Libya’s deepening split finds battleground at oil terminals

A Libyan rebel sits with an anti-aircraft weapon in front of an oil refinery in Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya, in this file photo. (AP)
Updated 12 March 2017
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Libya’s deepening split finds battleground at oil terminals

CAIRO: Hundreds if not thousands of armed men are converging on Libya’s main oil shipping terminals, which the rival powers in the country’s east and west are fighting to control in a battle being watched by global oil markets.
The struggle for the Ras Lanuf refinery and nearby Sidr depot threatens to spiral into an all-out conflict between east and west. Already, it has seen the bloodiest fighting yet between the two camps: Around 40 troops from the east were killed over four days as militias backed by western factions stormed the area last Friday, losing a handful of casualties.
Now forces from the east loyal to military strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar are massing nearby, threatening a new assault to wrest back the facilities, which are nominally in the hands of the Tripoli government.
In another worrying step, the eastern Parliament on Tuesday voted to withdraw support from the UN peace deal that created the Tripoli government in January 2016 in hopes of ending years of chaos in the North African country. The withdrawal of support further undermines the government, which has had difficulty asserting authority even in Tripoli.
The following is a look at the Libyan players, the oil terminals at the center of the fight and what could happen next:

The east
Haftar, an army general, former CIA asset and US citizen who lived nearly 20 years in American exile, is the most powerful figure in the east, touting himself as the champion against militants in Libya — though his enemies accuse him of aiming to become a new dictator like Muammar Qaddafi, who was overthrown and killed in the country’s 2011 Arab Spring revolt. He has talked of marching to take Tripoli to unite the country, hinting that he aims to rule. He opposed the government set up by the UN peace deal because it would have pushed him out as head of the military.
The general is backed by Egypt and Russia, but Washington under the Obama administration kept him at arm’s length. One key question in his future will be whether the US warms up to him under President Donald Trump, who has sounded more favorable to Egypt and more open to dealing with regional strongmen.
He commands a collection of militias and eastern tribal forces as well as the remnants of the Libyan National Army, including Qaddafi-era officers. Haftar is also allied to the east-based Parliament, which was the last legislature to be elected in Libya and had to flee east when opponents took over the west in 2014.
Haftar’s forces seized the oil facilities last year. The Obama administration had joined the UN in calling on him to hand them over to the Tripoli government. Haftar had seemed more inclined to use them as a bargaining chip to force a rewriting of the peace accord.
But now that they have been wrested from him by force, he may resort instead to an all-out fight against Tripoli. His army says it is massing forces east of the terminals, awaiting orders. Their strength is unclear but they can call on reserves of thousands of eastern Libyan fighters and tribesmen and are backed by Libyan and foreign air support. Haftar travels regularly to Cairo and insiders have said he flew there shortly after losing control of the terminals.

The west
The Tripoli government was created under the UN deal in hopes of ending the east-west split. Instead, it has become just another player in that divide, reliant on its militia allies to have any authority.
Chief among those allies are the militias of the neighboring city of Misrata, the strongest and most cohesive fighting force in the west. The Misrata militias provide security for the Tripoli government and it was they who earlier this year captured the Daesh group’s main stronghold, Sirte, effectively defeating for now the extremists’ attempt to extend their caliphate to Libya.
The international community has tried to bolster the Tripoli government — particularly Italy, which is heavily invested in Libya’s oil sector and has a military presence in the capital in the form of an army hospital. It was a newly formed militia that retook the oil facilities at Ras Lanuf and Sidr. The Benghazi Defense Brigades, as it is called, depicts itself as an eastern-based force, made up of former rebels and militants recently defeated by Haftar’s forces in the eastern city of Benghazi. But it is clearly linked to the west, with some Misrata fighters in its ranks — and its commanders recently held a press conference in Misrata.
The Brigades handed the oil facilities over to the control of the Tripoli government, which has ordered its National Petroleum Guards under Brig. Gen. Idris Abukhamada — the official guard force for oil infrastructure — to deploy at the sites.

