The Haftar-Maiteeq agreement regarding the resumption of work in oil facilities, which was mediated by Russia and revealed on 18 September 2020, reflects the level of complexity that characterises the conflict in Libya and the wide margin of manoeuvre enjoyed by the various internal and external players, in a way that makes any progress that could be made on the way to settlement a matter fraught with many manoeuvres and overlapping calculations.
While the content of the agreement may appear to be an advanced step on the road to resolving the critical situation in managing the oil wealth, which is the main topic of the conflict in Libya, the rejection or reserved silence expressed by most of the parties concerned indicates the limited opportunities for implementing the agreement, at least according to the conditions contained therein. In this context, understanding this step and the reactions expressed in response to it, comes against the background of what it reveals in terms of the calculations of the parties to the conflict during the current stage, and not against the background of what it may actually represent in terms of resolving the conflict over the oil card in Libya and managing its revenues.
The contents of the agreement
According to the agreement’s copy posted on the official Twitter account of Ahmed Maiteeq, the First Vice Chairman of the Presidential Council, the terms of the agreement reflect the focus on the issue of oil production and the distribution of oil revenues, as well as banking transactions for foreign exchange, banking mechanisms, and financial appropriations and allocations channelled to the development process, and other issues related to the conflict’s economic and financial dimensions, which are closely related to the agenda of the economic track of the negotiations.
The agreement’s provisions offer direct and explicit solutions to many of the issues currently in dispute. The agreement stipulates the immediate resumption of oil production and export operations, and providing the necessary support to the National Oil Company (NOC) to ensure the return of production to normal.
The agreement also stipulates lifting the ban imposed by the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) in Tripoli on the financial transactions (clearing and payments system) of the main banks operating in the eastern region, which previously aimed to tighten the financial bottleneck on both the interim government and the financing operations provided to Haftar’s forces. This was one of the main triggers for launching Operation Flood of Dignity with the aim of controlling the capital Tripoli.
Likewise, the agreement stipulates benefiting from the fees imposed on the exchange rate, so that they would be directed to serve development projects that directly serve the citizen, with priority given to the reconstruction of the affected areas.
In general, the terms of the agreement include solutions that are difficult to reject, especially that they focus on general principles and broad outlines regarding which there is no general disagreement. However, the steps mentioned in the agreement regarding the formation of a joint technical committee to oversee the distribution of oil revenues and the implementation of all its provisions, together with the tasks mentioned in the agreement regarding the committee’s work, all limit the chances of implementing the agreement in terms of the potential clash that this entails with both the NOC and the CBL, given that the committee’s work amounts to limiting the powers of the two institutions and subjecting their dealings to the committee’s supervision.
On the other hand, the expected differences regarding the formation of the committee, if the agreement is implemented, would not only clash with the narrow regional and political interests of the parties to the conflict, but also with the interests of the armed entities, especially in the capital Tripoli where all internationally recognized financial and economic institutions are subject to the control and protection of those militias. This has created extensive networks of exploitation and looting, through the penetration of personalities affiliated with the armed militias into the boards of directors of those institutions. Therefore, the implementation of the agreement from this angle depends greatly on the level of progress made on the issue of dismantling the militias and rebuilding the security services, which is a complex file on which it would be hard to make significant progress in the short term. It also depends on the fate of the proposal to make Sirte a temporary seat for the work of the unified government which will be agreed upon.
