Libya’s combatants are readying for a long conflict, as foreign weapons flood in, tribesmen close oil ports and rival alliances wrangle over revenues from Africa’s largest petroleum reserves.
The moves signal deepening animosity in a war that could worsen regional instability and swell the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa almost a decade after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.
From his villa in Libya’s east, tribal leader Sanoussi al-Zwai sees more trouble ahead for the country, contested by rival authorities in the east and west.
He is an ally of Commander Khalifa Haftar, whose self-styled Libya National Army (LNA) has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and Russian mercenaries as it tries to capture Tripoli.
Zwai’s tribe is blocking oil ports, resisting calls by the US and the UN to restart flows of Libya’s vital income source, run by Haftar’s foe the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
Zwai’s price for unlocking ports is for the GNA, based in Tripoli, to funnel more income to his people. If the GNA resists, he suggests there could be worse to come.
“We are not happy with what is happening, but we have ways to escalate if the international community does not listen,” said Zwai, leader of a tribe near eastern oil facilities.
“There will be a major escalation. We have other means to use. If it comes to it, the world knows what escalation is,” he told Reuters in Benghazi, without saying what escalation would involve.
RACING TO REARM
The stand-off over oil is one of several factors that could prolong the almost year-long conflict over the capital, where the GNA secured military backing from Turkey including Turkish-backed fighters from Syria.
The combatants are racing to rearm, receiving shipments before and after foreign backers agreed to enforce a truce at a summit in Germany in January. The inflow of advanced artillery, fighters and advisers breaches pledges made in Berlin to respect an arms embargo, diplomats say.
On Thursday, the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire but Russia, a Haftar backer, abstained from the vote. Diplomats took this as sign Moscow might not be committed to a UN-led political mediation.
Haftar forces and their foreign backers stopped fighter jet strikes on the capital. Western diplomats and experts say this is not due to a desire for peace but because of better air defences supplied by Turkey.
Until Turkey’s intervention, Tripoli officials started to panic they might lose the capital, diplomats said.
Instead, Syrian fighters sent by Turkey helped reverse small LNA gains, restoring frontlines to roughly where they were after the LNA attack began in April 2019.
Estimates from diplomats in Turkey about the number of Syrian fighters vary from 1 500 to 3 000, while Turkish troops were seen at between 200 to 500 including special forces, conventional troops and drone operators.
“Both sides are preparing for the next battle,” said a Western diplomat.
Diplomacy repeatedly founders on mutual suspicions.
“Each time we have any kind of agreement we always saw the same pattern,” said Taher el-Sonni, GNA ambassador to the UN. “It’s more like gaining time, then Haftar decides to use force.”
Turkey sent heavy trucks by sea, while the UAE flew in 89 shipments totalling 4,680 metric tons between January 12 and February 16, according to flight tracking data and a security source. The UAE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
CONTROL OF OIL WEALTH
Newly-shipped big guns are already making their presence felt, as shelling from long range artillery blamed on the LNA hit the city centre for the first time.
Away from the Tripoli battle, which displaced at least 150 000 people, the conflict shifted to the control of oil wealth. Forces allied to Haftar kept ports shut for a month, causing losses of some $1.4 billion.
The blockade echoes complaints of neglect going back to Gaddafi, who punished the east for dissent in his long rule.
Pressure from international powers and the UN has so far failed to persuade Haftar to reopen ports and the southern El Sharara oilfield, Libya’s largest. The veteran commander won new recognition from Western countries that oil revenues need to be distributed fairly.
A senior US diplomat said it was important oil revenues are distributed equally, something he said should be discussed in UN-led intra-Libyan economic talks, part of a mediation to overcome divisions.
Neither side discloses how much it spends on the conflict.
Diplomats say the Tripoli government is less dependent on oil than before, as up to a third of the budget is covered by a fee it levies on private transactions involving hard currency. Some Syrian fighters sent by Turkey are paid directly by Tripoli, diplomats say.
A stalemate looms. On Friday Haftar dashed hopes of a truce, saying there would be no peace until “militias” holding Tripoli were defeated. For its part, Tripoli demands the LNA pull back 1 000 km east, something Haftar rejects.
“We don’t expect to reach a ceasefire unless these troops (LNA) go back where they came from,” said GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.