By Policy Analysis Unit
With the aid of tribal militia, forces loyal to renegade General Khalifa Haftar recaptured the oil-rich region of Libya, known as the “Oil Crescent”.
Haftar then announced that administration of the oil facilities would be transferred to the “transitional” government he dominates in the city of Baydaa instead of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) under the internationally recognized Government of the National Accord, based in Tripoli.
This situation serves as a further example of institutional breakdown across the country echoed also in the creation of parallel “central banks” in Libya with competing claims to legitimacy.
The Libyan Oil Crescent: on Shifting Sands
The Libyan Oil Crescent fans out across the country’s coastline, starting at the port city of Zuwetina through to the towns of Brega, Ras Lanouf and Sidra. The road from Sidra leads to the city of Sirte and the Libyan interior.
The installations in question within this region include oil storage tanks and ports as well as refineries and intermediate manufacturing plants for petrochemicals. The oil fields which feed these installations lie in Sreer, Nafoura, Masala, Al Baydaa and Majed, and lie between 300 and 500 kilometers to the south of Benghazi.
Combined, the Oil Crescent is responsible for 50% of Libyan crude oil output, making it the most significant region in the country.
By 2012, and up to the second half of 2013, relative improvements in the region’s stability had allowed the export of crude oil to begin again and return to pre-revolutionary levels. By July of 2013 however, an armed group calling itself the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), under the leadership of Ibarhim Al Jadran of the Magharbeh tribe, took hold of vital installations in the Oil Crescent and quickly put an end to the oil exports for a period of more than two years.
In doing so, the PFG was given political backing and propaganda support by the same constellation of groups which would come out in support of the Karama Operation. A December 2014 attempt to recapture these installations by force, led by a group which called itself “Libya Dawn” or “Fajr Libya” was ultimately unsuccessful.
While some members of the PFG were killed or wounded in the action and some of the infrastructure damaged, the ISIL aligned group could not maintain their gains for long and were forced to rapidly withdraw.
By September, Haftar loyalists had launched a counter-attack and, through a series of understandings with tribal leaders of the Magherbeh, managed to secure all of the installations of the Oil Crescent with minimal fighting.
By the following March, the Benghazi Defense Brigades were able to retake, in a short time span, the locations which Haftar’s forces had taken and to hand these over to the control of the Government of National Accord. It took Haftar loyalists only two weeks to launch a counter-offensive and retake all they had lost.
At around this time, the PFG seemed to disappear before its leader resurfaced in mid-June of this year. In a statement released on social media platforms, the PFG leader announced that his forces were seeking again to retake the Oil Crescent installations from Haftar loyalists.
Jadran’s faction was able to take the two ports of Sidra and Ras Lanuf in a few short hours. They were able to take scores of Haftar loyalists prisoner alongside a number of foreigners who, the PFG claims, were members of the Sudanese Justice and Equality movement.
PFG control of the sites only lasted a week before Emirati warplanes, based out of Jafra, Khadim and Benina, began their assault and allowed Haftar loyalists to reclaim the Oil Crescent.
The involvement of Emirati air power in the conflict signals a new phase where the Emirates’ involvement is now in the open and has also matured from the provision of logistical support and political cover for Haftar to direct military aid.
Most of the military engagements in the cities of Benghazi, Derna and Jafra and across the Oil Crescent have demonstrated that Haftar’s forces are incapable of maintaining any battlefield advantages without the support of the Emirati air force.
Equally important has been the backing which Haftar’s forces have received from the Egyptian state. Among regional capitals, Cairo is one of the most adamant that Haftar continues to control the oil installations in Libya. For his part, Haftar has even openly declared his commitment to Egyptian interests “even if it comes at the cost of Libya”.
In the midst of the disarray and intrigue which has surrounded the export of Libyan oil since 2013, it seems that Egypt might stand to gain from keeping Libyan oil installations out of the hands of the country’s legitimate and internationally recognized government. Reports indicate that Egypt receives free shipments of Libyan petroleum.
The Oil Crescent, and the region surrounding it, is also a region vital to Egyptian interests, giving the Sisi regime more reason to jealously protect Haftar’s control of the territory. In order to further these aims, the Egyptian government has made symbolic overtures to the tribal chieftains who are dominant in the Oil Crescent.
The Specter of a Divided Libya
By announcing that the oil installations under his control would be handed over to an alternate, parallel structure to the country’s nominal national oil company was one more example of how Libyan institutions are splitting along fault lines of loyalty to competing governments in the country.
