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Libya on the brink

Hopes for the UN's unity government are fading, IS is capitalising on the chaos, renewing its assault on energy infrastructure, and the drumbeat for Western intervention is getting louder

A UN-appointed Government of National Accord (GNA) waits in the wings, but genuine unity and security for Libya remain only a distant hope. Fresh attacks by Islamic State (IS) on two oil-export terminals, persistent efforts by the east to win control of the country's energy sector and ever-deepening factionalism mean events on the ground continue to trump diplomacy. Oil production of 400,000 b/d, a quarter of capacity, looks likelier to fall further than to recover.

IS' assault on Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider on 5 January showed, again, the group's ability to strike with impunity in the oil crescent. Nine men from the Petroleum Facilities (PFG) were killed in the suicide-bomb attack. Five storage tanks at Es-Sider and two at Ras Lanuf are still burning. Both terminals, and 11 fields that supply them, have been under force majeure for months, so the material impact on Libya's oil sector is negligible. 

On 7 January, the terrorists struck Zliten, a town west of Misrata, killing at least 40, and demonstrating the group's capacity to cause carnage even well beyond the territory it controls.

But IS' efforts to capture Ajdabiya, 160 km south of Benghazi, pose a deeper threat. Gaining the town would give IS easy access to Zueitina and Brega export terminals (both shut) and installations belonging to Harouge and Sirte Oil Company. Sarir and Misla, two fields in southeast Libya responsible now for almost all of the country's onshore production, are a target. IS said last year it would seek to damage Libyan oil infrastructure and is keeping its word.

Alarmed by the terror-group's advance eastwards, Western powers are now moving closer to aerial military intervention. "Ajdabiya is the Benghazi of 2016" says Mattia Toaldo, a Libya specialist and fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Nato's intervention in 2011 to stop Qadhafi's Green Army from reaching the country's second city. The US and France are most gung-ho, while Germany and Italy are more reluctant, preferring domestic political resolution first, he says. Intervention now would probably deal a final blow to the UN-appointed GNA, undermining its authority and reinforcing suspicions among many Libyans that it is but a Western stooge.

But the GNA's prospects look increasingly bleak anyway. The leaders of the General National Congress (GNC), based in Tripoli, continue to oppose it. Although the GNA agreement in December favoured the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), that body has not endorsed it either. It hasn't even mustered a quorum to debate and vote on the issue. The UN-appointed body has to win approval from Tobruk by 26 January to have any chance of legitimacy. Then it would have to set up shop in Tripoli and take control of state institutions.

Events on the ground could make that even less likely. The HoR is still trying to carve an independent eastern oil sector for itself, in which shippers would buy crude from a breakaway National Oil Company (NOC) in Baida and pay money into a new account in Cairo. Supporting this plan, the separatist-minded Ibrahim Jadhran, head of the PFG, shut down Zueitina port in November. Unless shippers started dealing with NOC Baida, Jadhran told them, he would also shut down Hariga, the only export terminal still operating in Libya. 

NOC Baida claims to have secured a deal to sell 2m barrels of stored oil to Egypt. But its efforts to siphon off Libyan oil-export revenue are unlikely to succeed. The US stopped Jadhran from selling oil independently of NOC in March 2014 and Western governments insist that NOC (based in Tripoli) remains the only legitimate vendor of Libyan oil and the Central Bank the only body entitled to receive revenue. Big shippers, including Glencore, Vitol and Litasco, agree. 

But the move still has political significance. "Something implausible becomes plausible in the eyes of some Libyans and influences the politics," says Toaldo. Jason Pack, president of Libya-analysis.com and a Cambridge University researcher, says eastern NOC won't work - but the HoR's pursuit of the idea "shows they aren't serious [about the GNA". The UN deal may have favoured the eastern HoR, but the HoR is doing everything it can to undermine it, he says.  

Fragmented battles

Political fragmentation is plain within the HoR camp now too. After the IS attacks on Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider, Jadhran accused Khalifa Hafter, head of the HoR-aligned Libyan National Army (LNA), of facilitating the attacks. IS and Hafter were 'two sides of the same coin', he said, claiming that the LNA - which has for months been bogged down fighting al Qaeda and other Islamist groups in Benghazi - was doing nothing to combat IS. The PFG was now at war with Hafter, Jadhran said.

Yet until the IS attacks on PFG-controlled facilities this month, Jadhran's own relationship with IS was ambiguous. His brother Osama has acted as an intermediary in talks between IS and elders in Ajdabiya, it is claimed. Any IS success there - involving, say, a tacit agreement with Ajdabiya's dominant Magharba tribe - would raise more questions about the PFG leader's links with IS. For now, he claims to be leading the battle against the terror-group and has allied with some militias from Misrata (which supports the GNC in Tripoli). But their fight hardly looks enthusiastic. Misrata's fearsome 166th Brigade was pushed out of Sirte when IS established control last year and has not returned. The city's aircraft have bombed some IS positions, but a concerted campaign it is not. 

Hafter isn't doing much more to fight IS and his role also continues to spoil peace prospects in Libya. Support for him in the east is matched, and more, by opposition to him in Tripoli and the GNC. For many in the west, his role in any future unity government or national army is a deal-breaker. With Hafter involved, moves to establish the GNA in the capital - essential to its credibility - would be difficult. Tripoli's security remains for now in the hands of Misratan and other militias loyal to the GNC. Hardliners in that umbrella group, such as the militia leader Saleh Badi, will resist any attempt to wrest Tripoli away from the rump parliament.

It all leaves Libya in a dire place. The UN has succeeded in establishing the GNA and its political dialogue as the only viable peace process - but its chances of success look weaker by the day. The economy is quickly reaching crisis point, starved of investment and oil-export revenue. 

Crude output remains beneath 400,000 barrels a day: Sarir/Misla account for the bulk of onshore production and two offshore fields northwest of Tripoli, untouched by the chaos, supply the rest. Sharara and El Feel, two large fields in the southwest, remain blocked by Zintani militias who will not open the pipes to Mellitah and Zawiyah, terminals west of Tripoli. No investment in maintenance or well-workovers is possible. Since 2011, Libyan oilmen have repeatedly patched up damaged kit to keep the oil flowing, but the task is Sisyphean and the infrastructure is now creaking. Even Sarir and Misla are beneath capacity, lacking turbines and other essential parts. Repairs to IS-damaged fields in the oil crescent are impossible. Longer-term plans for capacity growth and new exploration have evaporated.

Responding to the latest IS attacks, NOC chairman Mustafa Sanallah called on Libya's leaders to "understand the magnitude of the threat we face" and "unite against this common enemy, not tomorrow or next week, but now". Yet the country's leaders are still to see their conflict in zero-sum terms. Only Western powers are for now showing the intent to dislodge IS, even if intervention would probably shatter the prospects of the unity government Libya so badly needs. 

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