A Powerful Show of Support for the House of Representatives
Editor's Note: Libya has been bitterly divided since the downfall of former leader Moammar Gadhafi. Two governments were created, one in the west and one in the east, and neither recognized the legitimacy of the other. Now a third government backed by the United Nations has also set itself up in Tripoli. The following piece provides updates to this crisis in real time.
Jan. 11: A Powerful Show of Support for the House of Representatives
As Libya's rival governments vie for control of the country, the House of Representatives got a welcome boost. Early Jan. 11, Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter's Libyan National Army set up roadblocks across the city of Tobruk, where the House of Representatives is based. News quickly spread that Hifter's forces, which support the Tobruk-based government led by Aguila Saleh Issa, had locked down the city in anticipation of a visit from high-ranking Russian military officials. Though Russian naval officers were later spotted in Tobruk itself, the visit's main event took place aboard the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, where Hifter held a video conference with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Contrary to rumors, the meeting did not produce announcements of a counterterrorism alliance between Russia and Libya. Instead, it was a symbolic show of support for the House of Representatives and a demonstration of Russia's diplomatic clout.
In the days leading up to the visit, Russian warships had been conducting exercises in Libyan waters. The exercises, coordinated with the government in Tobruk, lent the House of Representatives significant legitimacy by presenting it as the body in charge of Libya's military operations. The country's other competing governments — the General National Congress and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord — have been working to increase their own legitimacy in similar ways. The General National Congress, for instance, benefited from Italy's recent announcement that it would reopen its embassy in Tripoli, the government's base.
For the House of Representatives, the Russian delegation's visit is an important step toward establishing itself as Libya's rightful government. The Admiral Kuznetsov departed from the Syrian coast just days ago to return to its home port in Sevastopol, and its visit was a significant display of Russia's support for the government in Tobruk. For Moscow, meanwhile, the junket advances Russia's image as a global actor — one that the United States cannot ignore or discount in its foreign policy. Furthermore, by showcasing its relations with Hifter and the House of Representatives, Moscow demonstrated its influence in Libya.
Dec. 14: Libya's Western Oil Fields Come Back Online
The Libyan National Army (LNA) announced Dec. 14 that the pipelines at Rayayina would be reopened within one day, enabling the National Oil Corp. to bring the El Feel and El Sharara oil fields in western Libya back online. The fields have been closed for nearly two years and have the capacity to add about 400,000 barrels per day to Libya's oil production.
The country's production levels were up over the last three months because Field Marshall Khalifa Hifter — head of the LNA — seized oil terminals in the east that had been shut down by the Petroleum Facilities Guard, headed by Ibrahim Jadhran. Libya’s production, which is currently around 600,000 barrels per day, could exceed 1 million barrels per day by the middle of 2017. El Feel and El Sharara had been blocked by allies of the LNA in Zintan, but now it looks like the National Oil Corp. and the LNA are aligning themselves more closely to stabilize Libya's oil exports.
Increased oil production will have consequences both inside and outside of Libya, assuming the goal is met. Boosting production to 1 million barrels per day would require Libya’s fragile, fluid and divided security and political states to hold together, which given recent history is far from certain. Though Hifter and the LNA are now effectively in control of all of Libya's onshore oil, Hifter still does not control Tripoli or Misrata, and many groups in those key cities view the LNA as a threat. Outright fighting between Libya's rival governments and power players has been sporadic in 2016, but it could easily erupt now that Misratan militias control Sirte and are only 30 to 50 kilometers (around 20 to 30 miles) away from LNA areas of control, the closest they have been since 2014.
Outside of Libya, increased oil production will complicate an already complex OPEC oil deal meant to cut production within the bloc. The El Feel and El Sharara fields alone could supply close to what Saudi Arabia had planned to cut alone, though Riyadh has signaled that deeper cuts are possible. The conundrum clearly shows how closely the success of the OPEC deal hinges on whether or not members outside of the Gulf actually follow through on planned cuts and freezes.
Dec. 7: A Militia Coalition Marches on the Oil Crescent
A loose coalition of Libyan militias has launched an attack against Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter's forces, who control many of the oil terminals in the country's Oil Crescent region. On Dec. 7, Mustafa al-Sharkasi's Benghazi Defense Brigades — which are closely aligned with the Tripoli-based General National Congress — and groups allied with Government of National Accord (GNA) Defense Minister Mahdi al-Barghathi joined remnants of Ibrahim Jadhran's Petroleum Facilities Guards in attacking Bin Jawad and Nofaliya. The operation failed, however, and the Libyan army quickly dislodged the fighters from the cities, according to reports.
