Libya’s feuding forces battle for oil basin control

Sunday 12/03/2017
Commander of the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) Mustafa al-Sharkasi attends a news conference, on March 6th. (Reuters)

Tunis - Libyan Field Marshal Khali­fa Haftar suffered a major loss when Islamist militias pushed his forces away from two of Libya’s main oil terminals.
The attack by militias known as the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) claimed effective control of the oil terminals at Ras Lanuf and Sidra. The refineries had been un­der Haftar’s control since Septem­ber, when his forces swept through north-eastern Libya’s oil crescent and took control of areas in Zuei­tina, Brega, Ras Lanuf and Sidra, undermining the UN-backed gov­ernment in Tripoli.
With both sides pledging to hold their ground, a continuation of vio­lence is expected.
“This is a war against the whole east region,” said Haftar’s military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mis­mari, who noted the attack includ­ed tanks. “They will not win,” he said.
BDB commander Colonel Musta­fa al-Sharkasi expressed similar re­solve, saying: “Our fighters will free the other oil terminals. The battle will take time. We have other forces preparing to converge on Benghazi from other roads and free the city.”
Sharkasi’s fighters see themselves as spiritual sons of Sheikh Sadik al-Ghariani, Libya’s controversial grand mufti. Ghariani, whose radi­cal politics, conservative propos­als and support for organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar al-Sharia have made him popular among hard-line Islam­ists, urged Islamist militias to take the fight to Haftar, calling him the “main evil”.
BDB has often followed his ad­vice, bringing back memories of Libya Dawn — Islamist militias con­nected to Ghariani. In August 2014, Libya Dawn forces began a similar military offensive, setting buildings on fire and forcing the country’s internationally recognised parlia­ment to flee eastward as they took over Tripoli.
Libya’s elected parliament now backs Haftar, who has gained a reputation as a fiery anti-Islamist strongman.
Commanding the Libyan Nation­al Army (LNA), Haftar has defeated jihadists and other Islamist groups in most of their eastern strong­holds, including Benghazi. Howev­er, his approach has threatened the country’s social fabric by politicis­ing tribal elements in the east and displacing thousands of families.
BDB’s swift advance across Lib­ya’s desert to key oil terminals has exposed the limits of Haftar’s pow­er, as well as the shallowness of his alliance with the eastern tribes that were instrumental to his takeover in September.
Haftar’s military spokesman said the LNA is building up forces to overturn the Islamists’ victory but there is little evidence of that.
The LNA’s predicament could signify a turning point for Haftar, whom diplomats have privately de­scribed as “stubborn” for refusing to negotiate with the UN-backed government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. In February, Haf­tar refused to meet with GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Cairo.
However, without military sup­port from Egypt, which Haftar has relied on in the past, a deal with the GNA might be his only option.
The GNA has experienced set­backs of its own and international trust in the institution is wearing thin after nearly a year of being unable to change the situation on the ground. Adding to the GNA’s troubles was the arrival of battle-hardened Islamic State militias to Sirte in February and the decision by other Islamist militias to reaf­firm their loyalty to the rival gov­ernment in Tripoli led by Islamist Khalifa al-Ghweil.
Three of Libya’s Arab neigh­bours — Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia — adopted a plan for dealing with Libya’s crisis in late February but, after the recent turmoil in the east, diplomats are awaiting Haftar’s next move.
Analysts in Libya blamed Haftar’s “narcissism” for the stalemate and said Sarraj’s ineffectiveness em­boldened Islamist militias to attack the oil terminals.
“It is very clear that the escalat­ing situation in the east involves clear goals to kill whatever glimmer of hope remains in bringing all Lib­yans together in a single state,” said political analyst Said Ramadane.
Political writer Mohamed Ali Ma­brouk said the violence in Libya’s eastern oil basin proved that “most political and military players have no domestic legitimacy and sup­port”.
“The conflicting parties are play­ing the roles their backers want them to play,” Mabrouk said. “They have no Libyan interests in their hearts and do not care about ordi­nary Libyan’s concerns.”
Libya’s conflict is indeed mud­dled and confusing. Despite Haf­tar’s opposition to the GNA and zealous anti-Islamist stance, his supporters include prominent Western powers and conservative Salafist factions in the east.
In Libya’s maze of conflicting ide­ologies and alliances, the distinc­tion between terrorism, secular­ism and radical Islam is difficult to grasp and, for foreign powers hop­ing to forge peace, things are more difficult than ever.