A Week of Waiting in Libya
On Tuesday 10 March, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) requested a one-week postponement of UN-backed talks scheduled to resume on Wednesday 11 March in Morocco, precisely in Skhirat, near the country’s capital city Rabat. Rumours indicate that the request came in a bid to help the HoR and other members of the Tobruk-based establishment find an agreement, or at least form a general consensus, around a set of names to put forward for the formation of a national unity government. Whilst UN-backed negotiations have now been ongoing for a number of weeks, concrete discussions around who could be part of a national unity government had not really been tackled until two weeks ago, when representatives from both Libyan establishments laid out a set of criteria to identify possible candidates. In this sense, even the return of eight boycotting members to the HoR and the reinstatement of Omar al-Sinki in the post of Minister of Interior can be seen as an attempt to (re-)build a large forum for creating consensus around names to be then presented at the negotiations sessions.
Overall, tepid optimism seems to prevail among international and national stakeholders working for the achievement of a political deal to use as basis for starting the re-construction of Libyan institutions as well as that of a country whose infrastructure has been heavily damaged by months of senseless armed confrontations. In this context, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, asked EU member states to consider the possibility of sending both military and civilian teams to Libya, should an agreement for the establishment of a national unity government be reached at UN-backed negotiations. The teams would be tasked with overseeing the implementation of a countrywide ceasefire, protecting key infrastructure and run capacity-building programmes. Whilst reports indicate that the plan has so far been met with scepticism, it should not be ruled out that EU members could reconsider it when and if negotiations produce concrete results at the political level, or when and if cells of the Islamic State will step up their activities in Libya.
The presence of various active battlefields throughout the country, however, continue to represent a sword of Damocles, hanging over mediation efforts by a thin thread, From a military point of view, Sirte continues to be under control of militants belonging to Libyan cells of the Islamic State, whilst tribal-led negotiations continue to be held, in a bid to resolve peacefully the stalemate paralysing the town. However, even though troops belonging to the Tripoli-affiliated 166th battalion have not engaged into battle with radical Jihadists in Sirte, heavy fighting between Operation Shuruq forces and members of radical Jihadist groups were registered between Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 March in Sirte’s countryside, near the town of al-Nawfaliyyah, one of the first to fall under IS control during the past month. The eruption of fighting came nonetheless as a surprise given widespread rumours indicating that Misratan commanders wanted to avoid opening a new front at a time where the outcome of UN-backed negotiations is far from certain. Even more importantly, the fighting around al-Nawfaliyyah could represent the opening salvo of broader all-out hostilities between Misrata and radical Jihadist groups, leading Jihadists to adopt a much more assertive and aggressive stance towards the commercial port city than they have done so far. The bombing attack occurred this morning around Aburoya area west of Misrata might then just be the first episode in a broader pattern of attacks. Even more importantly, it is worth underlying that whilst all other fronts in Libya seem to follow well-established patterns of fighting, the situation in Sirte remains very fluid and retains the potential of sparking significant developments at the national level once the stance of Misratan militias vis a vis Jihadist groups is clarified.
Lastly, although no major fighting erupted during the past days in the ‘Oil Crescent’ region, it is worth focusing on this region in light of a potentially explosive development occurred in the last week. At the political level, this week witnessed in fact significant turmoil when news broke that a Panama-flagged vessel, called Vito, tried to approach the port of Sidra to lift some oil. The attempt to sell oil through Sidra by federalist-aligned forces controlling it mirrors a similar incident occurred last year during the tenure of Ali Zeidan as Prime Minister. Should the Panama-flagged tanker succeed in its attempt to load crude from Sidra’s oil terminal or should other tankers approach any of the main ports put under force majeure by the NOC, it is reasonable to expect that forces belonging to Operation Shuruq would mount a new offensive against oil terminals in a bid to prevent federalists’ attempts to benefit fro the sale of Libyan oil outside of official channels and mechanisms.