The GNA has already condemned the attacks, even though its defense minister is widely suspected to have been involved in them. (Al-Barghathi's role in the operation has not yet been confirmed.) It is unclear who is leading the offensive, but reports suggest that it has been in the works for about a month. The alliance spearheading it appears to be founded on its members' mutual hatred of Hifter. If al-Barghathi is indeed involved in the campaign, his participation would illustrate the differences of opinion that still exist among GNA officials and their Misratan militia allies.
No reports have emerged of the al-Bunyan al-Marsous militias' involvement in the operation. Much like al-Barghathi, many of these militias view Hifter and Libya's potential militarization as a threat. That said, they are split between factions who want to confront Hifter and those who are more concerned about securing Tripoli and the GNA's grip on power.
Although it is not clear who organized the offensive, it is clear how it played out. According to several reports, the operation made very little headway, which came as little surprise given the reinforcements Hifter has built up over the past six weeks. So far the conflict has not disrupted Libya's oil operations, though nonessential personnel were evacuated from Ras Lanuf and As Sidra. If the fighting continues, however, it may damage energy infrastructure in the area. Since Hifter took control of and reopened several oil terminals in September, Libya's output has risen to about 600,000 barrels per day. Should the region's security environment worsen, production in the country could dip back down to the lows it saw in August, around 250,000 bpd.
Dec. 6: The Fight Against Islamic State in Sirte Is Nearly Done
With the effort to evict the Islamic State from the Libyan central coastal city of Sirte largely complete, questions have risen about the next move for the militia fighting the extremist group. The Misratan militias under Al Bunyan al Marsous, which supports the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), have ousted the Islamic State from all but a handful of buildings in Sirte. As the operation wraps up, the militias could be eyeing the nearby As Sidra oil terminal, which was seized in September by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter's Libyan National Army, which many in Al Bunyan al Marsous oppose.
One component of Al Bunyan al Marsous appears to favor taking on Hifter, loosely aligned with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, another rival government. Others think that Islamist and Salafist militias in Tripoli that favor the GNA are the bigger threat and want to deploy there. The battlefield in the country's multi-force civil war more or less mirrors that of two years ago, with Hifter's army in control of much of the east while Misratans (then under Libya Dawn) controlled Sirte.
The political situation in Libya is just as divided. As Hifter's forces begin another offensive against jihadist forces in Benghazi, Hifter ally and former Presidency Council member Ali al-Qatrani has proposed that the country's institutions, except the Libyan National Army and the House of Representatives, be disbanded, giving Hifter the country's leadership. In addition, House of Representatives members discussed reforming parliamentary committees.
With the political and military maneuvers, the various sides in the conflict are jockeying for negotiating position as talks on forming a unity government continue.
Dec. 2: Heavy Clashes in Tripoli Continue a Second Day
Armed clashes in Tripoli continued for a second day Dec. 2. Fighting has been concentrated in the areas around Nasr Forest, the Rixos hotel and Abu Salim and around Mitiga Air Field. A more significant violent outbreak than normal has been expected since Khalifa Ghwell and his supporters — mainly holdouts from the General National Congress (GNC) who have refused to join the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) — overtook the Rixos hotel and conference center in October.
Fighting between rival militias in Tripoli is not uncommon, but the size of the clashes and the stark division between those forces loyal to the GNC and those loyal to the Presidency Council and the GNA is unusual. There has not been such acute violence since Libya’s government split into multiple competing governments backed by rival militias two years ago.
In the Abu Salim area, pro-GNA Ghanaiwa militias are fighting against the pro-GNC Salah Al-Burki brigade to oust it from its stronghold around Bab al Aziziya. The pro-GNA Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades and the Rada milita are also trying to approach the Rixos hotel. The Rada militia — one of the most powerful in Libya — has seized a number of key buildings and institutions in the effort.
The struggle is really two: the broader political battle and local turf battles. If the GNA is pushing to eradicate GNC supporters from the city, that is significant. It realistically does not have the forces necessary to accomplish that goal, but the outbreak of conflict could attract regional militias, such as those in Zintan and Misrata.
Nov. 29: Delegates Discuss Rival Unity Government
As the U.N.-led negotiations to fully form and approve the unity Government of National Accord founder, factions from Libya's two rival parliaments — the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the Tripoli-based General National Congress — have stepped up efforts to form their own unity government. On Nov. 28, the House of Representatives dispatched a four-person delegation to meet with the General National Congress to pursue such a merger. In conjunction with representatives from the General National Congress, these delegates will form a joint committee to look at the technical and legal implications. The House of Representatives delegates will submit a report within the next week, and the dialogue committee will meet no later than three days after the submission of the report.
