Nearly a decade into Libya’s grinding civil war, it seems next to impossible to imagine stability, let alone a political settlement.
The country is as torn as ever between:
(a) the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, which is backed militarily by Turkey, and
(b) the rival forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s breakaway Libyan National Army, backed by a motley crew of Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France.
Libya, which before the war was among the world’s top oil-exporting countries, with billions in hydrocarbon reserves, is today oil-rich, revenue-poor and teetering on the brink of irretrievable collapse.
The clock is now counting down on a shaky cease-fire deal that traded oil for a truce, and is set to expire Oct. 18.
Only time will tell if that bargain will hold long enough for the U.N. to hold a scheduled summit between the warring sides in Tunisia in November.
Signed last month, the deal brokered by Haftar and the GNA’s deputy prime minister, Ahmed Maiteeq, called for a temporary end to a blockade of oil ports by Haftar’s forces in Libya’s embattled east, which is under the nominal control of the rival parliament in Tobruk that supports Haftar and his Libyan National Army.
Some observers say the deal was done because Maiteeq was under physical duress and Haftar was desperate not to lose the backing of his two biggest external patrons, Russia and the UAE.
But whatever the case, the agreement has held despite the odds against it.
Command over Libya’s oil fields and the revenues they generate has been a central sticking point in the conflict since the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In addition to sparking interventions from the UAE, Russia, Egypt and France, the bloody brawl for Libya’s oil wealth has splintered the country between myriad armed factions that are as tribal and personal in nature as they are ideological.
It has also driven a sharp wedge between two of the country’s key economic institutions:
(a) the Central Bank, which controls the funding that flows from its oil, and
(b) the state-owned National Oil Corporation, known as the NOC, which dominates its oil industry.
Generally viewed by many Western analysts as among one of Libya’s more competent and neutral elites, the NOC’s chairman, Mustafa Sanallah.
He has so far managed to navigate the choppy waters surrounding the oil truce with bureaucratic aplomb, despite the fact that the oil giant reportedly incurred $9 billion in losses from the eight-month-long blockade.
The governor of the Central Bank, Sadiq al-Kabir, however, has received less charitable reviews in light of his long-running resistance to an audit of its books and for maintaining a bank branch in eastern Libya that has survived on hundreds of millions of Libyan dinars printed in Russia.
An announcement in mid-July that an audit of Libya’s national accounts would go forward appeared to be a critical part of the puzzle in incentivizing Haftar to lift the blockade and strike the truce.
The GNA’s outgoing prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, vehemently opposed the deal with Haftar, but with only about two weeks left before his five-year tenure ends.
Sarraj’s his sway over the future of oil production and politics more generally in Libya now seems iffy at best.
With anti-government demonstrations against the GNA growing in Tripoli and elsewhere, and as the COVID-19 pandemic strains public health with about a fifth of Libya’s 6.8 million people already in desperate need of humanitarian aid, according to the World Food Program, public trust in the GNA is in the pits and Sarraj’s faction seems to be on the wane.
If anything, the deal that ended the blockade of oil ports may be the surest sign yet that Turkey’s proxy war on the cheap in Libya has weakened Haftar’s hand—at least temporarily—and that Ankara’s strategy is starting to pay dividends.
There is little question that Turkey’s injection of an estimated 3,500 to 3,800 Syrian mercenaries last spring shook the resolve of the Russian mercenaries sent in 2019 to augment Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
It was only after a series of dramatic battlefield reversals late this summer that Haftar came around to the idea that it was time to make a deal.
Not coincidentally, the withdrawal of mercenary forces on all sides from Libya’s long-crippled oil facilities is a condition of the truce.
The tenuous bargain has already delivered a much-needed boost to the cash-starved NOC, with its output reportedly tripling to 260,000 barrels a day since the blockade ended.
In an effort to wedge open this rare window of opportunity, the NOC rushed to lift force majeure status on a number of oil facilities around the Sirte basin, a legal move viewed as necessary for many of Libya’s foreign oil production partners to be able to operate safely there.
The NOC also announced that it plans to turn the taps back on this Sunday at the southwestern Sharara oil field, the largest in Libya, perhaps encouraged in part by scattered news reports that ongoing, U.N.-supported talks between various rival Libyan parties in Cairo are going better than expected.
But it’s a risky move for the NOC, since those negotiations haven’t inspired much confidence yet that Haftar will give up his demands that Libya create an independent commission to oversee the distribution of the NOC’s oil revenues.
Presumably, the staggered reopening of oil facilities means that at least some of the Russian mercenaries spread around Libya have reduced their presence in key areas of concern for the NOC.
It is not at all a certainty, however, that the various Russian contingents operating on contract for Russian state-managed enterprises, which are eager to capitalize on a new political dispensation in Tripoli that is more favorable to Haftar, will pull out of the country anytime soon.
While much has been made in particular of the presence of Russian fighters affiliated with the so-called Wagner Group, in reality a cooperative agreement cemented in early 2017 between Russian state oil giant Rosneft and the NOC.
This means that there will be more competition for tenders to protect energy infrastructure between key Russian contract security providers, like the Moran Security Group and RSB Group, two of the more established Russian private military security operators cited in a March U.N. report on Libya.
It also means all the players in this game will have to reconcile themselves to a long-term Russian security presence in Libya regardless.
At the same time, given the projected long-term downturn in oil demand resulting from the pandemic-induced global recession, Russia may have to revise its ambitions in Libya somewhat.
As it is, Russia’s preferred partner for oil commodities deals, the huge Swiss trading and mining company Glencore, lost its exclusive rights to trade certain types of Libyan crude last year.
The longer the oil cease-fire is in place, the more wiggle room competitors like Royal Dutch Shell will presumably have to expand their own direct shipments out of Libya, bypassing Glencore, one of the biggest outside stakeholders in Russia’s state-managed energy industry.
That could also be good news for others trying to get a leg up on Haftar and his Russian backers at the negotiating table when talks move to Tunisia next month.
But, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Frederic Wehrey reminds us, there are just too many different players in Libya with too many different playing styles to truly know for sure which move is going to dictate the final shape of the negotiating table and, hopefully, an eventual end to the war.
Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.