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Opinion: Who is Setting Libya’s Oil on Fire? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Firefighters work to put out the fire of a storage oil tank at the port of Sidra in Ras Lanuf, Libya, on December 29, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

Those worried about the slump in the oil market—which has seen prices of crude oil fall to their lowest levels in years—may owe a debt of gratitude to the armed militias in Libya. These groups are now setting ablaze storage tanks in the country, reducing the oil output from one of OPEC’s core producers and, so, inadvertently helping curtail the excess in supply in the market that has caused prices to drop so drastically.

However, such thanks would be premature. Those hoping for a resurgence in the price of oil following the news from Libya will be sorely disappointed; prices did not reach their hoped-for levels after people quickly realized that this former oil powerhouse—which used to help supply the global market with 1.6 million barrels of oil per day—has for a long time not been the force it once was.

One has to wonder at these militias who are sabotaging storage tanks and oilfields, the main source of income for the country and the Libyan people, who are no doubt the real losers in this sorry debacle. Without the funds from oil revenues, Libya simply has no hope of rebuilding itself and its institutions.

What is clear is that these groups are attempting to control this valuable source of revenue for their own ends, and to prevent the elected and internationally recognized Libyan government—which can’t even hold its meetings in the country’s capital, Tripoli—from using it. This is exactly what happened in Syria and Iraq with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has appropriated both these countries’ oil supplies to fund its own extremist agenda and pay its fighters’ wages.

What is different in the Libyan case is that the supply is larger; the danger—to the region and the international community—is therefore much more acute. These resources could be used not only to fund the militias in Libya, but also their allies in neighboring countries, or those in Syria and Iraq. This would cause the problem to mushroom out of all proportion.

Any hopes for winning the war against terrorist groups in the region must revolve around ways to stop this situation from snowballing out of control. A year ago no-one would have believed that primitive militias driven by extremist ideologies could control such vast swaths of territory in countries like Syria and Iraq, and that an international coalition would need to be formed in order to stop them. But now here they are, and no-one is yet to provide an adequate explanation for their success and how they have come to possess such large numbers of weapons and resources.

The same is now happening in Libya, which is descending toward an open war on the banks of the Mediterranean. No adequate explanation has been provided for the prominence of these militias on the scene. All we know is that they seek power—and to impose their ideology on the Libyan people.

And just like what happened with Syria, there is a reluctance from the international community to take action on the situation in Libya. Things are now getting out of control and becoming more and more complex. But all we have had are calls and proposals completely out of sync with reality, ones that put extremist groups and a legitimate government on an equal footing—as if they were both sides in a conflict that could be resolved through talks, even though one of the parties does not believe in the concept of dialogue in the first place.

Not only that, such views also contend that regional forces are at play in this conflict. Libya’s neighbors, and other countries in the region, are sure to be the biggest losers in this whole situation. This means these countries have a greater, and more legitimate responsibility than anyone else to help Libya and its people get out of this mess.