LISTEN: Karim Mezran on Clashes in the Gulf of Sidra and Developments in Libya

Elissa Miller: My name is Elissa Miller, I’m an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and today I’m speaking with Dr. Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Hariri Center, about Libya.

The first question I want to ask you today is about the clashes that have been happening the last few days in the Gulf of Sidra between the Benghazi Defense Brigades and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. What is going on with these clashes, what are the implications for the national oil company, and Libya more generally?

If you are unable to listen to the audio, please read the transcript below: 

Karim Mezran: The first thing that comes to my attention is the poverty of information that we are receiving. We have been receiving contradicting information from every front.  So what we know for sure for now is that groups of armed people, a convoy formed by members by this Benghazi Defense Brigade. According to other sources, there are also members of local tribes, local groups, as well as militias from Chad. This is very bad news if we are beginning to see hired mercenaries from both sides coming up north to fight.

They have attacked, with the intention of expelling the forces of General Haftar, from the oil terminals in the Gulf of Sidra and succeeded in seizing Ras Lanuf and some other localities. Now what is unclear is if it has been a clear-cut victory, if forces of Haftar have withdrawn and are regrouping, or if the fight is still going on and they are holding their ground in some other areas. Whatever it is, it might mean a couple of things.

First, if it has been a clear-cut victory from the occupiers, it means that the forces of Haftar are not as strong as he was trying to make them, because they could not detect a convoy coming to a deserted area, and should have seen them coming. They did not and so were taken by surprise and rapidly defeated. This is already one deduction that we can make. Second, parts of the local tribesmen and the local militia did not fight on behalf of Haftar, but it seems they either withdrew or they sided with the attackers. This is another very difficult point to ascertain.

Regarding the oil, we don’t know. At the same time as the attack was being carried out in the Gulf of Sidra, it seems that militiamen belonging to the former Government of National Salvation (GNC) of Khalifa al-Ghwell entered the building where the offices of the National Oil Corporation in Tripoli are and occupied them. Now from other sources I heard something strange, that just a bunch of people were allowed to enter even though the militias were supposed to guard them [the offices], and proclaimed the occupation of the GNC. But nothing changes; all the employees remained there and these people left afterwards, so we really do not know what it means. Of course, if the occupiers of the oil terminals do not allow for the shipment of the oil, or if they maintain the situation of war, that will be a bad signal for the output of Libya, which will be reduced back to the 350,000 barrels a day that they were exporting before the liberation, or occupation, by Haftar of the terminals.

Elissa Miller : Moving to Tripoli, we’ve seen moves recently by the Government of National Salvation to expand its authority in the city. What does this mean for the Government of National Accord in Tripoli and its legitimacy?

Karim Mezran: It shows the weakness of the Government of National Accord (GNA), because what Khalifa al-Ghwell and his acolytes are trying to do is simply to occupy spaces that are being left empty, filling some vacuums that Serraj and the GNA have not filled. We should be careful in overemphasizing the importance of the strength of the militia, the group of the former Government of National Salvation. It’s very difficult in Tripoli to assess who’s who and who’s with whom and the ease with which a bunch of people, some say not even armed, have been able to enter the National Oil Corporation buildings yesterday with the complicity of the militia that was supposed to guard the buildings, shows that it is hard to say who’s with whom and who’s against whom. Khalifa al-Ghwelli is playing his own game, trying to acquire spaces that the GNA cannot fill, and this is a problem of Serraj, the leader of the National Government, not a problem for Khalifa al-Ghwell.

Elissa Miller: Do you feel that Libya is becoming more of a proxy war? What does this mean for a possible solution to the conflict in the country, or the winding down of the civil war in the country?

Karim Mezran: I have to admit that I made a mistake at the beginning of my analysis of the revolution in Libya. I thought that the external actors were being called in by Libyan actors, that is, that single Libyan factions were calling for supporters. The more the civil war unfolded, the more the crisis developed, the more it seemed it was the other way around. Foreign forces have been supporting and helping local groups, more and more  the farther we were getting into the civil war, up to the point that now we see interference from Chadian groups, Sudanese groups, Egyptian support. We see the re-entrance of Qatari influence in Misrata in the action that was taken yesterday by the Benghazi Defense Brigade. It is becoming all the more a proxy war, and this means it is becoming more fragmented, more difficult to be managed, and more difficult to be negotiated. Also, because most of these actors are not completely monolithic; we have noticed that in Egypt when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says something, the Ministry of Defense says something else, and the same is happening from other countries where officials repeat they are in favor of the Government of National Accord but the actions of their military or their army is totally different.

Elissa Miller: And finally, Russia has been playing a larger role in Libya. What does this mean for the United States and the policies of the new Trump administration?

Karim Mezran: That is a one-million-dollar question. We do not know how Trump is going to define his foreign policy. On the one hand they talk about rapprochement with Russia, which may lead us to think that he will deal with the Russians in order to find a solution to the various crises, and therefore there will be an agreement on Syria, an agreement on Libya, and so on and so on. From other quarters we hear that that’s not going to happen, so the historical rivalry between the United States and Russia will continue to be unfolded in the Mediterranean. So, Russia will try to acquire as many footholds in the Mediterranean by supporting Haftar and gaining a concession for a military base, while the United States will try to do everything to prevent that. How this will happen, what will happen on the ground, it really needs a crystal ball to be seen. The fact that Haftar called the Russians, but this caused coldness in the relationship with the Egyptians, might weaken Haftar, rather than strengthen him, and this might turn against Russia’s intentions as well. So it remains to be seen really how it unfolds on the ground.

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Image: Photo: A damaged kitchen is seen following recent clashes between armed factions in Tripoli's Abu Selem district, Libya, March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Hani Amara