For Now, Militia Leader's Posturing Unlikely to Affect Libyan Oil Exports

4 MINS READNov 4, 2014 | 22:52 GMT
Libyan Militia Leader's Posturing Unlikely to Affect Oil Exports
A picture taken on Aug. 6 shows a Libyan oil tanker arriving at the port of Tripoli.

Libyan rebel leader Ibrahim Jadhran, a militia commander whose forces currently control some of Libya's most important energy infrastructure, announced Nov. 1 that he would not surrender control of Libya's eastern oil terminals to Operation Dawn despite an offer of power and money. The Tripoli-based Operation Dawn has installed a rival government under the previously dissolved General National Congress — a direct challenge to the elected Tubruq-based House of Representatives — and controls much of western Libya.

Jadhran's politically savvy announcements are meant to remind Libyan stakeholders and the international community that he controls almost half of Libya's oil export capacity. Jadhran is putting himself and his followers, who support a federal political structure with greater power to local governments, particularly in the east, in a stronger negotiating position. Knowing how much the Tubruq leadership depends on his cooperation, Jadhran is likely to continue leveraging his loyalty to extract political concessions but is unlikely to disrupt Libyan oil exports suddenly in the near future.

Jadhran leads a large militia composed of elements from Libya's Petroleum Facilities Guard, which is responsible for protecting the country's oil infrastructure, and the powerful al-Margharba tribe. Jadhran's forces rejoined the Libyan Petroleum Facilities Guard as part of an agreement struck in April, though they remain loyal to their rebel commander. Their continued presence at the eastern oil terminals, including Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, grants Jadhran effective control over approximately 500,000 barrels per day of oil export capacity.

Jadhran entered a negotiated agreement with the former General National Congress in July, allowing oil exports to resume after a nearly yearlong cutoff in exchange for political and economic concessions, including the placement of Jadhran loyalists within state security forces. Jadhran has largely remained out of the political spotlight since exports resumed in September — a change from his former brash image and flashy style. Nevertheless, Jadhran has been trying to push his federalist political agenda in hopes that the new government in Tubruq will be able to draft a constitution that would expand the powers of local governments, particularly in the eastern Cyrenaica region — a scenario for which Jadhran has advocated for more than a year.

Libya's Urban and Rural Power Centers

Libya's Urban and Rural Power Centers

Ideologically and politically, Jadhran and Operation Dawn are almost diametrically opposed. Operation Dawn is dominated by powerful militias from the western Libyan city of Misurata. Yet its coalition of forces represent Islamists, anti-federalists and various tribes and militias oppose Jadhran personally and politically in his push to limit Tripoli's (and thus western Libya's) overall power. A deal between the two sides, including the unlikely scenario in which Jadhran would relinquish control over eastern Libyan export terminals and render himself vulnerable to imprisonment, would seem unthinkable.

Jadhran's announcement instead serves as a reminder to the competing factions in Libya's fractured political and tribal landscape that he is still a factor and continues to control critical infrastructure. Most important, Jadhran also is signaling that he is open to negotiations. A savvy political actor, Jadhran likely is angling for more financial and political rewards as the internationally recognized government in Tubruq seeks to expand its authority over Benghazi and eastern Libya in general.

Jadhran probably wants to remind the government in Tubruq of his recent loyalty — positioning himself to secure a political position in either the eastern Libyan government or the military ahead of rivals such as retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter or the Bukhamada clan, which retains strong support from a rival faction of the Petroleum Facilities Guards as well as from the military's elite special forces.

The country's Oil Ministry halted reporting of total oil export volumes earlier this year due to a lack of reliable metering equipment, but current production is estimated at approximately 800,000 barrels per day — below the 1.3 million barrel per day production levels reached following the 2011 uprising against former leader Moammar Gadhafi. In the short term, Jadhran is unlikely to halt export flows and risk undermining the trust and goodwill built over the past few months. A long-term deal between Jadhran and western Libyan tribal and political groups will be untenable in the long run; a scenario in which Operation Dawn forces are able to secure control over Libya's institutions (especially the Supreme Court, Oil Ministry and Central Bank) would be the most likely circumstance to trigger a retaliatory shutoff in crude exports.

Similarly, if Operation Dawn is able to control more of the oil fields and infrastructure in the interior Sirte Basin, in conjunction with securing export revenues, the government in Tubruq and its international partners may be able to convince Jadhran to halt exports in exchange for financial and political rewards. Both scenarios are medium- to long-term endeavors, however, as Operation Dawn and Hifter's Operation Dignity are involved in a series of entrenched clashes across the country. In the short term, Jadhran is unlikely to halt export flows without an initial warning or outside of a broader negotiation with either Tripoli or Tubruq. If his Nov. 1 announcement is any indication of future activity, Jadhran will be sure to clearly explain and broadcast his demands before taking any action. Currently, few actors within Libya are capable of directly challenging Jadhran's position at the terminals through force, and no entity is able to guarantee his political demands within a broader constitutional format.

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