Turkish air supremacy has upset eastern-based General Khalifa Haftar’s dreams of capturing the Libyan capital Tripoli. His Libyan National Army (LNA) forces were forced to abandon the strategic airbase of Watiya on 18 May after being pummeled by Turkish drones for weeks.
The LNA is now on the backfoot. After losing Watiya, it said it was also pulling back 2-3km from the frontlines in Tripoli, where it has been battling forces aligned to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) for over a year. The LNA also lost the western cities of Sabratha and Surman in April. The battle Mr Haftar hoped would be a mere formality is turning into a nightmare (MEES, 3 April). He can thank Turkey for that.
The GNA was struggling to keep the LNA (backed by the UAE, Egypt and Russia) at bay in November when it signed a security deal with Turkey that promised military support. In return, Ankara got the Tripoli government to sign a maritime border delimitation agreement connecting the offshore waters of Libya and Turkey at the expense of Greece and Cyprus. The deal is not internationally recognized.
Over the ensuing months Turkey gradually helped the GNA gain air supremacy over the LNA by supplying several drones and aircraft-jamming systems. Ankara has also sent armored vehicles, military advisors and more than six thousand Syrian rebels to support the GNA.
The next key focus for GNA and Turkey is the LNA’s last remaining stronghold in western Libya: Tarhuna. But even if the town can be subdued, Mr Haftar’s forces will still control the overwhelming majority of the country (see map). And although almost all of Libya’s oil infrastructure is in the hands of groups aligned to the LNA, Mr Haftar has no access to the export revenues it generates (MEES, 24 April). Frustrated in his bid to take Tripoli, he blockaded the five eastern oil exporting terminals on 17 January. This effectively brought production from the Sirte Basin oil heartland to a halt.
Libya: Key Oil & Gas Infrastructure
The National Oil Corporation (NOC) was also forced to shut down around 370,000 b/d of production from the southwestern fields of El Sharara and El Feel the following day as a valve along the pipeline to the coast was forcibly shut down by a group aligned to the LNA. This has resulted in a loss of more than 1mn b/d. Oil production has crashed from around 1.2mn b/d pre-shut-ins to well below 100,000 b/d today, with the majority of this coming from the offshore fields of Bouri, Al-Jurf and Bahr Essalam.
A MOVE FOR OIL?
Analysts have suggested that an emboldened GNA backed with Turkish support could now make a play for the oil and gas facilities under LNA control.
“Local reports indicate that preparations are underway to attack LNA forces in the El Sharara and El Feel oilfields, and also other plans are being drawn up to attack the oil crescent area where Libya’s main oil terminals are located,” says Mohamed Eljarh, an independent researcher specializing in Libyan affairs.
“Some in the GNA are vocal about the recapture of the oil terminals. It is a significant step that would give the GNA more leverage in any future political negotiations,” he tells MEES.
Any move for oil facilities would likely start with the fields of El Sharara and El Feel which are located deep in the southwestern desert and away from the LNA’s power base in the east.
“Some factions within the GNA camp can’t help but eye Sharara,” Clingendael Institute research fellow Jalel Harchaoui tells MEES. “Now that the GNA is extraordinarily emboldened and the oil activity is blockaded, the thought exists – probably more than a thought.”
But even if the GNA takes control of El Sharara and El Feel (through force or talks) it would also have to secure the 875-km pipeline that channels the crude north to the export terminals of Zawiya and Mellitah. This is no easy feat.
There is also the risk of damage to production facilities in any effort to capture oil and gas infrastructure. And the risk is even more pronounced around the eastern oil export terminals where the LNA has a more active presence. Libya’s oil storage capacity has been severely damaged by years of fighting (MEES, 7 December 2018). This is the main reason Sirte Basin output had to be shut-in so rapidly after the blockade.
But the more Libya’s oil production is shut-in, the more difficult it will be for a return to pre-outage output levels. NOC is particularly concerned about corrosion caused by trapped oil in its pipeline network. Whether output at some of its fields can return to its previous levels is also in doubt.
There is hope that the recent defeats suffered by the LNA could force Mr Haftar to the negotiating table. But recent reports of eight Russian-made fighter jets arriving in eastern Libya from Syria suggests escalation could be on the cards. Analysts also say this could be a show of force by Russia before it sponsors fresh talks alongside Turkey over the future of the country. This could resemble something like the Turkish-Russian talks over Syria’s Idlib. Both countries called for a ceasefire on 21 May.
Having staked his legitimacy on overthrowing the government in Tripoli and bringing stability to Libya, Mr Haftar will try to avoid this at all costs.