Libya's east ups the ante
Haftar's recapture of the oil crescent and the GNA's disintegration have prompted renewed efforts by Tobruk to sell its own oil
The guns had not yet fallen silent on an 11-day battle for Libya's key oil ports in mid-March when a new front opened in the country's civil war, with eastern Libya declaring separate control of its oil assets.
The fighting began on 3 March when the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), Islamist militias originally from that city, seized Es-Sider, Libya's largest export terminal, and Ras Lanuf, its third largest.
The BDB is aligned with Libya Dawn, an Islamist and Misratan militia coalition, which is at war with a rival coalition, Operation Dignity. Dignity contains most of the rest of Libya's tribes along with the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by eastern general Khalifa Haftar, the country's most powerful, and polarising, military commander.
In turn, Dawn formally supports the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, while Dignity backs the elected parliament, Tobruk's House of Representatives (HoR).
Last September, Dignity captured the two ports from the Petroleum Facilities Guard, another militia now allied with Dawn, along with neighbouring terminals Brega and Zueitina.
But the March BDB offensive turned the tables, putting Dawn back in control. Deepening the chaos, on 3 March, militias stormed the Tripoli headquarters of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), claiming its assets belonged to yet another would-be administration, Tripoli's Salvation Government.
NOC chairman Mustafa Sanallah left the building and closed both oil ports, diverting tankers elsewhere. Waha Oil Company, the two ports' biggest supplier, reduced its supply to the terminals. Libya's oil production fell by 70,000 barrels a day to 0.62m b/d.
But Dawn's control was short-lived. On 14 March, the LNA launched a counter offensive using its key advantage, a monopoly of air power. Video footage from one air strike taken from Ras Lanuf town showed two cluster bombs striking a farm compound at night. The attack helped scatter the BDB, whose number also include fighters linked to Al-Qaida. Once again the ports switched back from the GNA to Tobruk.
In one way, the counter-attack has returned Libya to the status quo, with Tobruk again in control of the Sirte Basin, home to two thirds of oil-production capacity, while Tripoli's GNA, recognised by Western powers as the legitimate government, is the only entity entitled to sell that oil. But this is where things get complicated, because Tobruk followed its victory by announcing it was taking direct control of the ports, raising the possibility it may try to sell oil independently, dividing the country. Almost all of Libya's oil output is in territory controlled by militias loyal to the east, yet export income still flows to the Central Bank in Tripoli.
Tobruk has tried to sell oil independently before. In April last year, it shipped 0.65m barrels from Tobruk's Marsa el Hariga port, only for the UN to persuade the tanker's Indian owners to sail the ship back to Libya.
Tobruk might feel more confident this time because of its backing by Russia.
On 9 March, the head of the Pentagon's Africom command, General Thomas Waldhauser, told a Senate panel that Russia is backing Tobruk even as the US still backs the UN-appointed GNA in Tripoli: "Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes, and what entity becomes, in charge of the government inside Libya."
Russia has already shown its hand, inviting Haftar for a full-dress parade on its aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, in January. In February, state oil giant Rosneft announced a proposed exploration and production deal with Sanallah. Russia, along with fellow Dignity backers Egypt and the UAE, recognises not the GNA in Tripoli but the HoR in Tobruk.
The international position is cleaved. The UK, France, Italy and the US issued a statement on 14 March re-asserting UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that Libya's oil belonged to the GNA and the NOC in Tripoli.
A tangled diplomatic web
But those resolutions are ambiguous, not least because of the tangled history of Libya's diplomatic recognition.
When civil war began in July 2014 the world recognised the HoR, which fled to Tobruk after Libya Dawn captured Tripoli. A year later a UN commission created the GNA as a proposed unity government, and recommended that states switch recognition from Tobruk to the GNA.
The Libyan Political Agreement, the UN process that set up the GNA, however, required the HoR to vote its approval for the GNA. To date, despite the efforts of some members, the HoR has not done so.
One way out of the impasse is for the UNSC, acting under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, to pass a binding resolution commanding member states to buy oil from only one entity. There are precedents, such as the UN's Iraqi Oil-for-Food programme, or its own sanctions on Libya's Muammer Qadhafi in the 1990s.
But with the UNSC's permanent members split—Russia for Tobruk, the UK, France and the US for the GNA—this would be difficult. It all leaves uncertain any plan by Tobruk to sell oil independently of Tripoli.
Tobruk might feel more confident this time because of its backing by Russia
The matter may not rest on decisions in New York, but on the course of events on the ground in Libya—especially in Tripoli, where the GNA appears in the process of collapse. Adding yet more chaos to Libya's politics—and while the ports were being fought over in early March—Libya Dawn militias in Tripoli began fighting each other. Some backed the GNA, some the Salvation Government. The militia-men engaged in three days of tank and artillery fire.
On 17 March, furious residents protested against the militias in the capital's central Martyrs' Square. Some militia-men fired over their heads, dispersing the crowds in panic, and reminding everyone who controls the city.
Then, on 19 March, some Dawn militias, including those which supported the GNA, surrounded a Tripoli naval base which has housed the UN-appointed government for the past year. It was a reminder of the GNA's tenuous presence on the ground. Only six of the GNA's original nine presidency members remain in this proto-government, led by prime minister Fayez Sarraj. Despite the UN backing, what little public support or power the GNA ever had in Libya seems almost entirely to have evaporated.
With no security forces of its own, and the militias capricious, the GNA presidency's safety is guaranteed by Italy, which has stationed a fast-reaction paratrooper unit, Folgore, at Misrata airport, where it guards an Italian army field hospital that treats Libya Dawn battle casualties. But Folgore cannot save the GNA's reputation.
Reacting to events in Tripoli—and Hafter's recapture of the oil crescent—Tobruk is ready to seek a greater share of Libya's oil revenues, which go to European accounts. If the GNA cannot assert itself Tobruk may decide to test those UN resolutions. A definitive answer to whether Tobruk can, in fact, sell oil independently may only be clear if it fills a tanker with oil and sends it sailing off into the Mediterranean.
This article is part of a report series on Libya. Next article: Libya's unending oil war