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Libya “Oil War” Intensify as ISIL Regroups After Losing Sirte

A new phase of fighting has erupted in Libya’s vital oil ports, as a loose coalition of militias has attempted to take back control from General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). The Benghazi Defense Brigades, led by Mustafa al-Sharkasi, joined forces with the Petroleum Facilities Guard, headed by Ibrahim Jadhran, in a failed effort to take back control of Bin Jawad and Nofaliya oil ports early this month.  Those two ports, along with As Sidra and Ras Lanuf, were taken over by General Haftar’s LNA in September, and since then, oil production has been boosted from 250,000 barrels per day to 600,000. As part of his takeover, as reported previously in MEB, General Haftar turned over the oil export transactions to the Libyan National Oil Company, with revenues being deposited in the Libyan Central Bank. This good-will gesture by General Haftar had raised hopes that progress might be made in the United Nations-led effort to establish a single national unity government and a single national military force for the country, that has been deeply divided since the 2011 ouster of Muammar Qaddafi.

General Haftar’s forces were clearly prepared for the attacks, which were easily repulsed. Non-essential personnel had been evacuated from Ras Lanuf and As Sidra prior to the assault, and the LNA had reinforced their forces in the oil ports.

Now, however, with the attempts to take back the oil ports, a new factor may come into play, which further intensifies the fighting among rival military forces. In the past weeks, the Misurata militias, aligned with the UN-backed Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA), have successfully driven the last remaining Islamic State fighters out of their coastal stronghold in Sirte. A new mayor has been chosen for the liberated city, and an estimated several hundred ISIL fighters have fled in all directions, looking to regroup and form terrorist cells to resume operations–minus their stronghold, which they took over two years ago.

The Misurata militias are split over whether to join the fight against the Haftar forces controlling the key oil ports, or whether to enter into Tripoli to battle against Islamist militias that have attempted to challenge the GNA’s authority and install former Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell in place of GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. In October, the Ghwell forces seized control over the Rixos Hotel, which headquartered the Presidential Council of the GNA, and since then, sporadic fighting has continued over control of the capital city. That fighting intensified in early December, prompting the United Nations Security Council to hold a special session, where UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler gave an assessment of the deteriorating security situation and the lack of progress towards a national unity agreement.

Despite the fact that the Ghwell forces, who represent a faction of the Libya Dawn alliance, are seen as among the hardline Islamist forces that have been the primary target of General Haftar’s LNA in eastern Libya, representatives of the Haftar-aligned House of Representatives rival government, based in Tobruk began national unity talks with Ghwell’s General National Coalition (GNC) in Tripoli on November 29. Those talks, which are referred to as the “Libya-Libya” unity talks (as distinct from the United Nations unity talks) made initial progress. A GNC-HOR combined force would have significant leverage in any future unity talks with the UN-backed GNA. HOR Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni has given his personal endorsement to the ongoing GNC-HOR negotiations.

There are some further signs of splits within the GNA itself.  When the militias launched the recent attacks against the oil ports under the control of General Haftar’s LNA, the Presidential Council of the GNA issued a strongly worded condemnation. However, the GNA’s Minister of Defense, Mahdi al-Barghathi, was believed to have been behind the attacks, looking to weaken Haftar’s growing strength in the east of the country, and his growing popular support, following the “liberation” and reopening of the oil ports.

In late November, in another significant political move, General Haftar traveled to Moscow, where he met with both Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. It was Haftar’s second visit to Moscow since the summer. While no officials account of the talks was released, and Russian officials tried to downplay the visit as part of Moscow’s outreach to all Libyan political factions, Hafter made clear that he was in Russia seeking military assistance. One account suggests that he spoke of giving the Russians access to a naval base in the east of the country, in return for weapons supplies that could allow him to take power over the entire country. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, support for Haftar would boost Moscow’s already strong and growing ties to Egypt and to President el-Sisi. El-Sisi is a strong supporter of General Haftar and the LNA, providing military equipment and working with the United Arab Emirates and France on even more direct military assistance to General Haftar’s campaign to defeat Islamist groups in eastern Libya, including Ansar al-Shariah.  Earlier this year, General Haftar’s forces drove the Benghazi Defense Brigades, who are backed by the Grand Mufti Sadeq al Ghariani, out of their base, forcing them to take refuge in Tripoli.

On the optimistic side, the GNA is still banking on their deal with General Haftar to secure the four key oil ports, which is vital to Libya’s economic survival. On November 30, the OPEC meeting granted Libya and Nigeria exemptions from the new reduced quotas, worked out between OPEC and 19 leading non-OPEC oil producers. The spokesman for the Presidential Council of the GNA, Ashraf Ali, announced at that time that Libya could boost oil production to 900,000 barrels per day in a matter of months, based on new construction and repairs to the oil infrastructure.

At the same time, there is still concern that ISIL, despite being driven from Sirte, can be a source of terrorism and instability, especially if the unity process and the oil production stall.  In a recent speech in Washington, DC, Nicholas Rasmussen, the head of the National Counter-terrorism Center (NCT) warned that the several hundred ISIL fighters who escaped from Sirte are already regrouping into terror cells and making alliances with tribes, criminal gangs and other jihadist groups. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) issued a report in early December, warning that ISIL “desert brigades” are forming and have already launched successful attacks on supply lines and government outposts. They are reportedly recruiting Tunisians, Moroccans and Sudanese fighters to join their depleted ranks, as they establish safe havens outside of Sirte in such locations as Sebha in the south, Benghazi in the east and Sabritha on the coast near the Tunisian border. Africom recently estimated that, between ISIL and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), there are at minimum 1,000 fighters inside Libya, capable of staging terrorist operations. Africom warned that the capital of Tripoli could be a particularly inviting target, citing the Corinthia Hotel attack in 2015 as an example.

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