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Exclusive: Both sides of the conflict in Libya are preparing for a long confrontation

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Libyan fighters are preparing for a long struggle … with arms flowing from outside, tribesmen closing oil ports and rival factions battling oil revenues in the country that sits on top of Africa’s largest oil reserves.

These moves indicate an escalation of hostility in a war that could exacerbate instability in the region and increase the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa nearly ten years after Muammar Gaddafi fell in 2011.

From his large villa in eastern Libya, the Sensuous tribal leader, Al-Zawi, expects more trouble in the vast country, which has been witnessing years of conflict between two rival governments in the east and west.

Zawy is an ally of the military commander, Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are led by eastern Libya (the Libyan National Army), with support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Russian mercenaries as they seek to control the capital, Tripoli.

The Zuni tribe closes the oil ports and resists calls from the United States and the United Nations to resume the flow of crude, which is the vital source of income for Libya, which is controlled by the internationally recognized national reconciliation government and is a deduction for Haftar.

In exchange for the opening of the ports, Al-Zawi demands the Al-Wefaq government, which is located 1,000 kilometers in Tripoli, to transfer more revenue to his tribe. He suggests that the next might be worse if the Al-Wefaq government refused to do so.

“We are not happy with what happened, but we have a new escalation, even if the international community does not listen to us,” said al-Zawi, head of the Supreme Council of the al-Zawi tribes, who live near oil installations in eastern Libya.

“He will be in a major escalation, we have other things … at the time the world knows what an escalation is,” he told Reuters in the eastern city of Benghazi, “but he did not specify what it means.”

– Arms race –

The standoff over oil is one of several factors that could prolong the nearly-year-old conflict to control the capital, as the National Accord government last month secured Turkey’s military support, including fighters from Syria, backed by Ankara.

The fighters are competing for rearmament, and have received arms shipments before and after foreign supporters agree to enforce a truce at a summit in Germany in January. Diplomats say the influx of sophisticated artillery, fighters and advisers violates pledges in Berlin to respect the arms embargo.

Last Thursday, the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire, but Russia, one of Haftar’s backers, declined to vote. Diplomats considered this a sign that Moscow may not commit to political mediation under the leadership of the United Nations.

Haftar’s forces and their foreign supporters halted air strikes on the capital. But Western diplomats and experts say this does not stem from a real desire for peace but because of the better air defenses that Turkey has provided.

The diplomats said that before Turkey intervened, officials in Tripoli were terrified of the prospect of losing the capital.

The Syrian fighters sent by Turkey have also helped dispel the small gains of the Libyan National Army, and have restored the front lines to almost what they were after the start of the National Army offensive in April 2019.

Estimates of the diplomats in Turkey on the number of Syrian fighters range from 1500 to 3000, while the number of Turkish forces is estimated between 200 and 500, including special forces, conventional forces and drones operators.

“The two sides are preparing for the next battle,” said a Western diplomat.

Diplomacy has long collapsed under the gust of mutual suspicion.

“Every time we reach any kind of agreement … we have always seen the same pattern,” says Taher Al-Sunni, ambassador of the reconciliation government to the United Nations. “It was like earning time, and then (Haftar) decided to use force.”

According to flight tracking data and a security source, Turkey sent heavy trucks by sea, while the UAE transported 89 air shipments totaling 4,680 metric tons between January 12 and February 16. The UAE did not respond to a request for comment.

– Control of oil wealth –

The newly arrived large cannons announce their presence, as they have heard the long-range artillery shelling blamed on the Libyan National Army in the city center for the first time this week.

Beyond the battle for Tripoli, which led to the displacement of at least 150,000 people, the conflict turned to control of oil wealth. The forces allied with Haftar closed the ports for a month, causing losses of about 1.4 billion dollars.

The siege brings to mind complaints of neglect and neglect dating back to the era of Gaddafi, who punished the East for opposing him during his long years of rule.

Pressure from international powers and the United Nations has so far failed to persuade Hifter to reopen the ports and the southern Sharara field, Libya’s largest oilfield. Indeed, the veteran leader snatched a new recognition from Western countries that the oil revenues should be distributed fairly.

A senior US diplomat said it was important to distribute oil revenues evenly, which he said should be discussed in US-led Libyan economic talks as part of a mediation to overcome divisions.

Neither side has disclosed how much they are spending on the conflict.

The Tripoli government has become less dependent on oil than before, as it saves about a third of the budget through fees it charges on all transactions in hard currency. Diplomats say some of the Syrian fighters sent by Turkey receive their salaries directly from Tripoli.

Inertia looms. On Friday, Haftar dashed hopes for a truce, saying that “there is no peace except by defeating the armed militias” that control Tripoli. For its part, Tripoli is asking the Libyan National Army to withdraw for a distance of one thousand kilometers east, which is rejected by Haftar.

“Here we see very well that the ceasefire will not be achieved without these forces returning from where they came,” said Interior Minister of the Al-Wefaq government, Fathi Bashaga.

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