In August 2011, as Libya’s rebels and Nato jets began an assault on Tripoli, Gaddafi delivered a speech calling on his supporters to defend the country from foreign invaders.
“There is a conspiracy to control Libyan oil and to control Libyan land, to colonise Libya once again. This is impossible, impossible. We will fight until the last man and last woman to defend Libya from east to west, north to south,” he said.
Nine years on, Gaddafi’s proclamation is not far from the truth with regional powers has descended on Libya in a showdown over control of Libya’s oil wealth. 2020 has brought an escalation in Libya’s conflict, and LNA-controlled Sirte – along with oilfields south of the city – could trigger unprecedented clashes between foreign powers on Libyan soil.
In violation of an international arms embargo, the city of Sirte and its surrounding area has been flooded with weapons and fighters in recent weeks as forces loyal to the government in Tripoli mobilise on one side of the frontline, and those fighting for General Khalifa Haftar, appointed by the rival parliament in Tobruk, line up on the other. Tripoli is desperate to dislodge Haftar’s forces.
At stake is Libya’s greatest treasure: the largest oil reserves in the entire African continent. The majority of the country’s oilfields are in the Sirte basin, worth billions of dollars a year. Haftar’s forces, who are in control of Sirte, imposed a blockade on oil exports in January, causing revenues to plummet as daily production dropped off from around 1 million barrels to just 100,000 barrels a day.
Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) is officially recognised by the UN as Libya’s legitimate government. The GNA’s main allies are Turkey and Qatar, and to some extent Italy, which relies on the GNA to stop the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to its shores.
Haftar is supported by leaders of the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who view political Islam as a threat to their own power, and by Russia. France also backs Haftar and a secular-led Libya to ensure the safety of its troops further south.
The fighting is further complicated by tribal dynamics, the proliferation of drone warfare and an ever-expanding presence of foreign mercenaries: Russia’s state-linked Wagner group has provided key tactical support to the LNA since last year. The mercenaries acting on behalf of Moscow and Abu Dhabi are consolidating their presence at al Jufra airbase to the south of Sirte, deploying at least 14 MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter jets from Syria, and have reportedly also taken control of the country’s largest oilfield, El Sharara, and the exporting port Es Sider.
About 10,000 Syrians – their own proxy war still raging – are also now fighting on both sides of the war, lured by higher salaries than they can earn at home. Both the GNA and LNA’s backers face accusations of recruiting men from Chad, Somalia and Sudan to work as security guards or in support line units, who instead find themselves deployed on Libya’s frontlines as cannon fodder.
“In many ways, you can think of the wars in Syria, Ukraine and now Libya as equivalents to the Spanish civil war back in the 1930s,” said Peter Singer, a specialist in 21st-century warfare and senior fellow at the New America foundation. “It is not just that various powers are fighting proxy wars there, through a mix of official and hired forces, but that they are also using the conflicts as a kind of test ground for both what works and what they can get away with. Just like the 1930s, we will see the ripple effects of this for years to come.”
At the end of last year Haftar was close to seizing Tripoli after a months-long campaign that killed more than 3,000 people and displaced up to 500,000 civilians from their homes. In January Turkey took dramatic action to prevent the capital from falling, following up a declaration of overt military support for the GNA by sending Turkish troops, drones, air defence systems and Syrian fighters to drive the renegade general’s forces back. The move paid off: in the space of a few months, Turkey turned the tide of the war, and Haftar was forced to retreat from much of western Libya.
The GNA has since begun a steady march eastward in the hope of pressuring Haftar to give up control of the Sirte oil basin. To counter Turkey, last month Egypt’s parliament also declared open military intervention in Libya, warning that if pro-GNA forces advance on Sirte, Cairo will respond with “direct action”.
“Even as military build-up in Sirte continues, the situation is basically deadlocked and the only non-military way out of this is an agreement on sharing oil revenues,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst with International Crisis Group. “Unfortunately, neither side is likely to give up such important assets. Players in Tripoli would rather not march on the city, and it would be dangerous for Turkey to risk an outright conflict with the Russians, or the Egyptians, but the status quo isn’t sustainable. As long as Haftar sits on the oil and no revenue is going Tripoli’s way, he is nominally still in control.”