US-sponsored negotiations to enable Libyan oil facilities to resume operations broke down last weekend according to a statement by the US Embassy in Tripoli on Sunday (12 July). Talks had begun several weeks earlier between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and National Oil Corporation (NOC), on the one hand, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) and what the statement refers to as the LNA’s “foreign backers” on the other. The NOC’s announcement 10 July that it had lifted force majeure and resumed its operations had raised hopes that the negotiations would succeed. The breakdown once again increases the chances of military escalation along the Sirte-Jafra front.
The US Embassy statement specifically blamed “incursions by Wagner mercenaries against NOC facilities”, as well as “mixed messages conceived in foreign capitals and conveyed by the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) on 11 July” for the breakdown in talks, while it simultaneously indicated that part of the problem lay in the “illegal obstruction of the long-overdue audit of the banking sector” which “undermines the desire of all Libyans for economic transparency”.
The statement added: “The door remains open for all who lay down weapons, reject foreign manipulation and come together in peaceful dialogue to be a part of the solution; however, those who undermine Libya’s economy and cling to military escalation will face isolation and risk of sanctions.”
The same day, the NOC issued a statement announcing that it had to reimpose force majeure on oil facilities nationwide. It explicitly blamed the UAE for instructing Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces to shut down production and called on the UN Security Council to hold to account states responsible for the renewed oil blockade on Libyan oil exports.
On Friday, 10 July, the NOC announced that it had lifted force majeure on all oil exports from Libya and that the first vessel to load was the Kriti Bastion at Al-Sider oil port.
However, on Saturday, the LNA General Command announced that the blockade of the port would continue until a thorough audit was performed on the Tripoli-based Libyan Central Bank, a special account to deposit oil revenues was opened in another country and a clear mechanism was created to ensure the just distribution of these revenues among the Libyan people. The statement, by LNA spokesperson Ahmed Al-Mismari, also demanded international guarantees that the revenues would not be channelled into the hands of “terrorists and mercenaries”, referring to the mercenaries that Turkey has flown into Libya from Syria.
Expressing its disappointment at the reversal in the LNA’s cooperative posture in negotiations, the NOC, in its 12 July statement, said that it “has been informed that the instructions to shut down production were given to Khalifa Haftar’s armed forces by the UAE. This is gravely disappointing, especially following repeated statements by very senior representatives of the UAE last week in support of international efforts to restart oil production in Libya.”
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar, on Monday, stated: “The UAE, alongside its partners, wants to see a return to oil production in Libya as soon as possible, with safeguards in place to prevent the proceeds fuelling further conflict. We continue to work for an immediate ceasefire and return to a political process.”
He stressed that the political process was “the only way to end the control of militias over large portions of Libyan territory”.
The NOC called on all mercenaries to withdraw from Libyan oil facilities. It maintained that “Wagner and Syrian mercenaries now occupy Es-Sider oil port and Wagner and Sudanese mercenaries are camped within the vicinity of the Sharara oil field, preventing Libyan oil from flowing.”
NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla appeared pessimistic over the prospects for the resumption of Libyan oil production and exports, although he expressed his organisation’s appreciation for UN and US efforts to restart production and avert an escalation in the conflict. “If these efforts fail, as it appears they will, there must be consequences for the actions of the handful of states that are undermining the rule-based international order and destroying Libya. They pose a grave threat to Libyan and global security.”
Before the negotiations broke down, Sanalla had spent three weeks in talks in Cairo, Tunisia and Paris, speaking with officials from Egypt, the UAE, France and Russia, in the hope of enabling the NOC to resume operations in oil facilities that are currently under the control of the LNA, which is backed by these four countries.
The negotiations have essentially revolved around the demand to restart NOC operations versus demands for proper financial transparency and a fair distribution of oil revenues. Officials at the Tripoli-based Libyan Central Bank, where oil revenues have been deposited, have been accused of corruption and tampering with the distribution of revenues. A parallel Central Bank was established in Cyrenaica in 2014 and it, too, has been included in the demands for auditing and banking sector reform.
Speaker of the House of Representatives in Tobruk Aguila Saleh met with Acting UN Special Representative to Libya Stephanie Williams in Geneva on Friday (10 July) to discuss “the revival of political dialogue” and “the need to intensify efforts to find an inclusive political solution to the Libyan crisis”, according to a statement by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which Williams heads. The talks also covered the resumption of oil production and exports.
The breakdown in negotiations to restart NOC facilities occurred a week after an air strike against Al-Watiya Airbase. Sources in Tripoli claim it was carried out by a French Rafael fighter jet that took off from an airbase in Chad, and by Russian MiG and Sukhoi fighters that took off from Al-Jafra Airbase. Turkey says it is investigating the incident that destroyed two fighter planes it had stowed in the hangars at Al-Watiya at the ready to be deployed in the conflict.
Turkey has dismissed calls for a ceasefire in Libya at present. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a TV statement Monday that the GNA would not benefit from a ceasefire along the current lines of combat and that Sirte and Al-Jafra airbases had to be turned over to the GNA before it agrees to a ceasefire.
The escalatory message comes as the EU considers new sanctions against Turkey for its disturbing acts that threaten European interests and security, according to a statement by EU High Representative Josep Borrell following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels Sunday. Borrell urged Ankara to “cooperate with European institutions and countries and engage in the pacification process, whether by stopping the repeated violations of the UN resolution banning the supply of arms to Libya and stopping illegal exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean”.
In Tripoli, the GNA announced that it has reinforced its positions west of Sirte in anticipation of an amassment of forces on the other side.
Al-Mismari responded that LNA forces were ready to intercept any military escalation by Turkey.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly