Gaddafi’s prophecy comes true as foreign powers battle for Libya’s oil.
In August 2011, as Libya’s rebels and Nato jets began to bomb Tripoli, Colonel Muammar 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 colonize 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 in a message broadcast by a television station. Two months later, Gaddafi was dragged bleeding and confused from a storm drain in his hometown of Sirte, before being killed.
Nine years on, Gaddafi’s proclamation is not far from the truth, as a constellation of foreign powers has descended on Libya. As the battle moves to Sirte, the gateway to the country’s oil crescent, a potential showdown over control of Libya’s oil wealth is looming.
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.
West Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), officially recognized by the UN as the country's legitimate government, was created in 2015. It is at odds with the Tobruk administration, formed when MPs decamped to the eastern city following disputed elections. Tobruk appointed Haftar, a former army commander under Gaddafi and one-time CIA asset, to lead its self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) the same year.
The fighting has steadily drawn in foreign backers with differing ideological, political, and economic stakes in Libya’s future.
The GNA’s main allies are the Muslim Brotherhood-friendly 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, which is fresh from its successes in Syria and is intent on expanding its footprint in the Arab world.
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.
About 10,000 Syrians are believed to be 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.”
2020 has already brought a dizzying 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.
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.
Forced to impose pay cuts for civil servants and currently spending from reserves inherited from the Gaddafi era, Tripoli is desperate to dislodge Haftar’s forces.
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 defense systems, and Syrian fighters to drive the renegade general’s forces back.
The bold 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, but faced with an LNA on the back foot, Tobruk’s international backers are doubling down to redress the balance.
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”.
Wagner 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.
“Even as the 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.”
A long-awaited external audit of Libya’s central bank is set to begin this week – a development that could help pave the way to ending the six-month-old oil blockade – but many observers worry that there are now so many competing interests in the multi-layered conflict that compromises will be hard to reach.
With the UN largely shut out of deliberations between Libya’s new Turkish and Russian powerbrokers, the risk of a frozen conflict, or even a partition of the country, seems to be growing.
Almost like Gaddafi prophesized in 2011, Libya has indeed evolved into a playground for foreign powers fighting for the control of oil. The fate of Libya’s people is increasingly hanging on a thread.