Defeating ISIS fighters in Libya is proving to be a grinding, bloody struggle. The multi-sided battle among Libyans for control of their own oil industry is an even more complex war --but an opportunity to settle may have just emerged.
Let's address ISIS first. On August 22, Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord announced that the defeat of ISIS fighters in the city of Sirte was imminent. Sirte is in the western half of Libya, a region also known by its old Roman Empire provincial name, Tripolitania. With the support of American air strikes, a militia coalition backing the GNA had seized Sirte's city center and trapped ISIS fighters in two neighborhoods. An ISIS force outside the city had retreated. The Misrata Brigades militia is the largest and most powerful member of the GNA militia group.
The battle mattered to the GNA. The GNA is headquartered in Tripoli. Taking back Sirte and dealing ISIS a defeat would be a political coup, internationally and domestically. It would validate UN, Western European and U.S. support for the GNA. It would help secure the GNA's base in Tripolitania and strengthen the GNA's political position in Libya's multi-sided civil war. A major defeat of ISIS would one-up its chief rival government, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Tobruk is in eastern Libya, which is also known as Cyrenaica, its old Roman name.
It is six weeks later and the house-to-house battle isn't over, not quite. ISIS terrorists in Sirte are now isolated in one small neighborhood. ISIS terrorists bet the government's militia coalition wouldn't press the fight. They resisted fanatically. However, the militia coalition has fought well. I'll wager U.S. and allied air strikes gave the coalition a morale boost as well as a means to destroy ISIS strong points.
Several analysts suggest that thinking of Libya as a collection of city-states helps non-Libyans understand the country's fractious politics. The comparison to classical Greek city-states is a stretch but makes a point. In Libya, local, tribal and regional loyalties are stronger than national ties. The west versus east rivalry (Tripolitania versus Cyrenaica) is a domestic political reality.
There is no question Misrata Brigades militiamen are loyal to their hometown, the city of Misrata. Their loyalty to the GNA, however, is less than absolute. Regular paychecks buy their continued loyalty -- and that takes us to the oil war.
Libya needs revenue from oil exports to rebuild destroyed cities. Slowly but surely, Libya has been reviving its oil industry. However, which government and which coalition will control revenues is still a casus belli.
In mid-September, General Kahlifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army seized control of four major Libyan oil ports in eastern Libya. Haftar opposes the GNA. He is an easterner. Many easterners accuse the western Tripoli government of "looting" eastern oil wealth.
Several news reports portray Haftar's LNA as a rogue army. Haftar's supporters contend the real rogue army is the Petroleum Facilities Guards, led by Ibrahim Jadhran. In 2013, Jadhran's PFG made the claim that it was the only force capable of protecting oil facilities in eastern Libya. Many Libyans, however, accuse Jadhran of running an extortion racket. He would shut down the facilities unless he got a cut of the oil sales.
After defeating the PFG, Haftar surprised everyone and turned control of oil exports over to Libya's National Oil Company (NOC). The NOC can bank the revenue as long as the GNA does not control revenue distribution.
Libya's city states and regions and tribes do have a common interest in oil revenue. Libya currently produces 400,000 barrels of oil a day and is poised to produce a million a day. Haftar's dramatic gesture is a political opportunity. Will Libya's warring parties take it? Who knows, but if they can agree to stop fighting among themselves, they will have the cash to rebuild Sirte and thoroughly eradicate ISIS.