Intensification of Libya’s civil war likely in 2015, increasing existing risks to oil and transportation assets

Libyan military soldiers sweep an area of Benghazi as they battle with Islamist extremist militias in the Libyan city on 30 October 2014. Source: PA

Key Points

  • Hardliners are taking increasing control of both of Libya’s rival administrations, decreasing the scope for national reconciliation.
  • This increases the likelihood of an intensification of the current conflict in 2015.
  • Fighting is likely to pose high to severe risks to civilian infrastructure in Misratah, Tripoli, and Benghazi, particularly ports and airports, oilfields in the Murzuq Basin, and oil terminals in the Gulf of Sirte.

EVENT

The current political trajectory in Libya indicates the marginalisation of the remaining moderate voices on both sides of the political divide in 2015, and a corresponding shift towards an intensification of the current conflict.

UN-backed peace talks between Libya’s warring factions were postponed indefinitely on 5 January. The rival governments backed by Tripoli’s General National Congress (GNC) and Tobruq’s House of Representatives (HoR) now routinely refer to each other as “terrorists”, with civilian politicians increasingly deferring to their associated militaries. Neither side has a coherent long-term vision for Libya’s governance, allowing reactive short-term thinking to dominate the political debate and progressively intensify the current civil war. Libya’s nascent political class lack the safety net of established institutions and an independent judiciary, critically limiting the availability of common ground on which to form a national dialogue capable of de-escalating the conflict. Policy on both sides is instead likely to be dictated by self-interested militia hardliners who rally support by capitalising on existing tribal and social divisions.

Both sides take extremist positions

In western Libya, Libya Dawn is likely to incorporate more explicitly jihadist, and militarily effective, groups in an attempt to counter the materiel advantage of the eastern Libyan National Army (LNA). This dynamic was already apparent in late 2014, when a Misratan-led Libya Dawn force alongside fighters from the Benghazi branch of Ansar al-Sharia launched a joint attack on the Al-Sidra oil terminal. Increased co-operation with jihadists that ascribe to the Islamic State takfiri ideology risks further radicalising Libya Dawn’s sizeable contingent of Islamist fighters. This would erode the influence of residual moderate voices within Libya Dawn, particularly Misratah’s merchant class, and limit the ability of the UN to force a mediated resolution to the current conflict through diplomatic tools including targeted sanctions.

The continued ineffectiveness of the internationally recognised HoR and its appointed government increases the likelihood of the army taking control in the next year. The LNA is already prosecuting its anti-Islamist ‘Operation Dignity’ campaign independently of the HoR’s civilian leadership. The appointment of General Khalifa Haftar as Chief of Staff would increase the likelihood of the HoR being superseded by a military council, probably modelled on Egypt’s Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF). Indeed, logistical support for the LNA from Egypt and the Gulf States is only likely to increase in 2015. The army is unlikely to accept a non-military resolution to the conflict, and the probable return to power of Ghaddafi-era officers would be used by Libya Dawn to support its narrative that the LNA is seeking to overturn the 2011 revolution. Regardless of whether it is under civilian or military control, the eastern government is likely to accelerate efforts to unilaterally transfer National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Central Bank of Libya (CBL) functions to parallel institutions based in the east. With the legality of both governments in dispute, this increases the likelihood of sanctions being levied on the Libyan oil sector in line with UN Security Council resolution 2146, and the freezing of foreign assets while jurisdiction is resolved.

Fighting hotspots

In the east, fighting between the LNA and Islamist militias will cause significant collateral damage to civilian infrastructure. Oilfields are likely to remain largely outside the combat zone, but will remain vulnerable to disruption and collateral damage from localised fighting. Backed by Egyptian arms and ammunition, the LNA is likely to partially succeed in expelling Islamist militias from Benghazi and Derna. The Islamic State has claimed eastern Libya as a province of its self-declared caliphate. Activity by the group, and other transnational jihadists including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is likely to accelerate throughout 2015. This will ensure a continued high risk of improvised explosive device (IED) and shooting attacks against state personnel and foreigners in Benghazi. Similar attacks are likely to occur with increasing frequency in Tobruq and in Baida, the current seat of government. Assets that hold a dual civilian-military function, such as Benghazi International Airport and Labraq Airport, are likely to be frequently targeted with IEDs and Grad-type rockets.

In Tripolitania, the LNA is likely to lack the capability to militarily dislodge Libya Dawn from its positions in Tripoli in the coming year. The militias comprising Libya Dawn, which evicted pro-HoR Zintani militias from the city in August 2014, remain the most powerful military force in Libya. The LNA is instead likely to intensify its campaign of airstrikes against Libya Dawn-controlled military and civilian infrastructure in western Libya, particularly airports, ports, and border crossings, in an attempt to deny them resupplies and reinforcements. Misratah airport, seaport, the LISCO steel works, and other economic targets are likely to be primary targets for LNA airstrikes. The LNA’s acquisition of four Sukhoi Su-27 jets from an unknown country in early January to enhance their existing complement of ageing MiG-23s, is likely to result in an intensification of the air campaign in western Libya.

FORECAST

The security situation in Libya is likely to further deteriorate in 2015, as hardliners on both sides of the political divide struggle for control of state institutions and the oil sector. Neither side is likely to succeed in making significant strategic gains, or to defeat the other militarily. Direct foreign military intervention is unlikely to occur on a scale large enough to curb the fighting, with regional states (particularly Egypt, Turkey, and the UAE) instead using Libya as a proxy for their own national interests. Neighbours including Algeria, Egypt, and Niger are likely to frequently violate Libyan sovereignty in order to launch limited military strikes against localised jihadist threats, mainly through the use of airstrikes and Special Forces. The collapse of the economy prompted by sustained disruption to oil production will exacerbate criminality, as salary payments to Libya’s militia fighters dry up. Airstrikes by the LNA against Libya Dawn targets are increasingly likely to target critical civilian infrastructure, particularly in Misratah and Tripoli. Airports and ports are already approved targets for airstrikes, which are likely to be expanded to industrial assets perceived to be manufacturing materiel for Libya Dawn, GECOL power stations, and other economic targets as the conflict progresses. Airports and ports controlled by the LNA in the east, particularly Benghazi and Labraq, will be highly vulnerable to asymmetric tactics including the use of IEDs and Grad-type rockets. Fighting for control of oil infrastructure is likely to centre around the El-Feel and Sharara oilfields in the southern Murzuq Basin, and Libya’s major oil terminals in the Gulf of Sirte. As the conflict escalates, the risk will increase of assets being purposefully destroyed to deny their use to the enemy.