In the after COVID-19 era, the Libyan civil war continues to be a highly complicated geopolitical issue of extremely significant economic importance to Europe, and there are already many stakeholders involved. So many that it is difficult to come to an agreement. Some of those stakeholders seem to have an unstated but clear interest in controlling the energy flow to Europe for political gain.
Libya, has become, like Syria, the battlefield for a proxy war between opposing forces that are now embroiled throughout the Middle East, the Gulf, and the Maghreb. The lines that were first drawn years ago when the so-called “Arab Spring” destabilized regimes throughout the region and led to the mess we see today, linger…
Why Libya’s civil war lingers…
Libya holds Africa’s largest crude reserves, according to the Libyan Petroleum Institute responsible for the extraction, refining, and export of petroleum. However, nine years of conflict and violence in the country since the 2011 ouster of ruler Muammar Gaddafi have hobbled production and exports.
The Libyan problem has an important impact in the European Union as Libya is a major oil producer of sulfur-free crude. Hydrocarbons are the pivot in this issue, as it is in this whole conflict. All the stakeholders are hydrocarbon producers, or wanabees. At a first glance, hydrocarbons permeate the playing field. Crises in these hydrocarbon producing regions, in many ways rule the world. All major players are Oil and NG producers, and their proxies “sit astride” transit routes, or dream of the conquest and piracy of the sources of others, who are more than willing to taste the plunder.
Libya’s state National Oil Corporation (NOC) recently announced that for the period 2016-2019 oil exports were down by 92.3%, losing more than $100 billion since the country’s oil blockade. Libya’s cumulative losses from January’s oil blockade have neared $5 billion. While international energy institutions say that most of Libya’s oil reserves have remained untapped, the conflict has hit extraction of oil from the existing resources.
On January 17, just the day before International Berlin Conference, Ibrahim Cadran’s armed group called “Petroleum Facilities Guards” affiliated with General Haftar’s LNA, closed oil facilities in Sidra, Ra’s Lanuf, Briga, Zueitine, and Hariga, seizing large export terminals, including El-Sharara and El-Feel oilfields, to cut off major pipelines aiming to choke the UN-backed government of significant revenue. The oil production activities of Sharara and El-Fil oil wells in the south of the country had been earlier stopped by these groups in February 2019. The production in the area accounts for 60% of oil exports.
When energy and geopolitics collide head-on
The new adversaries, of course, include the USA and Russia. Siding with Russia, at this point are Syria, Iran, while Turkey and Qatar are courting and being courted by this group.
The US has a staunch ally in Israel, strong allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. It has been a much more vocal and active supporter of Greece and Cyprus, and there is renewed cooperation with France.
The EU strives to find a coherent position, while at the same time is trying to remain in the picture of the Libyan crisis as a primary actor.
The UK is mired with all the after COVID-19 shock and Brexit business and has interests in maintaining a shadowy condition as a “guarantor” power for Cyprus.
China has its own problems with the US in another part of the world, and in this theater is just biding time.
As the UN continues to hold various unsuccessful rounds of negotiations, the original constellation of outside actors funneling money and weaponry to rival groups within Libya -in violation of a its Arms Embargo- underwent certain modifications.
The Berlin Libyan Conference
The Berlin Conference unanimously agreed, as Chancellor Angela Merkel said, to respect the arms embargo set by the UN and to control it more effectively than it has been in the past. Such a decision clearly implies that the Conference decided to keep equal distances from the belligerent parties, despite previous open support to Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj.
The Conference was successful in the sense that the organizers managed to get both belligerent parties, not to speak directly to each other but to speak separately with all other actors, which was quite something.
EUNAVFOR MED IRINI
The European Union is trying to remain in the picture of the Libyan crisis as a primary actor, albeit not so successfuly. “IRINI“a Greek word for “peace”, has as its core task the implementation of the UN arms embargo through the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets. In particular the mission was organised to carry out inspections of vessels on the high seas off the coast of Libya suspected to be carrying arms or related material to and from Libya in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2292 (2016).
However, resent incidents with French and Greek vessels, against a turkish cargo ship and its escort of 3 turkish frigates, strongly indicates the ineficiensy of the Force to complete its mission, owed mainly to the indifference and/or weakness of European Union to impose its intentions in the area.
These incidents raises a number of issues such as whether Operation Irini can in practice monitor the embargo.
Turkey turns the tide in Libya?
Currently a proxy war is being fought in Libya: Turkey and Qatar against Egypt, UAEs and Saudi Arabia, who want everything but Turkish hegemony over Libya and vice versa. Libya, however, must be considered within the framework of a set of political, economic and military relations that are now very broad and concern the interconnection between Libya and Africa, including sub-Saharan Africa.
What does Turkey want from al-Sarraj’s Libya? First and foremost a primary economic and strategic role in the future Libyan reconstruction. Secondly the autonomous drilling of the above stated oil maritime areas in the Eastern Mediterranean region, disputed between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. The GNA has long authorized the Turkish Petroleum Company to carry out exploration in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The success of Turkey’s latest gambit is by no means a foregone conclusion, given the myriad twists and turns of Libya’s post-2011 trajectory, and the possibility that pandemic-related economic woes could force Ankara to temper its ambitions.
Turkey’s ability to maintain a durable presence in Libya signals its dominance among the outside powers seeking to influence the sparsely populated but oil-rich nation, since longtime dictator Muammar Ghaddafi was ousted in 2011.
The Russia–Turkey equilibrium
Libya is just one of a handful of touchy subjects for Ankara and Moscow. Moscow has sought to expand its influence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and supported that mission through military escapades. Strengthening the Russian military position in North Africa will undoubtedly provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with a much tighter grip over Europe and possibly even deep-rooted influence and control in the wider MENA region.
According to reports, Russia recently transferred more than a dozen fighter jets to al-Jufra. Turkey anticipates that Russia has plans to turn al-Jufra into a military base. The spectre of Russia establishing a military base in Libya also haunts the U.S. and NATO.
Egypt’s message to Turkey
Nowadays, the bone of contention is the port city of Sirte and al-Jufra airbase in the central region. Sirte is adjacent to the so-called “oil crescent” comprising Libya’s key oil terminals, and the GNA and Turkey intend to gain control over them.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s announcement of the Cairo initiative to resolve the Libyan crisis, was soon followed by a massive deployment of troops on the Egyptian-Libyan border.
Egypt had announced an anti-Turkey alliance that includes Greece, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and France to confront Turkish moves in Libya and the Mediterranean. The announcement was made during a virtual meeting with the foreign ministers of these countries on May 11. President Al-Sisi’s initiative is obviously designed to regain control of the situation in Libya, after Khalifa Haftar’s evident defeat, in open conflict and competition with Turkey.
Cairo believes that the opportunism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will make him persist in his reckless endeavour by continuing to favour and support the military option.
for further analysis of the conflict see: OP “IRINI”: The Force that watched arms go by incompetent or unwilling to take action…