Calculations of the parties
It can be said that what unites the three parties involved in the agreement, namely Russia as a mediator, Haftar and Maiteeq, as both parties to the negotiations, is the relative marginalisation of their roles within the current negotiating track. Therefore, the effort to come out with this agreement aims mainly to achieve a common great goal, which is strengthening the position of each of them as an actor that is hard to marginalise, without adopting disruptive behaviours or appearing as the party opposed to the settlement, but rather through keeping pace with the current negotiating path and achieving the desired goals, albeit according to a formula that ensures that each party remains a principal actor that cannot be marginalised. The calculations of each party can be referred to more clearly as follows:
1. Russia: it should initially be noted that the active US involvement in the Libyan affairs in recent months comes against the background of Washington’s desire to curb Moscow’s growing influence in Libya. Besides, the current settlement track is one of two competing tracks since the outbreak of the Sirte crisis, the other track being the Russian-Turkish coordination. Washington has worked to promote a settlement aimed at neutralising the oil card in general, and diverting it from Russian influence in particular, by adopting the proposal to evacuate the Oil Crescent from manifestations of militarisation and keeping the Wagner Group operatives away from the oil facilities in which they are stationed. This was stressed by the US on several occasions, the last of which being the statement issued by the US embassy in Tripoli on 12 September 2020.
Through the current agreement, Moscow seeks to decouple the process of resuming oil production and export from the fact that the oil facilities are under the control of Wagner’s operatives and Haftar’s forces. The agreement provides for the "immediate" resumption of oil production and export without addressing any issues related to the security and military conditions surrounding the operation of those facilities. This point was not far from the reactions of the parties rejecting the agreement, specifically the position of the NOC whose statement in response to the agreement indicates the rejection of any role by the Wagner operatives in the Libyan oil sector. The NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanallah also described what happened in Moscow as chaos and irregular negotiations.
2. Haftar: the agreement constitutes an additional step in the path of rehabilitating Haftar’s role in determining the decision-making compass in the Barqa (Cyrenaica) region, after three months of marginalising his role due to the withdrawal of his forces from the entire western region. The Speaker of Parliament Counselor Aguila Saleh took the lead in representing the interests of the region before the rest of the internal and external parties. The agreement comes less than a week after the statement of the US embassy in Tripoli, which revealed a personal pledge by Haftar to reopen the oil facilities for operation, which reflects Haftar’s lack of confidence in Washington and his desire to expand the margin of political manoeuvre in the face of his opponents, especially considering that control of the oil facilities is the most important remaining strategic card for him, and hence the convergence of the interests of the General Command [of the Libyan National Army, LNA] with Moscow in not abandoning that card.
Militarily, the reactions expressed by the voices representing the military centres of gravity inside the camp of the Government of National Accord (GNA) were identical, such as the GNA Defence Minister Salah al-Nimroush (Zawiya), the Commander of the Western Military Region Osama al-Juwaili (Zintan), and the spokesman for the Sirte-Jufra Operations Room Abdul Hadi Dara (Misrata, Misurata), all expressing their rejection of the agreement.
3. Maiteeq, whose step can be read in the context of his continuous efforts to present himself as a consensual figure capable of replacing Fayez al-Sarraj, both as Chairman of the Presidential Council and as the Prime Minister of the GNA, especially that the agreement comes in the wake of Sarraj’s announcement of his intention to resign from the leadership of the GNA at the end October 2020. Besides, this is not the first time that Maiteeq sought to get close to Moscow, which he visited as the head of a GNA delegation in June 2020 against the backdrop of the escalation of the Sirte crisis. At that time, his stance against the war sparked the anger of the Misrata militias.
The agreement would increase the state of division within the city of Misrata, which has exacerbated in recent weeks due to the crisis of the Tripoli protests and the intensified competition between Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, who is closest to the interests of the Misrata militias, and Ahmed Maiteeq, who is closest to representing the interests of the capitalist class inside the city. Reactions to the agreement did not differ from the traditional state of hostility by the militias towards Maiteeq. He was forcibly prevented from traveling to Sirte on 18 September 2020 where the agreement was to be signed.
Despite the aforementioned conflict between the interests and calculations of the parties involved in the conflict vis-à-vis the agreement, it is likely that most of the parties would demonstrate relative flexibility, which would implicitly allow the gradual resumption of operation of the oil facilities to avoid further aggravation of this crisis, while leaving controversial issues of a financial and economic nature to the outcome of the discussions on the economic track, which are being held under the auspices of the United Nations (UN). The NOC has announced the actual lifting of the force majeure from the ports of Brega and Harika and the influx of oil tankers starting from 23 September 2020.
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