Oil impact
Oil prices have dropped over the past week because of growing US supplies, frustrating attempts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to bolster the price by curbing production. While the supply glut is the biggest factor dominating the market, the Libya fighting has potential to put some upward pressure on prices.
It did so when the Brigades took Ras Lanuf and Sidr last week, forcing the shutdown of the maritime export terminals there, Libya’s largest. That spooked the markets, causing a brief blip of higher prices. The facilities remain closed, causing some reduction in Libya’s production, which in February had reached 700,000 barrels a day.
Oil is Libya’s only real source of revenue, and it has been trying to rebuild the industry, though it remains but a shadow of the 1.6 billion barrels a day produced in 2011. While the oil facilities have changed hands several times over the past years, the revenues have continued to flow into the central bank based in Tripoli, an arrangement accepted by all parties that for the moment is not in doubt.

What could happen next
The ball appears to be in Haftar’s court. His forces could face only weak opposition if they stormed Ras Lanuf and Sidr, protected only by the official oil guard units. But the impact could be much wider.
Until now, the powers in the east and west have largely avoided fighting directly, instead battling through proxies. Storming the oil facilities would be a direct assault by Haftar on the internationally backed Tripoli government since it officially holds them now. Haftar would likely be seen as flouting the UN and European countries, which have called for a cease-fire.
That opens the door to further possible escalations. How far Haftar goes depends on whether he finds international supporters, but he could try to carry out his threats to move against Tripoli, pitting him against Misrata’s powerful fighters.


Germany wants trial for Syria militants but warns of difficulties

Updated 18 February 2019
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Germany wants trial for Syria militants but warns of difficulties

  • ‘We must be able to ensure that prosecution is possible’
  • The minister noted that there is ‘no government in Syria with which we have a sensible relationship’

BERLIN: Germany vowed Monday to prosecute German Daesh fighters but warned that it would be “extremely difficult” to organize the repatriation of European nationals from Syria, after US President Donald Trump called on allies to take back alleged militants.
Syria’s US-backed Kurdish forces, which are battling Daesh group militants in their last redoubt in eastern Syria, hold hundreds of suspected foreign Daesh fighters and the calls for their reluctant home countries to take them back have grown in urgency.
“We must be able to ensure that prosecution is possible,” Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told Bild daily.
Underlining the difficulties however of putting the ex-fighters on trial, the minister noted that there is “no government in Syria with which we have a sensible relationship.”
President Bashar “Assad cannot be our counterpart, the Syrian-democratic forces are not a unity government,” she added, stressing that proof and witness statements needed to be secured in Syria if the militants are to be put on trial.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said separately that a return could only be possible if “we can guarantee that these people can be immediately sent here to appear in court and that they will be detained.”
For this, “we need judicial information, and this is not yet the case,” Maas told ARD television late Sunday. Under such conditions a repatriation would be “extremely difficult to achieve.”
Berlin wants to “consult with France and Britain ... over how to proceed,” he said.
The subject is to be raised on Monday at a meeting of European foreign ministers called to discuss among other issues “the situation in Syria, in particular the recent developments on the ground,” according to an agenda for the talks.
Trump on Sunday called on his European allies to take back alleged militants captured in Syria.
Daesh imposed a self-declared caliphate across parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq from 2014, but has since lost all of it except a tiny patch of less than half a square kilometer near the Iraqi border.
After years of fighting Daesh, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hold hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for the group, as well as their wives and children.
Syria’s Kurds have repeatedly called for their countries of origin to take them back, but these nations have been reluctant.
“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 Daesh fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” Trump said in a tweet.
After initial reluctance, Paris appears ready to consider the return of its nationals.
In Belgium, Justice Minister Koen Geens called for a “European solution” on Sunday, calling for “calm reflection and looking at what would be the least security risks.”