Libya’s feuding forces battle for oil basin control
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.