remoteness appear as an ideal hideout for IS forces. While the above has not been framed as a clear stronghold for IS forces, most of their activities have been focused around the Haruj Mountains east of al Fukaha.
In this context, as the main Libyan forces focus on the standoff on Tripoli, there is a distinct threat for IS to bolster and entrench its presence across vast swaths of land in central and southern Libya. Thus, the group could possibly seize the opportunity to build a continuous network of IS affiliates across the region, further worsening the current security landscape in the Sahel.
In fact, there is a record of increasing cooperation between the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) operating in the Lake Chad region and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in the tri-border between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. This, coupled with the increased emphasis given by the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to Mali and the Sahel over recent months, shed light on the group’s ambitions in the area. Thus, the lack of rule of law in southern Libya, and in turn, IS’ potential entrenchment in this region has the potential to devolve into a transnational crisis that might replicate the challenges posed by IS in Iraq and Syria.