The ‘Oil Crescent’ is Pacified despite Tobruk’s New NOC
The past week witnessed significant developments on the military scene in Libya. As for negotiations, UN backed negotiations held in the Moroccan town of Skhirat were adjourned for the third time on Thursday 26 March and are due to restart only during the current week. No significant developments were otherise registered, or surfaced, during the past week as negotiating teams went back to their constituencies to report on progress made in Skhirat and discuss possible ways forward for the establishment of a technocratic national unity government.
On a different note, on Saturday 4 April, the Tobruk-affiliated National Oil Corporation announced its intention to open alternative bank accounts in the United Arab Emirates so as to undercut the NOC offices and management located in Tripoli, even though the NOC has largely been perceived as a neutral actor throughout the current crisis. Although similar announcements have already been made a number of times during the past few months, this announcement retains nonetheless the potential of leading to major setbacks in the UN-backed negotiations process as well as of squandering all the gains registered in the ‘Oil Crescent’ region during the past ten days. There, the agreement reached over the course of the past ten days was further consolidated during the past week. As part of the agreement, Operation Shuruq forces have now retreated to the east, towards Sirte, so as to avoid a renewed spike in violence at the hands of hardliners on both sides of the divide. Furthermore, a shared committee with members from both blocs will be established in the coming weeks so as to assess the status of oil-related infrastructure in the region, allow for the return of oil-related workers, make permanent security arrangements with regards to oil fields and terminals and make an assessment of the next steps to be taken with regards to oil exploitation in the ‘Oil Crescent’ region, keeping in mind a national, rather than regional or tribal, perspective. The reaching of this agreement and its implementation were warmly welcomed by the UNSMIL mission who also called on parties to promptly follow up on remaining steps that were negotiated as part of the initial agreement. It will be interesting to see at this stage what, if any, guidance and guidelines will international stakeholders and governments provide to companies operating in the oil sector with partners located in the HoR-controlled part of Libya.
The progress registered in the ‘Oil Crescent’ region was not seen across other battlefields in Libya. On the contrary, fierce fighting, aerial airstrikes and sabotage attacks were registered throughout the whole of the past week in western Libya. Although Zintani forces proclaimed that they would not enter Tripoli after last summer’s eviction, it is not impossible that a military assault will be launched in the coming weeks on the capital city by Operation Dignity-aligned troops. Conflicting claims have also been made throughout the past days as to the status of the strategic town of Aziziya, south of Tripoli. Overall, as was the case for the ‘Oil Crescent’ region before the ceasefire agreement, it appears that forces in western Libya are still well balanced and that no faction has the capacity of achieving a breakthrough, hence the protracted stalemate which has been paralysing and destroying life in this region since last year.
Fighting continued unabated throughout the past week also in Sirte. Despite the recent rumoured agreement over a ten-day ceasefire and pleas made by local elders for armed groups to leave the town and lift the siege imposed on it, Sirte witnessed during the past week intense fighting between members of the Libya Dawn-aligned 166th army battalion and members of groups and cells affiliated with the IS. IS forces are concentrated especially in the Giza military complex, in the Qadhafi-era Ouagadougou Centre, in the city’s university and in the construction site of a large electric power plant contracted to a Turkish company. As of Sunday 5 April, the army 166th battalion declared a curfew over the city of Sirte between 10pm and 6am, asking citizens to stay away from military sites and from areas under control of IS-affiliated elements in anticipation of significant fighting during the next days. Furthermore, entire areas and roads within Sirte have been cordoned off in an attempt to isolate IS members inside the city and cut their supply lines. As the intensity of the fighting between Misratan forces and the IS intensifies, the commercial port town is increasingly becoming a target for radical Islamist attacks, as promised by an IS member who vowed to make Misrata like Mosul in a recent jihadist publication. A proof of this comes from the suicide car-bomb attack undertaken on Saturday 4 April by a Sudanese fighter, affiliated with local Islamic State cells, who detonated himself alongside a truck laden with explosives at Misrata’s southern Sadada checkpoint. The attack caused the death of six and injured at least 21 whilst providing HoR members with a chance to show empathy towards the rival national bloc.