Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Stakes in the Libyan War.

Jonathan Freedland has written an intelligent article in The Guardian outlining what is at stake in the Libyan Conflict. ( We've avoided a Libyan Srebrenica, so when is the bombing going to stop? Tuesday 29 March 2011 )

News of rebel advances on Monday brought hope that Colonel Gaddafi might be gone by the end of the week. The morning bulletins on Tuesday brought word of pro-Gaddafi successes, suggesting that the dictator would not be out any time soon.

That's what a protracted civil war could look like, a tug of war between two armed groups where the momentum shifts back and forth. But this very pattern presents an awkward question for the alliance thumping Libya and for all those who supported this intervention: a question that becomes all the more urgent on those days when the rebel forces do well.

The problem here is that Gaddafi most likely cannot be removed without a continuation of a bloody civil war should the rebels attempt to push west towards Tripoli. The best solution to the crisis will be to accept that a Srebrenica style massacre has been avoided and to negotiate a partition, if possible.

Clearly, it is possible that the largest oil producing areas of the east would fall under rebel control. A brokered ceasefire would ensure that the terms of the UN Resolution were fulfilled in protecting the civilians of the east. To have the war escalate in an attempt to go all the way to Tripoli would only ensure the deaths of civilians towards in the west.

With regards the legal situation, Freedland writes,

Philippe Sands QC, an authority on such matters, is clear: "The resolution allows for protection of civilians from the threat of attack. If the threat of attack has ceased, there is no justification for the use of force."

The problem might be that certain influential representatives of the Western powers will use the perception of a "threat" to argue to push on to the bitter end in order to maintain "credibility" and save face after effectively having implied that Gaddafi should go whilst arguing the aim is not "regime change".

The political reality is that no one wants to see the stalemate scenario, in which Gaddafi clings on as the seething ruler of a Tripoli-plus statelet in the west, while the rebels control the east. They want him gone, no matter how much they have to stretch the language of the UN resolution to achieve that outcome.

What also needs to be considered is how much the control of Libyan oil from the west is also prized as a strategic goal. Most of the petroleum refining plants and LNG terminals are in the east, with four oil exporting harbours there compared to just one in the west at Azzawiyah near Tripoli.

To understand what's at stake in the realpolitik calculations of the powers maps of the petroleum geology of Libya and the main concessions to foreign oil corporations is a useful indicator. Most of the existing operational oil concessions, indeed largest oil field are in the east. Shell has a huge concession in the Sirt Basin.

Germany, which opposed the intervention, has major concessions in the west of Libya through Wintershall. But the USA's Exxon Mobil has a huge concession in the Ghadamis Basin. The other large company in the west is Spain's Repsol. These oil interests are a key factor omitted from Freedman's analysis.

The oil concession map also includes the two large concessions agreed between BP and the Libyan regime, one in the Gulf of Sirt which abuts the region of Benghazi is clearly a vital interest for Britain and may account for the hawkish stance of Cameron and Fox.

But BP also has a colossal concession in the Ghadamis basin. This along with Exxon Mobil's concession could account for the determination of the US and UK to arm the rebels in an attempt to get rid of Gaddafi. It's a major factor that has not been clearly related to diplomatic events as much as it should.

Faisal Islam of Channel 4 News remarked that it was important to look at

BP’s own map of its two oil concessions in Libya, signed with great fanfare during the last few weeks of Tony Blair’s premiership in May 2007. Look at the offshore Sirt block, in the Gulf of Sirt. It is the size of Belgium.

It is, of course, thousands of feet underwater....according to a Reuters report last week, BP said it was going to start offshore exploration drilling within weeks – before June. 3D seismic has already been done by a Norwegian company. Drilling was delayed, partly because of Libyan concerns about the Gulf Oil spill.

The question is how valuable the BP concession is to Britain now and how far the British government is going to risk escalating the war to secure control over the concession in the Ghadamis Basin, even assuming a partition of Libya would allow the colossal Sirt block to fall to a new rebel government in the east.

Obviously, the intervention in Libya is crucially concerned with oil. Unless the West learn to find alternatives, pathological conflicts such as these are set to become normal in the course of the 21st century. Even Afghanistan is now crucially about the geopolitics of the TAPI gas pipeline.

In any case, Libyan oil, whilst accounting for 2% of global oil supply, is still of great significance to all the high octane consumer economies of Europe, not least set against the background of economic recession following the crash of 2008 and Arab Uprisings In Bahrain and Yemen.

As Edward L Morse remarks in Oil and Unrest ( Foreign Affairs journal March 8, 2011)

The ongoing violence in Libya has had a more consequential impact on oil prices. To date, some 750,000 barrels a day of Libyan crude oil have been lost; Saudi Arabia claims to have replaced all of that supply. But Libyan and Saudi oil are not interchangeable. Libya's crude oil is known for its high quality: most of the 1.5 million barrels a day that the country produces is light and sweet, which means it is low in sulfur (hence its "sweet" smell) and is easily refined into high-demand petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel fuel. Only 25 percent of global crude is of similar quality; the loss of Libyan crude represents about nine percent of that pool. Saudi oil, however, is heavy and sour, making it -- at best -- an imperfect substitute for Libyan supply.

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