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Libya, an update: the country’s future as a single state lies in the battle for control of the oil

Even to the seasoned observer, the daily reports from Libya paint a picture of an incomprehensible, anarchic morass. But within the nationwide unrest and violence, Major General Robin Searby identifies a strategic play taking place that may decide the future shape and size of Libya, and with it, the rest of the North African region.

Despite denials all round, Libya is in a state of civil war; one country, two governments. Civil War is a ferocious and all-out struggle. The conflict in Libya is certainly creating centrifugal forces that could break the state apart. Yet at the same time elements of the government machinery continue to operate throughout the country and across conflict lines. The national power grid keeps going, albeit intermittently, and pensions are getting paid. This ‘carry on as normal’ attitude is slowly weakening but nevertheless suggests that there are still powerful binding forces across the country, giving some hope of a return to unity. 

Enlightened opinion views Libya rather simplistically as a country in which two forces, one secular and one Islamist, are actively opposing each other but neither side has the resources to force an outcome. Stalemate exists. The reality is more complicated: alongside the two main protagonists - the internationally recognised, secular government in Tobruk, and the claimant, Islamist government in Tripoli - there is a complex mesh of militias and local gangs who have seized land or assets as they demand resources or power. Intermixed within this are tribes and local communities who have scores to settle from the Qadhafi era when those who showed loyalty to the regime received preferential treatment.

The resultant attrition of the state’s manpower and resources is eroding its strength and capability. This environment provides a perfect breeding ground for the widespread and violent crime, particularly murder, armed robbery and kidnap that is rife today. 

Now, however, a greater sense of strategic purpose is emerging in the conflict between the secular and Islamist forces. Previously the loose groupings or militias on each side have concentrated on securing assets local to their area. They now recognise that neither side can win unless they can secure national assets vital to their survival and prosperity. The Misrata based militias, who make up much of the largely Islamist Libya Dawn forces, are aware that control of the capital, Tripoli, is insufficient to maintain a viable state. Without any control over the vital oil and gas assets - the principal source of national income - their regime would have no revenues. They have now committed forces to a serious struggle taking place in the Gulf of Sirte whose outcome will define the viability and shape of the Libyan state. This is covered later in the article.

Water as a Weapon

The most vital strategic service, provision of water, has been largely left alone. In simple terms the majority of Libya’s water comes from the south through two giant pipelines, one in the West and one in the East. They meet and join up on the Mediterranean coast. The secular Dignity forces (loyal to the internationally recognised Libyan government based in Tobruk) could, if they wished, shut down the Eastern pipeline leading to Misrata. The effect would be catastrophic. Whilst the Western pipeline would still be operating, it is much smaller and could not pump sufficient water to sustain the population.

Why hasn’t water been exploited as a “weapon” so far? The optimistic belief is that things will settle down, life will return to normal within a continuing Libyan state and thus water is too sacred to touch. Or possibly the two ‘governments’ in Tobruk and Tripoli are trying to woo international opinion, by showing that they are governing the whole population and not denying water to anyone. Or it may just be that the Civil War hasn’t got to that stage - yet. Whether they do reach that stage may well be defined by the outcome of the current battles over control of Libya’s oil and gas.

The Battle for Oil

The scale of the nationwide violence tends to obscure the significance of a strategic conflict taking place by the Gulf of Sirte, astride the Cyrenaican border. The border was established centuries ago when ambassadors from the ancient provinces of Roman Tripolitania and Greek Cyrenaica marched at an agreed time toward each other from their respective Capitols, Carthage and Cyrene. Where they met would decide the border.

Known as Marble Arch, the border lies 130 kilometres west of Ajdabiya in the Gulf of Sirte. On the Cyrenaican side lies approximately 80% of the oil and gas resources of Libya. It is not surprising that Libyans living outside Cyrenaica are overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining the integrity of Libya. Equally unsurprising is the growing movement inside Cyrenaica toward secession and independence. However, Libya’s largest oil export terminal is some miles outside Cyrenaica at As Sidra. Close by, at Ras Lanouf, is the biggest oil refinery. These two assets are pivotal to any ambitions of financial independence in Cyrenaica.

They are protected by Libya’s Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) under the command of Ibrahim Jadhran, a Cyrenaican. He is also the founder member of the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, a body that publicly supports federalism but whose stated aims are clearly secessionist. They are opposed by the forces of Libya Dawn, the military arm of the “claimant” government in Tripoli. There has been fierce fighting in the Wadi al Ahmar (Red Wadi) to the west of As Sidra. The seizure of the oil facilities at As Sidra and Ras Lanuf is a vital objective for Libya Dawn, important enough for them to withdraw from southern Libya to reinforce their assaulting forces. They have even tried a surprise assault from the sea; it failed, but caused grievous damage to oil storage facilities.

Libya Dawn has not dislodged the PGF despite a serious assault on 4th February which left many casualties on both sides. A potentially serious escalation took place at the same time with an attack on the Mabruk oil field 100 miles to the south: gunmen killed and kidnapped a number of guards and site staff. If Libya Dawn was involved in the assault it would indicate a significant shift in their tactics, reinforcing the vital importance of the Cyrenaican energy assets to them; and perhaps also their desperation.

The outcome of this particular struggle is likely to determine the future shape of Libya as a whole.  

Attitudes are hardening in Cyrenaica as they also attempt to force the Islamists of Ansar Al Sharia out of Benghazi and Derna.  If the Libyan Dawn Forces cannot break the stalemate there is a possibility that Cyrenaican opinion will shift further towards independence and a new international border in the Red Wadi.  

This would give satisfaction to the Cyrenaican ambassadors who settled the original border. When the two sides met, the Cyrenaicans accused Carthage of cheating by running and claimed that the border should be further west. The Ambassadors from Carthage were buried alive on the spot!

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