Fears of a wider militia war after ISIS is defeated
Tunis - The defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sirte might trigger a wider conflagration between Libya’s rival militias, especially in the eastern region’s oil-producing areas, experts said.
National Oil Company (NOC) Chairman Mustafa Sanallah expressed fears that rival military factions are preparing for a major battle with control of oilfields in the east at stake.
Such a battle would likely kill efforts to revive oil exports at a crucial time for Libya’s deteriorating economy. Sanallah urged politicians across the country’s political divide to reduce tensions that could fan the conflict.
Because of blockades and other incidents at eastern ports, Libya’s oil production stands at 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) down from the 1.6 million bpd it was producing before dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted in 2011.
The country’s deficit is estimated at 60% of gross domestic product (GDP) this year. The Tripoli government has resorted to Central Bank reserves, which have fallen to $70 billion in 2016 from $120 billion in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.
If the trend continues, Libya will run out of reserves in less than four years.
“The war now is about who is governing the oil,” Sanallah told the Petroleum Economist. “The civil war is guided by the war for the oil. Everyone wants to govern the oil.”
Troops from four sides of the conflict are amassing in eastern areas of Libya. Soldiers loyal to Qaddafi’s rump Libyan National Army (LNA), their rival federalist militias, Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) allied with Misrata-led Dawn forces, which are aligned with the UN-appointed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
“I’m afraid there will be a battle,” Sanallah said. “I sent a very clear message, asking all parties to keep oil out of this conflict. If these facilities are subjected to war it will be a disaster for the country and will be bad for all Libyans.”
At the time when the GNA appears inching closer towards victory against ISIS in Sirte this could be a key moment testing its legitimacy.
UN envoy Martin Kobler, in a recent interview with a Swiss newspaper, said popular support for the GNA was crumbling with much of the early backing for its authority evaporating due to worsening living conditions for Libyans because of economic and security woes.
If Sirte is declared liberated, serious rifts within GNA-affiliated militias are highly likely between those supporting a full attack against the LNA led by General Khalifa Haftar and those leaning towards ousting Islamist militias from Tripoli.
GNA Defence Minister Colonel Mahdi al-Barghathi visited Zuetina PFG chief Ibrahim Jathran after the LNA threatened to take control of the port.
“We are defending our homeland, our people and [to] protect the only wealth of the Libyan people,” said Jathran, who also appeared in an online video with representatives of al-Magharba tribe from which most of PFG militiamen hail.
Abdulrazak al-Nazhuri, chief-of-staff for the LNA who was appointed by the Tobruk-based internationally recognised parliament as military head of the eastern oil region, has threatened to target oil tankers that do not have permission from eastern authorities to dock.
The LNA has mobilised around eastern oil ports and fields where PFG forces are deployed.
“We will enter the ports of Zueitina and Es Sider and Ras Lanuf,” Nazhuri said.
An LNA brigade has entered Zueitina in a show of force, though it stopped short of the oil port controlled by the PFG. “Our entry into the ports is to protect them, not to occupy them or to be substitutes for the mercenaries or thieves who preceded us,” Nazhuri said.
Western powers, which are helping the GNA led by Fayez al-Sarraj, voiced concerns about tensions around Zueitina oil terminal.
The United States, France, Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy urged a return to government control of all oil and gas installations and called on all parties “to abstain from any act of hostility and avoid all actions that could damage or disrupt energy infrastructure”.
“Now as it was during the early moment of the revolution a single target was decided and the rival factions fighting for it are lined up. It is the aim of controlling the oil which allows the control of the political power,” said Libyan political commentator Ahmed Fitouri.
“The war over oil is nearing. The war is drawing closer over oil as [ISIS] is defeated or about to be defeated,” he said predicting that Misrata’s powerful militias will take part in that projected war after they had honed their military skills and forged support during their fight against ISIS in Sirte for more than three months.
However, analysts doubt more Libyan oil will be flowing to world markets soon even if there were no conflict between rival factions.
“Opening the ports allows the NOC to start undertaking repairs but that will still take time,” said Scott Modell, an analyst at energy consultancy Rapidan Group.
“One announcement about potentially opening ports that are not fully functional is not going to turn around the overall trajectory of the political process.”