Against the backdrop of ongoing warfare on the outskirts of Tripoli between forces fighting for the Government of National Accord (GNA) and those of the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, regional and international powers have intensified efforts this week to reduce tensions in the hope the UN can resume plans for a political process put on hold since 4 April.
Meanwhile, parallel to an ongoing controversy over oil sales and revenues, Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, speaking from Cairo, said the Libyan parliament should be given oversight of transactions of the Libyan Central Bank involving oil revenues.
Three central concerns informed a spate of coordinated communications between various local, regional and international parties who have been working to find a way out of the military and political deadlock in Libya: illegal migration, oil and terrorism.
The Islamic State group (IS) reared its head again in Libya this week. On Monday, AMAQ, a news outlet affiliated with IS, broadcast a video that was subsequently circulated on social networking sites showing dozens of masked fighters in military uniform in a number of four-wheel vehicles in Libya.
In the more than four-minute video, which was filmed in a desert location that is believed to be in southern Libya, fighters proclaimed allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
The video also included a speech by the founder of IS’s Libyan affiliate, Mahmoud Al-Baraasi, aka Abu Musaab Al-Libi, vowing revenge against the LNA.
On 24 July 2018, LNA command announced that it had killed Baraasi during fighting that ensued with members of his group who were on the run after having attacked a police station in Aguila, a town located at the south of the Gulf of Sidra, killing three soldiers and wounding three others.
It is unclear when the film was shot, which raises even more questions regarding the timing of its release. IS had claimed responsibility for two terrorist attacks against LNA facilities in southern Libya since January 2019, when the LNA launched an operation to bring Fezzan province under its control.
The question of illegal migration took a tragic turn with the bombing of a detention centre for illegal immigrants 3 July, stirring outrage among humanitarian organisations.
More than 50 people were killed in the strike against the facility, which is located in Tajoura to the east of Tripoli. The GNA and LNA accused each other.
After an initial failed attempt to produce a statement, due to disputes among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Security Council finally issued its first statement on the situation around the Libyan capital. It called on all concerned parties to deescalate and return to the negotiating table.
With regard to the third issue — oil — the National Oil Corporation (NOC) warned against attempts to sell Libyan oil outside official and internationally recognised channels.
It accused members of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives of signing oil sale contracts with “fake” individuals and companies at prices lower than international rates. It warned of the possible impact this could have on global fuel supplies, especially at a time when the US is trying to halt Iranian oil exports.
The three issues — energy, illegal immigration and terrorism — are essentially what have riveted international and regional attention on Libya.
As the battle for control over Tripoli continues, the gravity of these concerns is likely to worsen, which helps explain the intensification of regional and international activity on Libya last week.
On Thursday, 3 July, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had a phone call with US President Donald Trump to discuss a number of regional issues, among which was the Libyan crisis.
The two presidents agreed on the need to intensify joint efforts to support the unity and stability of Libya and to end the current impasse.
On Friday, 4 July, European ambassadors to Libya met with the governor of the Libyan Central Bank, Al-Siddik Al-Kabir, to discuss the difficult economic situation in Libya and the country’s budget for 2019.
They also discussed monitoring the transactions of certain commercial banks and illegal expenditures of the temporary government in Beida.
Of particular concern was the question of international review of the Central Bank in Tripoli and its parallel structure in the east, a process that was supposed to take place under the supervision of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) but was delayed for reasons UNSMIL has not divulged.
Also, that Friday, Haftar acknowledged NOC’s exclusive right to sell oil. However, in interview with Bloomberg, he stressed: “Oil is a vital sector that touches the livelihoods of Libyans. Its proceeds should be distributed through a just system that can benefit all Libyans equally.”
Asked to respond to NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla’s charge that the LNA is using oil facilities for military purposes, Haftar denied the claim, adding: “But if we need to — and itʼs unlikely — we wonʼt hesitate,” vowing to press on until “Tripoli has been liberated from terrorism.”
Responding to the Bloomberg interview, Sanallah demanded the dissolution of the parallel oil company in the east which “tried to steal Libyan oil and market it at paltry prices”.
In the latest development in the Cyrenaica-Tripoli altercation over oil sales, Aguila Saleh urged UNSMIL to give the House of Representatives the power to exercise oversight on the Libyan Central Bank, which manages revenues from oil sales.
In a television interview, aired in Cairo Monday morning, Saleh accused the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, which the House of Representatives has designated a terrorist organisation, of having taken control over the bank and spending billions of dollars of oil revenues on “terrorist groups and militias.”
In the interview, Saleh said that the House of Representatives supports the Libyan army in its struggle to liberate the capital from the clutches of terrorist organisations and militias, just has it had succeeded in securing the safety of oil installations and facilities.
He said that it alarmed him to see oil revenues flowing into the hands of militia groups after all that the LNA and Haftar have done to secure oil fields and oil terminals.
On the political process, Saleh said that the political agreement signed by Libyan factions in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015 “achieved nothing” and “contributed nothing” to solving the Libyan crisis. He stressed that the GNA that emerged from the Skhirat agreement was “illegitimate” since it had not obtained the confidence of parliament.
He called for a return to the Constitutional Declaration of 2011 and the election of a new president in that framework. He urged all parties to respect Libya’s governing constitutional document.
Saleh vehemently condemned Turkey’s interference in Libyan domestic affairs and its military support for the militias controlling the capital.
He said he was surprised at President Erdogan’s support for the “illegitimate” GNA and hoped that the Turkish president would reconsider his position “which generates animosity between the Libyan and Turkish peoples”. He also called on Ankara to withdraw military personnel who are “supporting the militias and terrorist groups in Tripoli”.
On the initiative announced by Chairman of the GNA’s Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj, last month, Saleh said that Al-Sarraj “should cease his alliances with the terrorist groups and militias in the capital and prevent the flow of oil revenues to those groups.
There should be a mechanism that would include representatives from the House of Representatives to monitor the flow of revenues.” He also called on Al-Sarraj to “stop demanding the international condemnation of the Libyan National Army, to acknowledge its role in the war against terrorism, and to work for the release of prisoners held by the militia groups”.
He said that Al-Sarraj’s commitment to such steps would be “a good faith gesture” but added that he doubted Al-Sarraj had the power to take them, “since he is controlled by the militias on which he has spent $2.4 billion.”
On the ground in Libya, despite the fact that GNA forces succeeded in gaining control over the strategic town of Gharyan south of the capital, the military situation remains deadlocked.
LNA forces have intensified aerial assaults against GNA positions in order to prevent GNA forces from seizing the initiative or waging counter attacks. The fighting appears most intense in the vicinity of the airport, Qasr Bin Ghashir and Tarhouna.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Containing escalation in Libya