Stalemate in the Oil Crescent?
After the start on Saturday 13 December of Operation Shuruq, a new frontline between Libya’s two rival blocks has been opened. This has engulfed into battle the so-called ‘Oil Crescent’, a pivotal Libyan region home to key oil infrastructure that is currently under control of federalist forces loyal to Ibrahim Jadhran. After getting as close as half a kilometer from Sidra’s oil terminal on Sunday 14 December, Misratan troops belonging to Operation Shuruq have now retreated to an area located three kilometers west of Sidra’s main oil port. At the same time, heavy fighting continues to involve the strategic town of Ben Jawad, located thirty kilometers west of Sidra along the coastline.
Operation Shuruq maintains that its retreat from Sidra was purely tactical and aimed at avoiding the bombing of oil infrastructure at the hands of Operation Dignity air forces. During fighting throughout last weekend, Operation Dignity has in fact demonstrated to posses an exceptional tactical advantage thanks to its air force. The relative ease with which the advancement of a 300-vehicles strong Misratan column was initially halted by Operation Dignity was reminiscent of the events of the 2011 Revolution, when NATO air forces acted de facto as anti-Qadhafi rebels’ tactical support units.
The importance of air force units in this battle is further confirmed by various reports indicating that Libya Dawn is actively trying to convert some airplanes in its possession in warplanes. This move should mostly be interpreted as an attempt by the Misratan military wing to increase its deterrence power, but also as a signal that Libya Dawn’s external patrons have drawn a line at the moment with regards to their involvement in Libya. Nonetheless, these attempts, as well as the broader Operation Shuruq, are likely to further escalate the sense of urgency characterizing Operation Dignity’s camp in this phase. With heavy fighting continuing not only in the oil crescent, but also around the key strategic areas of Benghazi’s maritime port and Ras Jdeir overland border crossing, the Tubruq-based establishment is likely to feel that this phase of the crisis represents its highest point since last summer’s HoR elections and could be thus inclined to approach it with a ‘now-or-never’ mindset. The illusory hope of solving the crisis through military means is also likely to continue emboldening the Tubruq camp enough to disregard the latest offer of negotiation, albeit extremely tepid, that came from the GNC on Wednesday 17 December through its acceptance of participating in a second round of UN-sponsored negotiations.
Regardeless of this, the UNSMIL mission has made some optimistic remarks whilst discussing recent events in Libya. Looking at this we cannot help but wonder wheter substantial progresses are being made behind closed doors at talks held in Cairo between Misratan and Cyrenaican representatives, which would justify optimism, or if this is just yet another attempt at building favourable momentum through outside pressure.
“The move by the parties to identify their respective delegations to the talks is a step in the right direction,” UNSMIL said in a statement about the dialogue. “In agreeing to take part in this dialogue, all the parties have clearly signalled their determination to spare no effort towards safeguarding Libya’s political transition and forging ahead with building a modern democratic state based on the rule of law and respect for human rights.”