In February 2011, protests began in Libya and quickly evolved into a widespread revolution against the regime of strongman Muammar Gaddafi. The protests were inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions that swept numerous countries in the Arab world.
The NATO Intervention in Libya and Overthrow of Gaddafi
As Gaddafi’s crackdown on protesters intensified, the United Nations authorized military intervention in Libya to protect civilians. On March 17, NATO initiated its military assault, launching aerial attacks on government forces and imposing a no-fly zone.
As protesters gained the upper hand against the Gaddafi’s regime, the Libyan strongman came out to warn in August 2011 that the revolt in the country was a “conspiracy to control Libya’s oil.”
“There is a conspiracy to control Libyan oil and to control Libyan land and to colonize Libya once again,” he said in an audio message to his supporters.
Two months after this message, Gaddafi was captured by his opponents, dragged and killed in his hometown city of Sirte.
Gaddafi’s Warning Now Seems Prescient
Nine years now after his death, Gaddafi’s warning appears to have come true, as regional powers fight a proxy war on the Libyan soil for control of the country’s oil wealth.
After Gaddafi’s ouster, two rival seats of governments emerged in Libya; one in Tripoli, which is backed by Turkey and the other in eastern Libya, which is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) is now preparing to launch a military offensive to capture the oil-rich city of Sirte from the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.
Proxy War Fever
The GNA is militarily backed by energy-hungry Turkey, which has sent between 3,500 and 3,800 paid Syrian fighters to Libya in the first three months of the year, according to the Pentagon.
The Turkish military support to the GNA has been instrumental in repelling a year-long offensive launched by Haftar’s forces on the Libyan capital Tripoli, pushing him back to Sirte.
On June 20, Egypt, Libya’s next-door neighbor which backs Haftar, threatened to militarily intervene in Libya if the Turkey-backed GNA forces moved on to capture Sirte from the LNA forces. The Egyptian parliament followed suit by authorizing the sending of military forces to Libya.
Sirte is a strategic gateway to Libya’s oil crescent, which stretches along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Sirte, where four of Libya’s six hydrocarbon export terminals are located and through which more than 50% of the Libyan crude oil exports leave the country.
Libya’s Massive Oil Industry
With 48,363,000,000 barrels of proven oil reserves, Libya has the largest crude wealth in Africa. It ranks ninth in the world, accounting for about 2.9% of the world’s total oil reserves.
Until 2013, Libya, an OPEC member, produced 1.65 million barrels per day of crude oil and 594 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Oil production, however, dropped to nearly 90,000 barrels daily due to the ongoing fighting between rival Libyan forces.
The Libyan economy is largely dependent on the oil sector, which represents about 69% of Libya’s export earnings. Before 2011, revenues from oil exports accounted for 65% of Libya’s gross domestic product (GDP). This helped the Gaddafi’s regime to amass cash reserves and run a debt-free economy. In 2019, Libya’s earnings from oil sales amounted to $22.5 billion. Several international oil companies are operating in Libya, including France’s Total, Eni of Italy, US firms ConocoPhillips and Hess, and Germany’s Wintershall.
Foreign Powers Push to Get the Oil Flowing
In late June, Russian and foreign mercenaries took control of El Sharara oilfield — Libya’s largest — and the exporting port of Es Sider, according to Libya’s state-run National Oil Corporation. In an effort to resume oil exports from the conflict-ridden country, the White House on August 4 called for demilitarized solution Sirte and an immediate reopening of its oil facilities.
“The ongoing efforts of foreign powers to exploit the conflict – for example, by establishing an enduring military presence or exerting control over resources that belong to the Libyan people – pose grave threats to regional stability and global commerce,” US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement. He said Washington was diplomatically engaged with Libyan rivals, external stakeholders to reach a solution to the Libyan conflict.
“To that end, we call on all parties – both those responsible for the current escalation and those working to end it – to enable the National Oil Corporation to resume its vital work, with full transparency, and to implement a demilitarized solution for Sirte and al-Jufra, respect the UN arms embargo, and finalize a ceasefire under the UN-led 5+5 military talks.”
As the rivalry between regional stakeholders for control of Libya’s oil wells rages on, Gaddafi’s prediction of his country’s fate looks like to be materializing, with no solution appearing on the horizon.