The concept of a Libyan-led dialogue is not new. For the last two years there have been two parallel set of talks on forming a unity government that would bring Libya's two rival parliaments into one government — the one led by the United Nations and the other led by factions within the rival parliaments (the Libya-Libya dialogue). The dialogue got a boost in October when the General National Congress took control of the Rixos building in Tripoli, a move that reasserted its role as a political bloc in the city. General National Congress Prime Minister Khalifa Ghweil also reached out to Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni of the House of Representatives within the Libya-Libya framework.
The current bid to establish a rival unity government, however, represents a shift. Given the tension between the U.N.-backed Presidency Council, the executive branch of the unity Government of National Accord, and the House of Representatives, it makes sense for the House of Representatives to establish parallel talks to strengthen its negotiating stance. Some dissident members of the House of Representatives may even try to pursue the unity government as a legitimate option.
But there are significant limits to how far such a unity deal might go. The General National Congress' biggest supporters are hardline Islamists such as the al-Wafa Bloc, Salah Badi, Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariani and holdovers from the Justice and Construction Party. This complicates any deal with the House of Representatives, which is closely aligned with the Libyan National Army headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter. Hifter has styled himself as a secularist, nationalist military leader in the mold of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and has shown little interest in dealing with Islamists. In fact, many of the hardline Islamist figures in Tripoli have supported some of the eastern-based groups that Hifter has been fighting. Regardless of how the agreement turns out, it can certainly be used by the House of Representatives to increase leverage in the ongoing battle for Libya's government.
Sept. 9: A New Military Council in the Making?
Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) and the House of Representatives are discussing the formation of a new body to lead the Libyan army. As proposed, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces would comprise Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, House President Aguila Saleh, army Gen. Khalifa Hifter and two members of the Presidency Council. If the idea gains traction, it could bring an end to the current impasse between the GNA and the legislature, which was made worse by an August no-confidence vote in the House of Representatives over Serraj's Cabinet picks. The decision has since forced Serraj's administration to build a new list of candidates.
Hifter's role in Libya's new government has long been a point of contention, particularly among GNA supporters in Misrata. However, the council under consideration could deflect some of their concerns by acting as a check on Hifter's influence over the military. But even if the council is formed, it will not ease tension between Hifter and Misrata. After all, the general believes the Misrata militias are supportive of the extremists he is presently combating in Benghazi. So far Hifter's most stalwart backer has been Egypt, which is concerned about jihadists operating in Libya and the possibility of the country forming an Islamist-led government.
Meanwhile, it is still unclear who will be chosen for the council's final two spots. One rumor suggests the candidates will be Ahmed Matiq and Ali al-Qatrani. The former is Serraj's deputy prime minister and a representative of Misrata, while the latter hails from the east and boycotted the Presidency Council until the House of Representatives' no confidence vote last month. He is also Hifter's close ally. Of course, there are other potential candidates, though whether Defense Minister Mahdi al-Bargathi is among them is unclear. Al-Bargathi is not yet a member of the Presidency Council, but he belonged to the Cabinet before it was rejected and has served as a counterweight — and fierce rival — to Hifter. As such, he has gained far more popular support in the country's east and west than the divisive general has.
Libya desperately needs a unified government at the head of its military, something the GNA's formal establishment (and its approval by the House of Representatives) would bring the country closer to achieving. The creation of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces could be a step in that direction, should it come to pass in spite of the numerous pitfalls in its path.
Aug. 19: An Oil Deal at Zueitina
Libya's lucrative oil sector is once again at the confluence of larger struggles over political and military unity. On Aug. 19, a tanker arrived at the Zueitina oil terminal, located in the east, and began loading oil for transfer westward to the Tripoli-based National Oil Co. The terminal is controlled by the Petroleum Facilities Guards, a powerful group led by Ibrahim Jadhran. The Petroleum Facilities Guards are an eastern group but have nominally aligned with the unity government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord. (Tripoli's National Oil Co. is under this government.) And the nearby city — and surrounding region — is controlled by the Libyan National Army, which is loyal to the rival Tobruk-based House of Representatives.
Since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya has been divided into regional camps, with a dizzying array of militant groups and up to three rival governments vying for influence — and for control of its natural resources. That the Libyan National Army would allow the shipment of oil by a rival militant group to a rival government is noteworthy — in the past it threatened to carry out airstrikes on any tanker trying to move oil without Tobruk's blessing.
