Tripoli clashes signal an uncertain future for Libya - Security Boulevard

SBN Tripoli clashes signal an uncertain future for Libya

Written by Georgina Turner


On 4 September, an UN-brokered ceasefire brought seven days of inter-militia fighting in Tripoli to an end. However, the clashes have exposed the fragility of Libya’s projected image of relative stability and are likely to delay plans for the country’s upcoming elections. In the meantime, the oil sector faces growing uncertainty and should prepare for intermittent disruptions in the coming weeks and months.


Fighting in the capital erupted on 28 August, when a militia based in Tarhuna, a town approximately 65km southeast of Tripoli, attacked a coalition of Tripoli militias supported by Misuratan brigades. The Tarhuna-based Seventh Brigade accused the Tripoli coalition of benefiting from widespread corruption and siphoning off funds from state institutions. According to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), the fighting resulted in the death of at least 61 individuals, of whom many were civilians; hundreds were injured and many more were forced to flee their homes. On 31 August Mitiga International Airport was closed and on 2 September 400 prisoners escaped from the Ain Zara prison in the south of the city. To date, the ceasefire has been successful in suspending the violence and reopening the airport, but the clashes are likely to have both short- and medium-term consequences for the country’s oil and shipping interests.

In the short-term, operative delays are to be expected at oil and gas terminals in the vicinity of Tripoli. Although no ports or terminals were closed as a result of the fighting, on 2 September it was reported that Eni had evacuated staff from Mellitah Terminal as a precautionary measure and it is likely that extra safety measures taken by companies and staff will result in minor delays as terminals return to business as usual. In the medium term, it is likely that levels of criminality and insecurity will be heightened in and around ports due to potential future clashes (if the UN-brokered ceasefire fails) or as a result of the 400 escaped prisoners from Ain Zara. Amid the ensuing chaos, reports of looting and anarchy have been registered across the city – this will not be immediately resolved by the ceasefire.


The recent clashes are also indicative of more long-term security concerns that could impact upon Libyan security and its oil production capacity. The Guardian reported that this was the worst street fighting seen in the country for four years and has questioned what it means for the French-led plans to hold elections before the end of the year. The clashes exposed the inability of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) to both prevent and extinguish violence in the very city in which it is based. Its lack of monopoly on violence is likely to invite future challenges from rival militia. Depending on their severity, future clashes could cause major disruptions to the oil and gas sector, which has only begun to recover from damage inflicted by fierce inter-militia fighting in 2014 and over the past two years.

In Libya, where the economy is almost totally reliant on oil exports, production terminals will always be targets for groups seeking to gain political leverage. Whether nominally held by GNA-aligned groups in the west or the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east, recent incidents – in Tripoli in the past fortnight and in the Oil Crescent in June – have revealed the growing willingness of local militia to battle for control in port cities. Moreover, local media reports indicate that groups are increasingly cooperating in order to launch attacks in the Oil Crescent. Amidst this fragmentation of power, Head of the UNSMIL Ghassan Salamé has warned of IS’s growing presence in the country, citing attacks on the High National Elections Commission in May and in Zliten in August as evidence. Rather than building to a point from which democratic elections can be held, the security situation in Libya is deteriorating and, as previously, the oil and gas terminals are highly likely to be key sites of conflict.


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