Libya at the crossroads

Libya at the crossroads

Shahara-olfeld in southwestern Libya. The oil field is operated by Repsol. Image: Javier Blas, CC BY-SA 3.0

New escalation in battle over Libyan ol

It was only in early March 2019 that it became known that Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC) had lifted the state of force majeure at the Sharara oilfield. Libyan officials explained that control of the oil field had previously been transferred from Libyan National Army (LNA) troops to a protection force for oil installations.

In the past, control of such units has often slipped away, which is why, after securing the facility, Al-Sharara is to become a test run for a new national special forces unit, a task force independent of tribal structures that will prevent attacks on oil facilities and personnel by marauding militias. The force is not to be confused with the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), a type of militia with similar origins that took over export terminals in the northeast of the country in 2013 and later tried to sell oil. The PFG is actually under the control of the Ministry of Defense, but it is fragmented into various local groups and is involved in the Libyan civil war in changing alliances.

Although the NOC, founded in 1970, is based in Tripoli, which is in the hands of the Western- and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), the majority of the country’s oil fields are under the control of General Chalifa Haftar’s LNA forces. The had taken over the Shahara field in February 2019, following a deal with security personnel and local tribesmen who had disrupted operations at the oil field in December 2018. Ol has been demanded here since 1996 – but since the Burgerkrieg was broken off, with interruptions.

Libya at the crossroads

Insignia of the Petroleum Facilities Guard. Image: DatBot, fair use

A satellite image of the 8. March 2019 suggests that the claim has been at least partially resumed. The operation of the Shahara field is also important for the demand operation in the neighboring Elephant field, which stands or falls on the generation of electricity from Al-Shahara. Together, the two contribute 390.000 barrels per day to Libya’s oil demand.

In other areas of the country, too, the continuous demand for oil is difficult; it has been and continues to be brought to a standstill by changing security situations in the turmoil of the civil war – the overall picture is extremely complex and dynamic. The foreign oil and gas companies operating in the country, such as BASF subsidiary Wintershall, know a thing or two about this.

Nevertheless, oil production in the country is now on the rise again. A cautious mood of optimism prevails. For example, in October 2018, Eni, BP and the NOC agreed to cooperate more closely on exploration and production. More than one million barrels were again demanded in 2018. The country is exempt from agreed demand cuts by OPEC members due to its poor economic situation caused by the war. Mustafa Sanalla, CEO of NOC, expects demand to exceed two million barrels in 2021/2 – if the central bank provides the funds needed for investment.

Libya at the crossroads

Libya, known oil and gas storage locations (data from Petrodata v1.2, Concession areas and pipelines (WorldMap, Global Oil Pipelines, Jeff Blossom ). Map: Bernd Schroder/QGIS)

Libya’s oil is considered an extremely attractive raw material due to its low demand costs, low sulfur content and proximity to European markets. The most important oil deposits in Africa are believed to lie beneath the country’s soil. The challenges for the sector are to maintain demand in fields that are running low and to find and develop new oil fields. In addition, the gross smuggling of fuel must be reduced.

Libya at the crossroads

Shahara oilfield in southwestern Libya. Image: googlemaps

Explosive situation: gross offensive or diplomacy?

LNA representatives had on 4. April 2019 declared that units loyal to Haftar had clashed with rival forces south of Tripoli.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, who was in Libya to bring rival groups to the table for a national reconciliation conference, tweeted: "I am deeply concerned about the militant movements in Libya and the risk of confrontation. There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet Libyan leaders in the country." After meeting with Haftar on 5. April 2019 Guterres has the country "with a heavy heart" leave again. Haftar had said in the meeting that he would continue his advance on Tripoli until terrorism was defeated.

General Haftar had said just a few days earlier that Libya could end years of political crisis by creating a single government this month.

The still chaotic situation in the country is primarily a legacy of the 2011 U.S. and allied military intervention that led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi under the overall command of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States. The choice of the name of the operation "Odyssey Dawn" appeared to observers even then as an omen of the beginning of a long adventure.

Haftar’s LNA forces have had the upper hand in the Libyan conflict for months – making full control of Libya’s oil and gas fields a priority for limiting the financial power of the transitional government in Tripoli.

It is expected that the LNA will take further steps to eliminate the still strong opposition in the west of the country. Observers see Haftar’s militaristic push in the south of the country-officially led to "terrorist and foreign fighters" to expel from the territory – the prelude to a major offensive. This was likely to kill the option of a nationwide election in Libya, which remains on the agenda of UN-backed groups. So far, the LNA had refrained from attacks to the north.

Until recently, other analysts thought it likely that General Haftar would prefer a policy of small steps to a military solution to the Libyan civil war for various reasons: A bitter final battle between the two sides would simply be counterproductive to his vision of national reconciliation. Accordingly, he favors the positioning of the LNA as a kingmaker that cannot be bypassed in shaping the future, unified Libya.

The renewed escalation was preceded by diplomatic encounters in recent weeks. In February 2019, for example, the UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, had called for an end to the political stalemate in the country during a meeting in Benghazi with the speaker of the eastern Libyan parliament, Aguila Saleh. Salame also spoke on this occasion with Haftar, who a day later met again with Italian officials to gain Rome’s support for the LNA’s approach and to explore possibilities for bilateral cooperation.

In Tripoli, also in February 2019, the Western-honored Prime Minister Fayiz as-Saraj met with Khaled al-Mishri, chairman of the Supreme Council of State, who had just returned from a briefing from Washington. For the transitional government formed in Tripoli in 2016 is in deep crisis – it has lost a large part of its power to militias in the country. The LNA senses its opportunity – some commanders had earlier vowed to liberate Tripoli soon.

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