Talks derailed again as Misratan Militias Face Jihadists
After a period of relative calm, Libya witnessed several significant developments at the political and military levels throughout last week. Unfortunately, the breakthrough that UNSMIL’s Chief Bernardino Leon was hoping to achieve during the weekend did not occur as UN-backed talks registered another stop. In fact, although representatives from the House of Representatives did go to Morocco, they did not receive a green light from the HoR to re-join UN-backed talks. As a result, and despite UNSMIL’s initial statements to the contrary, talks did not resume on time and did not achieve the establishment of a national unity government backed by both national blocs by Sunday 22 March, let alone an agreement for a pull out of all militias from Libyan cities. On the contrary, between Friday 20 and Sunday 22 March a number of airstrikes and attacks were carried out by both the Operation Dignity-affiliated and Libya Dawn-affiliated air forces. These attacks were clearly aimed at derailing the national rapprochement process underpinned by UN-backed negotiations; this was all the more clear when Operation Dignity fighter jets attacked Tripoli’s Mitiga airport just a few hours before the departure of representatives from the General National Congress to talks in Morocco was scheduled to happen. A strong statement condemning escalating violence and attacks was issued by the UNSMIL as well as by the governments of the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. This turn of events reveals that hardline OD-aligned commanders likely supported with Haftar and various Zintani forces are deliberately attempting to scupper the talks. As of Monday 23 March, talks in Skhirat were suspended as UNSMIL’s Bernardino Leon headed to Brussels to take part in scheduled meetings with Libya’s municipalities’ representatives.
The setbacks registered at the level of UN negotiations were not the only ones occurred during the past week, unfortunately. As a matter of fact, after having witnessed a duplication of governments, observers of Libyan affairs witnessed during the past week a long-feared development: the duplication of the NOC. In fact, on Tuesday 17 March, the House of Representatives-appointed Chairman of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) al-Mabrook Abu Seif announced from his office in Benghazi that international partners and stakeholders should not deal anymore with the NOC offices based in Tripoli, but only with the legitimate, Tubruq-based Libyan government. In this statement, Abu Seif claimed that only the Tubruq-based government had the necessary legitimacy to continue looking after Libya’s oil interests and that, therefore, new payments methods would be set up and any new contract would need to be approved by his office, rather than by the Tripoli-based NOC. In response to this, on Thursday 19 March, the Tripoli-based NOC issued a statement reaffirming its independence and neutrality vis á vis ongoing political disputes. In its statement, the Tripoli-based NOC reaffirmed also the importance that the NOC remains an independent institution so as to maximise the service granted to Libyan people and to avoid any further escalation in the crisis, especially since all payments received by the Tripoli-based NOC have been so far deposited in the accounts of the Central Bank, which is also pursuing a policy of absolute neutrality by providing available funds to both national-level blocs and cabinets. Although it is unclear what consequences the effective duplication of the NOC will have on the current Libyan crisis, it is safe to assume that a recrudescence of fighting might very well ensue, especially in the strategic and oil rich ‘Oil Crescent’ region comprising Sidra and Ras Lanuf’s terminals. It is also possible that in light of these developments, Libya Dawn and Operation Shuruq militias will launch disruptive attacks on the terminals and pipelines of Hariga and Zueitina so as to completely halt the flow of Libya’s oil outside the country.
Militarily speaking, Sirte continues to be under control of militants belonging to Libyan cells of the Islamic State. However, contrary to what happened in previous weeks, fighting between the Misratan-led 166th battalion and radical Jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State has now erupted across the whole of Sirte and surrounding region. Reports indicated that Misratan militias were gearing up to launch an all-out assault over the city after having successfully taken control of a large section of the coastal road (starting from Sirte and for 75km to the west of it), and having dislodged Islamic State’s militants from one of their strongholds in the village of al-Nawfaliyyah, pushing them towards the southern part of the country. Fighting registered a spike in violence when 10 members manning a Libya Dawn checkpoint on the outskirts of al-Nawfaliyyah were killed by IS fighters at the start of last week. This led Misratan militias to abandon then-ongoing tribal negotiations with tribes and notables in Sirte and to try and dislodge militarily IS cells holed up in Sirte and headquartered in the town’s Qadhafi-era Ougadougou conference complex. Overall, however, even though Misratan-led militias might be successful in eradicating Jihadists’ groups from within Sirte and surrounding cities and villages, an unstable security situation will keep marring this region as IS members will likely resort to terrorist and other asymmetric tactics to propagate and perpetuate instability in the region and, more broadly, in the country.