This is part of a wave of upheaval which began with the Haftar-led “Karama Operation” born in May, 2014. Further examples of this institutional fissure of the country, which has military, political and even social repercussions, include the move of the country’s legislature (chamber of deputies to Tabruk) as well as the establishment of a parallel “central bank” in Libya answerable to the pro-Haftar cabinet led by Abdullah Al Thani in Al Baydaa.
Haftar has even sought to institutionalize the division of Libya’s military, announcing the establishment of the “Libyan Arab Armed Forces” composed of armed factions and tribal fighters, all loyal to him and based largely in the western regions surrounding Zantan and the Warshefana region surrounding the capital Tripoli.
Haftar serves as the Commander-in-Chief and has received the backing of a number of tribal legislators under the leadership of the President of the Chamber of Deputires Uqeilah Saleh.
Although Haftar’s attempt to bring control of Libyan oil infrastructure under his own breakaway government fits in with a pattern which is now four years old, this particular move sets its own chilling precedent and has a number of unique features to it.
To begin with, oil accounts for the main—if not the only—source of income for Libya. Unavoidably, any attempt to monopolize the country’s oil will lead to huge internal struggles; there is no limit on what the possible consequences of such conflicts could be, possibly even leading to the division of Libyan territory.
Not lost on Libya observers has been the fact that proponents of a federal system for post-conflict Libya were some of the groups who quickly embraced Haftar’s move to appropriate oil infrastructure: although “federalism” does not in itself entail the division of the country, it is difficult to avoid that association today, given the strong centrifugal forces at play.
The geography and extent of the Oil Crescent is itself a source of contention between political groupings with diverging views on the future internal structure of Libya. Based on the administrative divisions set out in Libya’s 1951 constitution, the boundary of the district controlled from Brega would not go further west than Ajdabya.
This would leave any of the Oil Crescent installations outside of Brega outside of the control of the forces presently based there. This has not prevented federalists in Libya from demanding that a new administrative boundary be drawn at the Wadi Al Ahmar which would place all of the Oil Crescent’s installations within the administrative boundaries of Brega.
At the moment, all of these regions are under the control of Haftar loyalists who, despite this vantage point, have not made real on threats to move westwards the central and western Libyan desert, or to move on the former capital of Tripoli.
A Regional and Global Imbalance
It is difficult to ascertain a definite and coherent international stance towards the ongoing conflict in Libya. While Egypt directly backs Haftar and the tribal communities which support him, Tunisia is attempting to walk the tight-rope of neutrality.
Algeria continues to be circumspect in its approach to the conflict next door but is also working to limit Egyptian and Emirati influence in western Libya.
The Western powers are similarly disparate and diverse in their approach. Notwithstanding the spectacle of regular pronouncements of concern and joint effort, Western states have little in common when it comes to Libya: while France has provided support—sometimes openly—to Haftar, Italy tries to take ensure that it has equally good relations with all parties to the internal conflict in Libya.
The US and Britain are increasingly trying to extricate themselves from the minutiae of Libyan affairs.
Libya OPEC production quota of roughly 1.5 million bpd is fairly modest—and even that, at an uneven rate over the past few years. An increase in oil prices which could buoy Haftar’s finances is now increasingly unlikely, given a Saudi commitment made to US President Trump to increase oil production.
Haftar has also faced growing criticism from abroad: the US and Britain, which tacitly back Haftar, have joined France and Italy in demanding that Libyan oil not be exported through the backdoor, and in fact have called for the country’s oil reserves to remain under the control of the country’s legitimate national company.
The United Nations has also joined this chorus, demanding that Libyan oilfields be returned to the recognized NOC.
The Italian military has even gone so far as to exercise its military muscles to protect the oil wells operated by the ENI company and protect the workers there. While avoiding an explicit mention of Haftar, Rome’s Minister of Defense did say that her country’s forces were taking action against “terrorists”.
In total however, the same Western states which pressured the Tripoli authorities to accept a Government of National Accord effectively as a power-sharing arrangement have done little to nothing to rein in the Haftar loyalists who are doing so much to undermine Libyan institutions.
Haftar’s move to hand over control of installations in the Oil Crescent to an institution answerable to him has served to further complicate Libyan politics and to entrench the fragmentation which Libyan institutions already face.
In fact, Haftar’s decision seems to have paved the way for a de-facto division of Libya. At the present time, there is little if any indication that world players are going to engage constructively in Libya and prevent Haftar from entrenching his position and accruing even more power.
The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs.