In a move that took many by surprise at home and abroad, Libyan National Army Spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Al-Mismari announced, 25 June, that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar had decided to hand over control of the oil terminals in northeast Libya to the National Oil Corporation (NOC) based in Benghazi as opposed to the internationally recognised NOC based in Tripoli.
The step may have come as an embarrassment to France, Haftar’s main international ally.
The field marshal, together with representatives of key institutions in Libya, had proclaimed his approval of the “Paris Declaration” that called for the gradual elimination of parallel government structures in Libya.
The handover of the oil ports to the eastern-based NOC works in the opposite direction, which is to strengthen the institutional bifurcation that began in 2014 when the House of Representatives in Tobruk formed a government and established the Benghazi-based NOC, a central bank and other institutions parallel to those that existed in Tripoli.
The Tripoli-based NOC has remained the internationally recognised petroleum authority and is now subordinate to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
On 27 June, the governments of the US, UK, Italy and France issued a joint statement in response to Haftar’s action, calling on him to restore control over the petroleum terminals and fields in the petroleum crescent region to the internationally recognised authority in Tripoli. “Any attempts to circumvent the UN
Security Council’s Libya sanctions regime will cause deep harm to Libya’s economy, exacerbate its humanitarian crisis, and undermine its broader stability.
The international community will hold those who undermine Libya’s peace, security and stability to account,” the statement cautioned, adding: “We call for all armed actors to cease hostilities and withdraw immediately from oil installations without conditions before further damage occurs.”
Expressing their deep concern over the announcement that the Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil fields and facilities would be transferred “to the control of an entity other than the legitimate National Oil Corporation in Tripoli,” the four governments stressed, “Libya’s oil facilities, production and revenues belong to the Libyan people.
These vital Libyan resources must remain under the exclusive control of the legitimate National Oil Corporation and the sole oversight of the Government of National Accord (GNA), as outlined in UN Security Council Resolutions 2259 (2015), 2278 (2016) and 2362 (2017).
UN Security Council Resolution 2362 (2017) condemns attempts to illicitly export petroleum, including crude oil and refined petroleum products, from Libya by parallel institutions which are not acting under the authority of the GNA.”
Before this move, Haftar had succeeded in regaining control of the Ras Lanuf and Sidra oil facilities which had been seized in a surprise attack staged on 14 June by forces loyal to the former commander of Petroleum Facilities Guards Ibrahim Al-Jadhran.
That was the second attack against these facilities in less than a year and a half and it threw into relief the fragile situation of the field marshal’s forces in the petroleum crescent region which is torn by acute tensions between social and tribal factions, one of which is the Magharba tribe to which Al-Jadhran belongs.
The Tripoli-based NOC condemned Haftar’s decision to hand over control of the petroleum ports and fields to the “parallel” NOC in the east and called on the GNA and international community to convince Haftar to change his mind.
The petroleum authority likened Haftar’s recent action to that of his current adversary in the east, Ibrahim Al-Jadhran, who seized control of the oil terminals in the summer of 2013, a time when significant portions of eastern Libya had begun to push for greater autonomy in the framework of a federal system. Al-Jadhran, at the time, entered into an alliance with the eastern strongman, but this quickly frayed following the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan National Accord in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015.
On Monday, the NOC in Tripoli declared force majeure on the ports and fields in eastern Libya. In a circular to petroleum firms, it asked them not to heed any instructions, correspondence or request from agencies that were not internationally recognised.
The Benghazi-based NOC responded in kind by preventing tankers from loading petroleum consignments based on contracts signed by the Tripoli-based NOC.
The interruption in exports caused by Haftar’s action precipitated a halt in production because the storage tanks at the terminals were now filled to capacity. “This latest move by [Haftar] threatens calamity for Libya.
Loss of exports is already costing $33m a day,” Tripoli-based NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanaalla wrote in a letter to The Financial Times on 28 June.
Some believe that Haftar’s decision to transfer control over the petroleum facilities to Benghazi over which he exercises direct control was in order to pressure authorities in Tripoli to replace the current governor of the Central Bank in Libya, Sadek Omar Elkaber, with Mohamed Shukri who is favoured by the House of Representatives in Tobruk. If successful, it could strengthen Haftar’s influence over the bank via his allies in the House.
Cairo hosted a meeting between House of Representatives Speaker Aquila Saleh and three members of the Higher State Council in Tripoli — Ahmed Lanqi, Kamel Al-Jatlawi and Morei Rahil — to discuss the latest developments in the petroleum crescent and ways to unify the bifurcated institutions in Libya, such as the central bank.
The participants also explored the possibility of creating a unified government capable of winning the confidence of the House of Representatives which refuses to deal with the Tripoli-based Presidency Council and the GNA.
The Cairo meeting was met with disapproval on the part of the chairman of the Higher State Council who said that any rapprochement initiatives outside of the framework of the Libyan National Accord would not be recognised, although he stressed that the council was not averse to engaging in exchanges and discussions on ways to bring an end to the Libyan crisis.
The reaction reflects fears in Tripoli of plans to install a new central bank governor at the expense of the political interests of influential parties in western Libya.
In a related development, diplomatic sources have reported that the US Charge d’Affaires in Libya Stephanie Williams has been appointed as a deputy to the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salame.
Observers believe that Washington sees Salame as too close to the French and engineered the appointment as a means “to put UNSMIL back on track”.
Salame, for his part, has appealed to Libyans to work to free their country from the enormous amount of external intervention in their crisis. In a statement to the press following his meeting with Tunisian Foreign Minister Khamis Jahnawi, in Tunis, Salame said: “Libya’s sovereignty is being violated as a result of the absence of secure borders and a unified central authority, protected by the army, police, which has increased the threat of foreign military intervention.” He did not amplify on what he meant by “military intervention”.
As the UN representative suggests, the situation in Libya is likely to deteriorate against the backdrop of recent developments in the petroleum crescent.
Libyan sources have predicted that Ibrahim Al-Jadhran’s forces will go on the offensive again in the area. Reports that forces loyal to Haftar bombed houses belonging to the Jadhran family in Ajdabiya lend weight to this prediction.
Ajdabiya is the Jadhran family’s stronghold and furnishes the former commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guards a base for shelter and support.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Still divided