The West’s message to Libyans: Whoever controls the oil controls the country

by Mohannad Obeid, Al-Akhbar English

The new Sykes-Picot speaks only the language of interests and wealth. The time has come to divide the wealth of Libya, which has the largest oil reserves in Africa and produces the most precious, high-quality crude in the world. After four years that saw many battles between Operation Dignity and Operation Libya Dawn, no side has prevailed or dominated yet. But the world may not wait much longer; it is time to take advantage of this wealth, and indeed, mega oil corporations are preparing to set sail to Libya’s oil-rich shores. NATO is aware that sending forces to Libya to fight militias, radical groups, and armed tribes would be a misadventure. So plan B is to now give an opportunity with a set timetable to the Libyan belligerents according to the following equation: He who controls oil shall control Libya.

Battles are raging on the Libyan battlefield. Fighting intensified in the past weeks between Major General Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity and Islamist-led Operation Libya Dawn.

Haftar’s forces have been desperate over the past few months to take full control of Benghazi and eliminate the presence of Ansar al-Sharia and its Islamist allies in what is left of the city. Securing Benghazi, the capital of the Libyan east, would allow parliament to be relocated there from Tobruk, according to the constitution.

Haftar is eagerly waiting for this moment, as victory in this war would bolster international recognition of the government of Abdullah al-Thani and the parliament, and will double the flow of arms that Haftar desperately needs to continue his future battles.

The battle lines are a bit clearer this time compared to previous rounds of fighting. The oil wells between Benghazi and Sirte, or what is known as the Oil Crescent, are now the theater of a relentless war.

Haftar sent military reinforcements to this 500-km stretch of the Libyan coast, complete with air cover using the fighter jets he could repair and helicopters provided by his allies in Egypt. Haftar’s forces were able to thwart Operation Libya Dawn’s plan to crawl into these areas, and now the battles are largely being fought in the form of hit-and-run.

As though recent history is repeating itself, the history of the battles between rebels and Gaddafi’s forces, names like Ras Lanuf, Sidra Port, and Sirte are once again in the limelight. Operation Dignity and Libya Dawn both have their eyes set on seizing control of these high-quality oil-rich areas, even if at the cost of displacing and killing their inhabitants; even if the result could be Libya’s loss of oil reservoirs, and even if the fighting were to cause Libya’s oil output to drop from 900,000 to 200,000 or even fewer barrels per day.

The fierce battles and wholesale destruction around the oil installations do not suggest, however, that the goal is to take control of Libya’s only source of livelihood and bring in much needed dollars to either side.

Sources told Al-Akhbar that UK and US diplomats have sent explicit messages to the two sides, the gist being more or less that he who controls the oil wells and export terminals will receive international cover to rule Libya. And indeed, the map of the battles is consistent with what these sources are saying.

The West does not want to become directly involved in the complicated tribal-partisan war in Libya, its involvement is taking place at a distance. The West supports those who show the most loyalty, giving itself a broad margin to maneuver. Meanwhile, it seems that the process of distributing the pieces of the Libyan oil pie has started in earnest among the major players.

Where does France stand in this equation? Is France not the country most deserving of a respectable share of Libya’s energy wealth? Indeed, wasn’t its president at the time Nicolas Sarkozy the one who lead NATO to intervene in Libya?

In the past few months, battles broke out between the Tabu tribe that inhabits the border region with Chad, and the Tuareg or Desert Amazigh who inhabit large parts of the Libyan south, Niger, Algeria, and Mali. But the causes of the fighting are not quite understood. Indeed, there was an alliance between the two sides that was more than a 100 years old, known in Amazigh as Amidi Amidi or “Friend Friend.”

In the meantime, France has been stepping up its rhetoric about the presence of terrorist elements in southern Libya. France has also sent reinforcements to Niger and Chad, and refurbished an old military base at Madama, 100 km from the border with Libya, while putting pressure on Chadian President to send forces to Libya to fight alongside the Tabu against the Tuareg. Recently, French Defense Minister Le Drian visited Nigel and before it Chad, calling explicitly for international action against terrorism in Libya.

So the question that begs itself here is this: What is there in the Libyan south that France wants so badly?

The Ubari region, the ancestral home of the Tuareg, floats on top of a sea of black gold. The region has many oil wells that the Gaddafi regime had closed down to preserve for future generations, and there are huge “virgin” oil reserves there ready for the taking. The Tibesti Mountains, meanwhile, the land of the Tabu tribes on the border between Libya and Chad, also sit on thousands of tons of gold and uranium.

Then, perhaps, France’s share will be in the Libyan south. If Paris decides to go into southern Libya, it would be hitting more than one bird with just one stone: Energy sources in southern Libya will be in its hands, and the old Libyan-Chadian dispute over the Aouzou Strip will be rekindled, guaranteeing France a foothold in the area. More importantly, France will become a key player in sub-Saharan African countries, after a period of declining French influence in favor of the United States and China.

What about Italy? Under the former Libyan regime and cordial relations between then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi, the Italian oil giant Eni managed more than 35 percent of Libyan oil production and received around 32 percent of its needs from Libyan oil. Will Italy accept to leave an area in which it had considerable historical influence? The question is especially valid given that Berlusconi was begrudgingly forced to betray his close friend Gaddafi and get involved with NATO in forcing regime change in Libya.

The battles are set to intensify in the coming days. Many more Libyans will go into mourning as they bury their children, the fodder of this war. The dialogue called for by UN envoy Bernardino Leon between the warring sides was stillborn. Perhaps it will be more meaningful when one of the two sides prevails.

In all cases, the Libyan mindset is still not ready for dialogue and discussions. A leading Libyan politician once said: In every Libyan, there is a small Gaddafi that we must get rid of before we can think about building Libya.

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