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Are we back to armed conflict over oil?

A general view shows an oil refinery in Libya's northern town of Ras Lanuf on January 11, 2017 [ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images]
A general view shows an oil refinery in Libya's northern town of Ras Lanuf on January 11, 2017 [ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images]

Oil is returning to the forefront of the conflict as a political pressure card, which has proven useless in previous times, except when used as a means of extortion to obtain money or some political gains. The demands made for distributive justice, or the prevention of a political party from benefiting from the revenues, were nothing but slogans for consumption.

This time, the oil shutdown occurs in a different international context, due to Russia's war on Ukraine, and the ensuing turmoil in the international energy market. Therefore, Western countries called, about two weeks before the shutdown, in more than one statement, for neutralising the oil sector, and not to use it as a card in the political conflict.

The demand this time is clear, according to the statements of the groups that adopted the closure: to enable the Bashagha government to take over its duties and for the Dbeibeh government to step down, although this demand was wrapped up in the same slogan as the previous closures: the equitable distribution of wealth.

Prior to the recent wave of closures, Bashagha stated that he does not support the closure, and oil should not be used in political conflict. After the suspension of work in some fields and ports, the UN adviser, Stephanie Williams, said that she stressed, during a telephone conversation with Bashagha "the need to refrain from using Libyan oil production as a weapon for political purposes, while calling for an end to the oil fields closure." Bashagha, along with some of his government ministers, communicated with the individuals who claimed responsibility for the closure in the Oil Crescent region, but he did not succeed in dissuading them from their position, contenting himself with them supporting his managing the revenues and distributing them fairly to all Libyans, which means that his government is powerless and that it basically does not possess any cards to play in the political game.

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It is actually Haftar, who is an ally of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, and who controls the field most of the time and possesses most of the fields and ports. Production and export of oil will not be disrupted without orders issued by him, and we cannot rule out the Russian influence, as it will play the card of the Libyan oil as part of its conflict with the Western countries, using its influence of its support for Haftar and the Tobruk Parliament.

There is an international keenness to freeze the situation in Libya, and to prevent it from erupting with the obstruction of the political process, after the disruption of the elections and the conflict of legitimacy between the government of national unity and the government proposed by Parliament. Europe is not prepared for another heated front on its southern border but, contrary to what it was hoping for, half of the oil exports have been disrupted. It is worth noting that its reaction was different this time, as it did not issue statements condemning and threatening sanctions with the call for an immediate return to export at the same previous rates, and this is an indication of the possibility of planning unconventional solutions for treatment, led by Britain. If a new war does not erupt to remove the cards of the ports and oil fields from the grip of Russia and its allies, it will at least be preoccupied with the possibility of its positions in Libya being subjected to military pressure that may distract some of its focus in Ukraine.

The article that was published in the name of the proposed Prime Minister, Fathi Bashagha, in the British newspaper, The Times, contained an explicit statement of his government's readiness to ally with Britain to expel Wagner's mercenaries from Libya and end Russian influence, in return for supporting him in his confrontation with the Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity and his allies. This statement is a great risk that could destroy his alliance with Haftar and Aguila Saleh, as they are two allies that Russia has provided political, military and diplomatic support over the past years, in exchange for obtaining a foothold in Libya, to occupy Europe and extend from it to Central Africa. Does Bashagha have assurances on the inevitability of British-Russian confrontation in Libya? Is this why he offered to ally with Britain to expel Wagner's mercenaries, thus cutting off any possibility of continuing a futile alliance with Aqila and Haftar? It is unlikely that Haftar and Aguila will abandon Russia, their most prominent ally in the world.

The whole scene is getting blurry, and there are no signs of a political movement on the horizon that might make some progress towards ending the conflict through elections. The ongoing dispute in the Security Council between the major powers has prevented the nomination of a new envoy, to succeed the resigned former envoy, Jan Kubis, and the UN mission was only extended for three months, which is not enough time to lay any foundations for a new consensus under the auspices of the UN. Moreover, without ruling out the possibility of a renewed armed conflict over the oil regions, the crisis is heading towards freezing the situation until the picture becomes clearer in the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine.

READ: The US calls on Libya's leaders to immediately end the closure of oil fields

Translated from Arabi21, 5 May 2021

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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