The agreement over Zueitina, however, appears to be a one-time or temporary arrangement. In fact, over the past month, tensions between the rival militias have escalated. In July, the Petroleum Facilities Guards and the National Oil Co. signed a deal to resume oil exports through the National Oil Co. from the As Sidra and Ras Lanuf ports under the militants' control. Shortly thereafter, the Libyan National Army issued threats and, on Aug. 5, the two militias clashed around the Zueitina oil port. And in mid-August, the Libyan National Army moved several battalions into the city itself.
But Gen. Khalifa Hifter, head of the Libyan National Army, has had to live with this uneasy stalemate with the Petroleum Facilities Guards. Although his forces have occupied the city, they have not moved to occupy the Zueitina terminal itself. Instead, he has tried to use his nominal command of the Petroleum Facilities Guards to try to replace Jadhran. (On paper, the Petroleum Facilities Guards are still a subcomponent of the Libyan National Army.) The approach failed, but Hifter can do little more. The Libyan National Army is already stretched thin fighting al Qaeda-aligned Islamists around Darna, Benghazi and other parts of eastern Libya. Taking on the Petroleum Facilities Guards would take significant effort — the group is highly capable and boasts an estimated 35,000 fighters. Hifter's Libyan National Army has about twice as many troops in total, but many are untested and, moreover, his army is more of a confederation of loosely aligned militias.
Even if Hifter were to manage to take oil fields, it would damage his international standing and his long-term goal of leading a Western-backed unity government. Since this oil would be refined domestically — some of which will ultimately end up back in the east in the form of diesel or gasoline — Hifter cannot be seen as disrupting the flow of oil for Libya's benefit. He is far more opposed to the Western government's exporting oil for a profit.
Politically, Hifter is in a tight spot. His ambitions to become defense minister in the U.N.-backed unity government were thwarted when he was passed over for longtime rival Mahdi al-Barghathi. Hifter's attempts to hit back by undermining al-Barghathi's loyalty within the powerful 204 Tank Brigade have been challenged, and al-Barghathi has managed to secure key tribal support for the Government of National Accord in the region. Al-Barghathi has also played an integral part in forming the alliance between the Petroleum Facilities Guards and the Government of National Accord. The uniting of two of Hifter's most powerful rivals is certainly not in his overall interest politically and could drive Hifter to be more aggressive in challenging the resumption of oil exports.
Exports from Zueitina would be a much-needed boon for the Petroleum Facilities Guards and their Tripoli-based patrons. Jadhran controls several other terminals, including the larger As Sidra and Ras Lanuf, which have not come back online. Of these, the Zueitina oil terminal is certainly not the most important, and it lies dangerously close to Hifter's forces. Zueitina is, however, in the best repair. Both As Sidra and Ras Lanuf were damaged in earlier attacks by the Islamic State and in 2014 battles between Libya Dawn and Hifter. Repairs are underway, but success by Al Bunyan al Marsous militants in Sirte against the Islamic State will likely push the Islamist militants south into the oil basin that feeds these ports, putting oil wells and future production in jeopardy. For the Petroleum Facilities Guards — and the National Oil Co. — Zueitina is the best bet for immediate large-scale oil exports, even with its relatively meager capacity of around 70,000 barrels per day.
Libya's oil production will not come close to full capacity any time soon, in spite of small-scale cooperation among some stakeholders. Security and financial troubles will continue to plague the sector, and political fragmentation will compound these difficulties. Though there is growing momentum behind finally unlocking oil exports at its three closed ports — Zueitina, Ras Lanuf and As Sidra — that momentum is slow and constantly in flux. Libya's oil sector will continue in peaks and troughs, with more troughs than peaks.
Aug. 1: The U.S. Intensifies Its Fight in Libya
In a significant escalation of U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State in Libya, the U.S. military has launched airstrikes against the group's positions in Sirte, the Department of Defense announced Aug. 1. The airstrikes were requested by Libya's Western-backed unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA). To this point, the United States has largely limited its military activity in Libya to occasional attacks on high-value Islamic State targets, such as a November 2015 airstrike targeting Islamic State leaders and the February 2016 airstrike on training camps in Sabratha.
Militias loyal to the GNA, primarily Misratan, have been engaged against the Islamic State in Sirte for three months now, and the sustained support of U.S. air power will greatly help their efforts. Close air support, when provided to a determined ground force, can make a big difference — as it has for Kurdish, Iraqi government and rebel forces in Syria and Iraq. The United States has likely already been sharing intelligence with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj's forces and other anti-Islamic State factions in Libya. The addition of airstrikes, however, may be the crucial factor needed to dismantle Islamic State strong points and to block positions and groupings, paving the way for faster advances.
