The unexpected happens in Libya, again
TUNIS - One of the standard responses by officials, diplomats and journalists in Libya to events in the country is “never be surprised by the unexpected.”
Halfway through June, the unexpected again happened. While eyes were focused on the chaos in the south and, in the east, the offensive by the Libyan National Army (LNA) to capture the militant-held enclave of Derna, two of the country’s most important oil terminals — Ras Lanuf and nearby Sidra — were taken by the man who kept them shut for three years until September 2016 and the country to ransom, Ibrahim Jadhran.
He was supported by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), the pro-Islamist fighters forced out of Benghazi in 2016 by the LNA and its commander, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Jadhran claimed he had the backing of Tebu fighters from Chad, although Libyan Tebus denied it, joining the wave of those inside and outside Libya who condemned the attack.
A week after the attack, on June 21, the LNA retook the terminals, forcing Jadhran and his allies to flee south. The events marked a major embarrassment, politically as well as militarily, for the LNA. It was also a massive blow to the National Oil Corporation (NOC).
The fighting caused more oil storage tanks at Ras Lanuf go up in flames and oil production was slashed by 240,000 barrels per day. The NOC said it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding the facilities, which could take years, and billions in lost revenue.
That apparently had no effect on international oil prices, which continued to fall in another sign that oil traders have discounted Libyan production in their calculations.
With some 20 LNA members reported killed in the fight for the terminals, questions have been raised about how the attack happened. Sources linked to the army say that it was aware days before the attack that Jadhran’s forces were planning an offensive. LNA officers are reportedly wanting to know why military leaders were so ill-prepared.
Despite the embarrassment, it was never going to be a matter of if the LNA would recapture the two terminals but when. It is far better armed and has air power. It can also call on air support from Egypt.
Still, signs indicate the incident significantly changed the course of military and political events in Libya.
Prior to the attack, the LNA’s intention was, after it had captured and pacified Derna, to turn its attention to southern Libya and to secure the regional capital Sabha. Those plans have reportedly been postponed. Instead, the focus is on ensuring the Libyan oil crescent — the oil terminals and the oilfields in the Sirte Basin — remain under LNA control.
That will require an operation to clear the area south of Sirte of anti-LNA forces. It was from there that Jadhran and his allies attacked the two terminals. Given their record, it is likely they will attack again.
From the LNA’s point of view, that cannot be allowed to happen. Securing the area may require capturing Sirte, 200km east of the two terminals and in the hands of Misratan forces.
That would change the Libyan political map dramatically. Sirte was wrested from the Islamic State at great cost by Misratans in 2016 and both moderates and militants in Misrata will not accept an attempt by the LNA to take it.
After Jadhran’s coalition seized the oil terminals on June 14, Misratan reinforcements were sent to Sirte to ensure that Jadhran’s forces and the BDB did not use it as a fallback position. Misrata had once supported the BDB but expelled its fighters and supporters in June 2017 following the Brak Al-Shatti airbase massacre the previous month in which 140 people died and in which the BDB was implicated.
Opposition to Jadhran and the BDB does not automatically make the LNA an ally. Any attempt to take Sirte is likely to be vigorously resisted.
There is a view, though, that Jadhran’s misadventure could simplify the Libyan situation. If Haftar establishes control over the area south of Sirte, moving his forces closer to Misrata, there would be many in the city arguing in favour of a deal with him.
France is working to that end and has invited the city’s political and military representatives for talks in Paris in the hope of getting them to sign up to the elections deal agreed by Haftar, Presidency Council head Fayez al-Sarraj and the presidents of the country’s House of Representatives and State Council.