snapshots

Libya: Will Power Shift After Hifter's Victory?

4 MINS READFeb 12, 2019 | 21:11 GMT
The Big Picture

A patchwork of governments and militias have vied for control of Libya since 2014, when the country's united government collapsed. Since then, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord has become prominent, as has Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter's Libyan National Army, which is based in Libya's east. Now, however, the balance of power might be shifting, especially as Hifter's forces have just captured the Sharara oil field in the country's southwest, which accounts for a full quarter of Libya's output.

What Happened

He's already eastern Libya's biggest power broker, but now he's gained control over most of the explorative and extractive, or upstream, oil industry in the country's southwest. Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter and the force he commands, the Libyan National Army (LNA), assumed control over the Sharara oil field in the country's southwestern Fezzan region on Feb. 12 after negotiations secured the departure of the 30th Battalion, which is aligned with the Government of National Accord's (GNA) recently appointed Ali Kanna. According to news reports, Tuareg elders intervened to prevent fighting, persuading the 30th Battalion to depart. For the moment, the LNA has said it has appointed the 173rd Brigade to handle security at Sharara, whose output normally totals 300,000 barrels per day. The oil field is now ready to pump oil, but it is the Tripoli-based National Oil Corp. (NOC) that will make the final decision as to when to restart production, according to an LNA spokesman.

Why It Matters

By capturing Sharara, which accounts for roughly 25 percent of Libya's oil output, Hifter has increased his control over the country's upstream oil industry and consolidated his position as a figure central to the North African nation's future. The biggest question is what Hifter plans to do next. After he went through a rocky period with the Tripoli-based NOC — stemming in part from a demand from his allies that he back a rival National Oil Corp. in the east — Hifter now enjoys a much better relationship with the Tripoli-based NOC, while he's also made some new allies with Tuareg and other groups in Fezzan during his push toward Sharara. The LNA's spokesman has said the force has no intentions of pushing toward the region's other major oil field, El Feel, which is under the control of other militias, but other clouds could be looming on Hifter's horizon.

For one, Hifter is a divisive figure, meaning his next moves could determine the fate of future funding for his forces. At present, both the GNA and the eastern-based government have appointed competing heads to the Central Bank of Libya, which has been paying the salaries for members of the LNA. If Hifter moves northward from Sharara toward Tripoli, the GNA could lean on its appointed bank governor to cease funding for a powerful adversary that increasingly threatens its own position.

Given that Sharara and other production facilities are now in his hands, Hifter has some cards to play.

But given that Sharara and other production facilities are now in his hands, Hifter also has some cards to play. Accordingly, he could block upstream production in an effort to force the GNA to recognize the eastern-backed government's choice for the Central Bank of Libya as part of any unity negotiations.

Background

On Dec. 17, NOC declared force majeure at the site in response to ongoing protests in which locals had demanded more public spending for the underdeveloped Fezzan region, prompting the 30th Battalion to halt oil production at Sharara. Because of the standoff, the GNA appointed Kanna — a loyalist of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and a former military commander — earlier this month to head the Sabha Military Zone force in Fezzan and oppose Hifter's activities in the region.

Last month, NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla also said he wanted to create a new petroleum guard force under the auspices of his organization to ensure security at facilities like Sharara, while adding that the LNA could provide such services on an interim basis. Ultimately, now that the LNA has gained control of the oil field, the sands in Libya's long conflict may be shifting.

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