The West backed the original formation of the GNA with the implicit assumption that once the government carved out its political home in Tripoli, it would receive close Western support for its efforts against the Islamic State. Prior to the most recent airstrikes, this support was given through intelligence-sharing operations and training, particularly of the pro-GNA Misratan militias before their assault on Sirte. Now that the GNA largely has political control over Tripoli, Misrata and other areas in western Libya, Western governments have continued to support the GNA's institutions — military, energy and others — to ensure that the nascent government stays afloat.
Despite the GNA's advances, the Libyan battlefield is as complicated as ever. The GNA's legitimacy, influence and power extends east only into parts of the Gulf of Sirte. In the eastern half of the country, the rival government (the House of Representatives) and Libyan National Army forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter remain out of the GNA's purview. While the United States and its allies are hoping that the unity government can stay afloat, their primary objective is to avoid the creation of a power vacuum in which jihadist groups could thrive. Although Western countries hope that the unity government will also solve some of Libya's political problems, the reality is that Libya is nowhere close to becoming unified under one government.
Because of this harsh reality, Western countries have proved pragmatic when working with the factions involved in the Libyan conflict. The United States is clearly working closely with the al-Sarraj government, but on July 20 three French special operations troops were killed in a helicopter crash on the outskirts of Benghazi where they had been working with Hifter's forces. The fighting in Benghazi and France's support of Hifter follows overall trends. Hifter is a divisive figure within Libya, and while militias loyal to the GNA are leading the charge against the Islamic State, they have no real presence in Benghazi, where Hifter's forces are fighting other jihadist groups, such as the Benghazi Defense Brigades. The only way to support operations against those groups is by supporting Hifter. The United States has clearly signaled that it will support the GNA's anti-Islamic State operations. But as the international support for various, rival Libyan factions proves, Libya is far from unified.
June 13: The Islamic State's Hold on Sirte Weakens
Signs of success are beginning to emerge for the monthlong offensive against the Islamic State in the Libyan city of Sirte. Over the past week, forces loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord have entered Sirte as part of an operation led by Misratan militias known as al-Bunyan al-Marsoos, or "Solid Structure." Then, on June 11, the Libyan forces claimed to have regained control of the city's port, marking a quick victory in retaking some of Sirte's most important infrastructure.
The fight may still prove to be a bloody one, however, if the Islamic State decides to make a serious stand. According to several reports, the group's fighters are heavily barricaded inside a densely constructed portion of the city center, and snipers have taken up positions on rooftops in the area. The Islamic State is estimated to have about 5,000 fighters in Libya, many of whom are believed to be in Sirte. As the Misratan militias have intensified their assault on the city during the past week, the group has responded in kind with suicide and armed attacks, which will likely continue in the coming days.
Despite having kept a firm grip on the city since February 2015, the Islamic State's Sirte component is weaker than most of its branches elsewhere in the world. Many of the group's Sirte fighters are thought to have been conscripts who lacked the formal training of their peers. Furthermore, there have been reports of militants being bound and possibly executed, perhaps for trying to defect from the group, while others have said militants are shaving their beards in an effort to disguise themselves as civilians as they flee the city.
Regardless of whether these rumors are true, recent gains by Misratan militias and the relative weakness of the Islamic State's Sirte faction suggest that the jihadist group will be pushed at least partially out of the city at some point. As it is, the Islamic State will abandon its efforts to seize wide swaths of territory, instead adopting guerrilla and terrorist tactics. Yet the question remains: If the Islamic State is pushed out of Sirte, where will it go?
One possible answer is south. As the Misratan militias have approached Sirte from the west, other forces loyal to the Government of National Accord, including the Petroleum Facilities Guards, have converged on the city from the east. Beyond their routes, however, much of the desert surrounding Sirte is only sparsely controlled. Fleeing Islamic State fighters could feasibly head south, where they would be able to attack upstream oil and natural gas infrastructure as well as the Misratan militias in Sirte's outskirts and forces under the command of Gen. Khalifa Hifter.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State will also have to cope with rising threats to its holdings in other parts of Libya. In April, Hifter's forces and several al Qaeda-linked groups forced the Islamic State out of Darnah, and Benghazi and Sabratha — the group's other primary areas of activity — are under intense military pressure.
In the face of its many challenges, the Islamic State still retains one crucial advantage: fragmentation among its Libyan foes. Deep political and military divisions persist among the country's competing factions, including the Misratan militias (loyal to the Government of National Accord) and the Libyan National Army (loyal to Hifter). Though these groups have tacitly cooperated somewhat over the past six months, enabling them to beat back the Islamic State, the rifts between them have remained without a strong central authority to heal them. The resulting political fissures — and at times, security vacuums — have been a boon for groups such as the Islamic State, which will continue to proliferate as long as Libyans remain divided.