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Op-Ed: In Libya Haftar forces and oil port guards may clash

A headline in the Libya Herald claims that Major General Abdul Al-Nazhuri of the Libyan National Army (LNA) predicts that the LNA will take over terminals at Zuetina, El Sidra, and Ras Lanuf. A battalion of the LNA entered the town of Zuetina yesterday. General Khalifa Haftar is commander in chief of the LNA, the armed forces of the House of Representatives (HoR)) government.

The three ports are under the control of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) headed by Ibrahim Jadhran a foe of Haftar. Jadhran supports the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and recently signed a deal with them to reopen the ports for export. However, Haftar does not recognize the GNA. He will no doubt not allow the export of oil until there is an agreement satisfactory to him. There is supposed to be an agreement between the rival eastern-based and Tripoli National Oil Companies (NOCs) creating one merged oil company but the HoR government will not accept the deal until changes are made. That does not seem to have happened yet. The HoR is demanding that any tankers exporting oil should have permits from the eastern NOC.

In a recent article, Jason Pack, points out that Martin Kobler, UN envoy to Libya, fails to note that part of the reason that the GNA is losing support is that he has failed to implement the flawed plan of former UN envoy Bernardino Leon, the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). He accuses Kobler of sticking to the letter of the LPA rather than realizing that it was meant to bring the two key power blocs together but had failed to do so. Kobler has not stuck to the letter of the LPA but has violated it in a number of different ways first and foremost by activating the GNA before a formal vote from the HoR. But Pack is correct that following the LPA has so far not resulted in bringing the two power blocs together. It is difficult to see how it can. The LPA demands that the Presidential Council (PC) of the GNA be commander in chief of the new GNA armed forces, while Haftar wants to remain as commander in chief. He will not accept a government with Islamist opponents in it and will not accept being under the command of the PC.

The division between the LNA and GNA is exemplified in the threat of clashes between the PFG and Haftar forces over the oil ports in the oil crescent. Haftar is trying to take support from Jadhran and by doing so weaken the power of the GNA in the east. He already has control of feeder oil fields giving him considerable leverage over any attempt of the GNA to export oil without his and HoR approval.

Final victory for the GNA over the Islamic State in Sirte is likely to result in conflict between militia that are for and those against the GNA. He points out that there is already conflict between militias in Tripoli as reported recently in the Digital Journal.
The Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades have attacked intelligence headquarters of the GNA and apparently seized personnel. There has not been a word from the GNA or the UN about what has happened even though the same militia took over other ministry buildings earlier. It is possible IMHO that some militia now fighting the Islamic State in Sirte will move to help defend the PFG against Haftar if there are clashes over the ports. Pack suggests that the victorious militia in Sirte could “defy GNA rulings and expose the fact that the GNA is not actually a unity of anything.”

Reuters reports that Abdulrazak al-Nazhuri the chief of staff of Haftar’s LNA said:“We have said that in the event that permission is not sought from the National (Oil) Corporation that answers to the (eastern) parliament, we will target the ships with our air force as we deem them militias or smugglers. The goal is not to threaten any nation but to protect the Libyan people’s assets.” This is a clear threat to the GNA and its agreement with the PFG to begin exports. Nazhuri said that the LNA would enter the ports of Zuetina, Es Sidra, and Ras Lanuf. All three are occupied by the rival LFG under Jadhran. Nazhuri said: “Our entry into the ports is to protect them, not to occupy them or to be substitutes for the mercenaries or thieves who preceded us.” Instead of marching on Sirte as he originally promised, Haftar seems to have decided that instead he would secure oil fields and now ports controlled by the PFG. So far outright clashes between the PFG and Haftar forces have been avoided but it is not clear that this situation can last very long.

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