Fighting Flares up in Sirte, Will Libya Dawn Crumble under Misratan Pressures for Cooperation?
After several weeks of tit for tat fighting and tense calm, Sirte and its surrounding region witnessed throughout the past week intense and heavy fighting. This has so far led to IS militants consolidating their grip over the vast majority of the city and strengthening their position in the countryside.
On Sunday 17 May, local forces from the village of Harawa and the Misratan-led 166th Brigade stationed in Sirte launched an offensive on the radical Islamist stronghold of al-Nufaliyya, in response to a previous attack by IS militants on the nearby village of Harawa. Contrary to expectations, however, radical Islamist militants aligned with the IS have proved, so far, to have the upper hand in battle. IS militants, in fact, not only rebuffed attempts of the Misratan-led offensive to dislodge them from al-Nufaliyya, but actually overran the key military camp of the 166th Brigade in Sirte, thus gaining almost full control of the city. At the time of writing this post, the situation on the ground remained extremely fluid, particularly as Misratan-led forces are expected to launch a counteroffensive with increased support in the next few days. Strong pressures on both Misratan forces and the Tubruq camp to act fast is currently being put also by the citizens of Harawa, who have blocked the coastal road to all but emergency vehicles in order to protest the lack of protection their village has received in the past weeks and days, when another suicide bombing attack targeted the city.
In a positive development, however, reports indicate that, for the first time in more than a year, the Operation Dignity-aligned air force headed by Saqr al-Jeroushi conducted a joint operation with Misratan-led troops whilst fighting IS members in Sirte’s countryside. Although this marks only the first step of a long trust-building process, this development is in itself a reason for optimism in the long term. Throughout the past year, both Libyan national-level blocs acted as if living in a vacuum, where they could not realize the extent of the damage and incremental devastation that the ongoing crisis was inflicting on the country. In this sense, the territorial gains made by radical Islamist groups affiliated with the IS, who are now rumoured to have increased pressure around Zueitina and its oil terminal, appear to be finally acting as a wake up call for large swaths of both blocs. In this regard, the cooperation between the Operation Dignity-aligned air force and the Misratan-led 166th Brigade did not come as a complete surprise to observers of Libyan affairs after the events and developments recorded during the last few weeks.
Political tensions and divisions, in fact, have been simmering within the Tripoli-based bloc between the rump GNC and the Misratan camp since the flat-out rejection of the third draft of UNSMIL’s proposed political agreement by the rump GNC at the end of April. On Wednesday 20 May, more than 40 military brigades from Misrata called for an end to the fighting and for the undertaking of a national reconciliation process. This appeal was sustained by some of the most powerful militias in the free-port town and the resonance of its message was well exemplified on Thursday 21 May when a large pro-peace demonstration was held in Misrata. The city’s growing desire to finalise a political deal with the Tubruq-camp, without caving in to all of the HoR’s and Operation Dignity’s requests, stems precisely from its desire to focus energies on curbing the growing influence of radical Islamist organisations in Libya, especially since groups affiliated with the IS have now gained more than a foothold on the city’s doorstep. Misrata’s overture to the Tubruq camp, however, has been met with growing hostility by the rump GNC and by hardliners in the Libya Dawn camp. In particular, after last week’s attempt by the rump GNC to impose a hand-picked ‘Shura Council of Tribal Elders and Notables’ on Misrata, this week the Libya Dawn-accredited Grand Mufti of Libya, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghariyani, issued a fatwa condemning those who are trying to escape the fight against the Tubruq camp, stating that it is only up to the GNC to decide what the next steps in this crisis will be.
As a result of the above, even though the Libya Dawn bloc still “formally” holds, the possibility that Misrata might undertake independent negotiations with the Tubruq-based bloc behind closed doors should not be ruled out anymore. On the contrary, the growing threat posed by radical Islamist groups and the climate of economic stagnation inside Misrata could act as formidable incentives to finalise a deal before the start of Ramadan in mid-June. In this sense, the weeks separating us from Ramadan are likely to prove crucial for the future of the country, with pro-peace groups and hardliners within both blocs pushing as hard as possible for their desired outcome. This could very well result in a new alliances’ landscape emerging soon.
Lastly, with regards to the oil sector, no positive developments have been registered in recent weeks. As the blockade of Zueitina’s pipeline persists, barring the flow of fresh crude from reaching one of Libya’s only two functioning oil terminals, the country’s overall oil production for the upcoming days is expected to remain stable at approximately 350/380,000bpd. Reports circulating during the course of last week, however, suggest that the NOC is optimistic about its ability to further increase productivity levels by approximately 200,000bpd during the coming weeks just by improving the efficiency of currently operative oil fields and terminals. With regards to the ‘Oil Crescent’ region, instead, recent statements from NOC officials in the media suggest that although 5.5 million barrels of crude are ready for export in Sidra’s and Ras Lanuf’s oil terminals, no precise time schedule has been agreed upon for their re-opening, which appears unfeasible in the short to medium term due to political and security considerations.