20 January 2019, Tripoli — Forces allied to Libya’s eastern leader Khalifa Haftar have entered the city of Sebha as part of a campaign to secure the country’s lawless south and protect its oil-producing infrastructure, his spokesman said.
“The next step is to secure all of Libya’s oil regions,” Ahmed al-Mismari, spokesman for Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, said in a phone call with Bloomberg. The mayor of Sebha, Refa Akhbali, told Bloomberg Haftar’s forces were on the outskirts of the city.
Sebha, the main city in the southwest, lies roughly 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Sharara, the country’s largest oil field which has been closed for more than a month after protesters demanding better services stormed it. Sharara has a capacity of about 300,000 barrels per day, the loss of which has a serious impact on the country’s oil revenues.
The LNA operation may be its most substantial push yet into that part of the country and, if successful, could help stabilize oil production — Libya’s main economic lifeline.
Haftar’s forces currently secure the OPEC member’s main oil ports, where crude exports remain stable. Haftar restored oil exports from Es Sider, Ras Lanuf and other terminals in 2016 after wresting control from another armed group that had hijacked them for two years, devastating the oil-dependent economy and exacerbating political divisions. Exports were halted for some weeks last year due to clashes near the terminals and a dispute over the way oil revenues are invested.
“This is the first time, after several announcements of operations that didn’t come to anything, that the LNA is deploying substantial forces in southern Libya,” said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert, and researcher at the Germany SWP think tank.
The offensive, however, might meet stiff resistance.
“It risks provoking conflict with some of the factions in southern Libya given that the objective of the LNA certainly isn’t only to expel foreign combatants but also to try to seize control of major installations,” he said referring to Chadian and Sudanese groups that operate in the south.
Securing the region is key for Libya’s leaders and its ailing economy. The country, which sits atop Africa’s largest proven reserves of crude, has struggled to revive production as the weak UN-backed central government has struggled to impose its authority amid economic woes, fighting by rival militias and frequent protests by workers demanding better pay or services.
The North African nation had planned to boost its oil output from 1.25 million barrels per day in October to 1.6 million barrels per day by the end of 2019, the National Oil Corp.’s chairman, Mustafa Sanalla, told Bloomberg at the time. That would bring it in line with production before the 2011 revolt that ousted former strongman Muammar Al Qaddafi.
The LNA’s push into the region also reflects the complex politics of Libya. Haftar controls the country’s largest and most organized paramilitary force while the Tripoli government has little control over the militias it counts as allies. That means the government has little muscle to enforce its decisions, while Haftar is able to exert leverage.
The country’s UN-backed premier, Fayez al-Sarraj, last month traveled south to Sharara to meet with the protesters and was able to broker a deal. While the government subsequently announced that the field had reopened, production has yet to resume.
Sanalla told Bloomberg last week production from Sharara would not restart until a militia that was meant to guard the facility, but which joined the protests, withdraws unconditionally. He refused to give a timetable, saying the situation remained “fragile.”
Mismari had said in a televised press conference earlier Tuesday that the LNA’s operations in the south were aimed at cleansing the region of terrorists and safeguarding the civilian population, as well as securing the vital infrastructure.