Will IS trigger reconciliation in Libya?

As long as Libyan assets abroad are not released, Libya's many economic and social problems will remain unsolved, and the country will be doomed to failure.

al-monitor Fighters from Misrata move towards positions of Islamic State militants near Sirte, Libya, March 15, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.

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libyan militias, libyan crisis, libyan civil war, libya dawn, khalifa hifter, islamic state, government of national accord

May 19, 2016

As zero hour approaches for the launch of the military campaign against the Islamic State’s (IS) stronghold in the city of Sirte, competition appears to surface between the army led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter in the eastern region and the Misrata forces in the west, with the latter currently positioned in Abu Qurayn.

Abu Qurayn is located 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of IS-controlled areas, which stretch over 250 kilometers along the Libyan coast. Analysts are concerned that this imminent military battle could deepen the split in the country.

It is worth mentioning that a Hifter representative declared the readiness of the land, sea and air forces for the battle of Sirte, which came following the declaration from Tripoli by Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghweil, whom the international community does not recognize, that a special operations room has been established to lead the military operations against IS in Sirte.

The two steps were made following the directives of the internationally recognized parliament speaker, who is allied with Hifter, to mobilize forces to liberate Sirte from IS.

For his part, Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya — which was formed as a result of the Libyan Political Agreement signed Dec. 17 — is still trying to convince western capitals to lift the ban on arm exports to his country to fight against IS.

The Presidential Council — which was formed under the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement — also declared the formation of an operations room to lead the military actions in the regions between Misrata and Sirte.

There are apparently at least three operations rooms ready to lead the military campaign against IS, which is seen as a negative indicator suggesting that the country might slip again toward civil war. This inconsistency is due to the political situation in Libya, which remains fragile despite the major steps that have been taken since the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement.

The Government of National Accord, which was the fruit of a long and difficult path, continues to suffer from a constitutional breakdown regarding its legitimacy and existence. It has yet to receive a vote of confidence from parliament, given the insistence of opponents of the political agreement to prevent a parliamentary session on this issue. The constitutional ruse to replace the vote of confidence with the signatures of more than half of the 200 members of parliament was also to no avail.

Sarraj, however, did not wait for parliament's permission to make a series of visits and contacts with main capitals affecting the Libyan dossier, relying on the support by the majority of leaders in both Tripoli and Misrata — the support that tipped the balance in favor of the political settlement following a failing strategic conflict and infighting.

In this context, Sarraj's top priority demands are lifting the ban on arms exports to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, and the release of frozen Libyan deposits abroad.

The battle against IS will not be a military picnic. This is not to mention that the harsh social and economic situation in Libya amid delays in payment of salaries and skyrocketing prices, which are causing great embarrassment to the government and forcing it to find urgent solutions.

What makes matters worse is that IS has been taking advantage of this idle time to advance toward the oil crescent and take control of the oil field in eastern Libya, the Sarir field, as a prelude to attack the guards of oil installations and tighten its grip on them.

In March, an IS force attacked the Sarir field, which contains more than half of Libya's oil. It should be noted, however, that IS has been attacking the field since the beginning of this year. The group does not hide its plan to link its positions in Sirte to the Jafara district, which includes the al-Mabruk oil field, so as to secure the necessary financial resources to fund its operations.

A military battle against IS is not likely to dissuade the group from seeking to control whatever available oil field in order to fuel the war against its enemies.

Should the two major rivals of the country — or what remains of them, Libya Dawn affiliated with the fundamentalist groups in the west and Operation Dignity led by Hifter in the east — have the slightest awareness of Libya's best interests, they should have resorted to an agreement based on mutual concessions to counter the risk of IS.

Such an agreement is not far-fetched, as it happened last year when IS carried out a series of suicide bombings on the outskirts of the city of Misrata in the west, which prompted the city's militia leaders to send messengers to their rivals in the city of Zintan, requesting them to stop the infighting and point their guns toward the common enemy, IS.

There is no doubt that the international consensus on supporting a political solution in Libya serves as an important pillar for successful reconciliation, which is currently being opposed by extremist minorities in the east and west of the country.

However, large portions of political parties and tribal elders seem convinced that the path of violence and infighting will tear the country apart.

The leaders of militias, which replaced the state, are doing their best to disrupt this path and prevent state institutions from resuming their normal work. One could argue that the two remaining institutions from the wreckage of Gadhafi's regime are the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation. Both institutions recognized the Government of National Accord and are operating under its umbrella.

This is an important factor for resuming the building of military institutions. However, the resources available to the government have considerably dropped in light of the decline in foreign exchange reserves, the drop in oil production and plummeting oil prices globally, not to mention the rise in the budget deficit over the past year to more than $18 billion.

As a result of this deficit, the government had to tighten its belt, delay payment of salaries and cancel several projects. Libya's oil production dropped to less than 400,000 barrels per day — a quarter of what was produced in 2010.

The Government of National Accord also faces the problem of the ongoing closure of the ports of Sidra and Ra's Lanuf in the east since December because of fighting between rival factions. The two ports are Libya's largest.

El-Sharara oil field and the Elephant field in the west also remain closed because of the protests, despite tribal elders' efforts to reopen them. The two fields used to produce about 400,000 barrels of oil per day.

The Government of National Accord, in short, remains toothless and powerless outside Tripoli, despite the support of many municipal councils, while the security dossier continues to be a pressing and urgent issue, along with the reconstruction process.

As long as Libyan assets abroad are not released, many economic and social problems will remain unsolved, which makes the country doomed to failure. This is while the European countries continue to call for the need to monitor the flow of irregular migration from the Libyan coast.

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