Last week, the former commander of Libya’s Petroleum Facilities Guards, Ibrahim Al-Jadhran, resurfaced in headlines after nearly a two-year hiatus.
On Thursday, 14 June, his forces seized control over two oil terminals in the petroleum crescent region following a surprise attack against the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar which had driven Al-Jadhran’s forces from the port area on 11 September 2016.
This is the first military flare-up since the Paris Declaration on 29 May. Many fear it will spiral out of control and plunge the country again into war against the backdrop of a stalled political process and the failure of local and international efforts to end four years of political and regional polarisation.
Ibrahim Al-Jadhran, a prominent warlord, is a former ally of Haftar and the internationally recognised Government of National Accord.
His strength and reputation grew when, in the summer of 2013, he first seized control of the main oil terminals in the petroleum crescent area which extends from Ajdabiya (southwest of Benghazi) to the eastern outskirts of Sirte.
The military operation was part of a series of punitive measures he undertook in protest against authorities in Tripoli at the time whom he accused of ignoring the rights of the eastern region of Cyrenaica.
Last Thursday, Al-Jadhran captured the ports of Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra. It was the second operation of this sort after Haftar expelled Al-Jadhran’s forces from the area in September 2016.
In March 2017, the Benghazi Defence Brigades seized control of the same terminals, although Haftar’s forces managed to recapture them several days later. Perhaps for this reason, the Libyan National Army initially attributed the attack to “terrorists” from the Benghazi Defence Brigades, even though this militant organisation disbanded itself about a year ago after having failed to stage a comeback in Benghazi.
In a statement released Thursday, Al-Jadhran said that his forces included Petroleum Facilities Guards and auxiliary forces drawn from the Magharba and Tabu tribes and other peoples of the petroleum crescent area. He indicated that other forces from the areas of Benghazi, Al-Jebel Al-Akhdar and Al-Batnan in eastern Libya would join his forces which, he stressed, were opposed to extremism and terrorism.
“This is a battle to end the injustice against the people of the petroleum crescent, not a battle for personal, tribal, regional or political party gain,” he said, adding that oil flows would continue uninterruptedly under the supervision of the National Petroleum Authority and that he would not use oil as a pressure card.
Haftar’s forces quickly moved into action to recapture the facilities and as the Weekly went to print the two sides are still battling in what appears to be a feud between Haftar and Al-Jadhran and their respective foreign backers.
The National Petroleum Authority evacuated its staff from Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra following the outbreak of fighting. In a statement posted on its Website, it estimated that production had plunged to 240,000 barrels of oil and that an oil tanker that had been scheduled to enter the port of Al-Sidra had to be delayed.
The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) condemned the attack against the Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra ports. “This dangerous escalation puts Libya’s economy in jeopardy and risks igniting a widespread confrontation,” it stated.
The Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli also condemned the “illegitimate” attack.
On the other hand, the Magharba tribal council released a statement confirming that fighters with Al-Jadhran are Petroleum Facilities Guards, most of whom are Magharba who, the statement stressed, “proved instrumental in the counterterrorist fight against ISIS which had been present in the Nawfala and Jawad areas and in the central region in general”.
The council called on “all sides to exercise restraint” and “to create the circumstances for the safe and voluntary return of displaced persons, because there must be no repetition of the tragic error of ignoring the return of displaced persons, especially those who played no part in shedding the blood of the Libyan people.”
The council expressed its “dismay” at the failure of “the governments in the east and west to address the problem of the forced migration of more than 475 youths from the Magharba tribe and 150 families, not to mention those from other social components”. It also condemned the use of the accusations of terrorism and kidnapping to stereotype tribal identities which only “defers a smaller battle to a larger battle later on”.
The council concluded with a call for an immediate ceasefire and a halt to the military aircraft overhead, adding that it had formed “task groups to communicate with all sides”.
The unprecedented entrance of the Magharba tribal council into the crisis between Haftar and Al-Jadhran is a sign that the conflict in Libya’s volatile central region has entered a new and unpredictable phase.
It is noteworthy that no pre-emptory measures had been taken in advance of Al-Jadhran’s recent attack even though army sources said that they had received intelligence concerning such a likelihood. If so, this raises questions regarding the role played by regional and international powers in this sudden outbreak in hostilities, especially given the increasing influence of foreign parties in the Libyan crisis and over local players.
Is it a sign that some parties are set upon plunging the country back into the cycle of war in light of the ongoing inability of the UN to promote the political settlement process and against the backdrop of intense regional competition over Libya by parties determined to advance their ambitions to the detriment of the interests of their rivals?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Conflict returns to petroleum crescent