‘So long as we hold oil, we will remain relevant to the West,' says the opposition.
Faced with the prospect of a prolonged conflict, the opposition forces in Libya are seeking international facilitation to unseat Muammar Qadhafi. They are high on morale but low on resources. In the Benghazi court house, plastered with anti-Qadhafi graffiti and posters that have been imaginatively conceived by open citizens' workshops, activists debate a road-map to victory — even if it would take them long to achieve their goal.
Two major points emerge from their deliberations. First, the world has to quickly recognise the Libyan National Council (LNC). Second, the imposition of a no-fly zone cannot wait any longer. In the court house, a cosmopolitan opposition hub, discussions over paper cups of black coffee are animated by the regular flow of information from the front lines. The situation in places such as the oil hubs of Ras Lanuf and Brega, flagged here on maps in the red, green and black colours of the opposition forces, is a constant topic of discussion.
Youthful volunteers led by officers of Mr. Qadhafi's army who have defected from his side defend these positions, which the pro-Qadhafi forces are desperate to take them. Starved of oil resources for too long a period now, the regime knows its capacity to power the war against the opposition would be impaired without those resources.
On its side, the opposition knows it cannot lose Libya's oil heartland to pro-Qadhafi forces. “So long as we hold the oil, we'll remain relevant in negotiations for formal recognition with the West and other powerful countries,” says Isa Ahmed, an opposition activist.
For the opposition, formal international recognition is vital on other counts also. “Without formal recognition we cannot gain access to oil export revenues, which are necessary not only for us to run this war successfully but also for the future development of our country,” says Mohammad Ashur, another opposition campaigner.
Export revenues continue
Despite his losing physical control over a substantial portion of the oil assets, export revenues continue to flow into Mr. Qadhafi's coffers. This is because Libya's oil industry is run by the state-owned National Oil Company (NOC), which is responsible for exploration and production-sharing agreements with international oil giants. The Benghazi-based Arabian Gulf Oil Company, a unit of the NOC, has broken from its parent company for as long as Mr. Qadhafi stays in power. However, those company officials who have revolted, say those oil revenues continue to flow into NOC accounts, enriching the regime.
However, the opposition believes this would change once it is awarded formal international recognition. “For its own legitimacy the transitional government here would like to be recognised by the United Nations first. Once that is done, individual countries would have the legal basis to declare their recognition as well,” said Mr. Ashur.
Opposition activists say they have to quickly get hold of oil revenues. Otherwise they would soon run out of money to pay oil workers and other government employees. The resulting economic strife, they say, can also divide opposition supporters and threaten the unity of the anti-Qadhafi movement. “Queues are already building outside banks and this will worsen once we are short of cash. This is not a good sign,” says Mr. Ahmed.
Aware of the importance of being globally recognised, opposition leader Mahmoud Jebril addressed European Union parliamentary groups meeting in Strasbourg.
Anti-regime supporters say how soon international recognition comes would also depend on the pace of the opposition's advance. But in order to ensure a quicker advance, which will inspire greater international confidence in the opposition, the imposition of a no-fly zone has become a necessity. Opposition activists say denial of air power would undermine the regime's capacity to damage from the air opposition supply lines, including roads that are used to transport fighters to the front lines. Besides, it will be a psychological blow to the regime, and might encourage defections from the Qadhafi camp.
In seeking a no-fly zone, a move that has been backed by the Arab countries, the opposition knows of the dangers of foreign forces hijacking what has so far essentially been an indigenous anti-regime revolt.
Opposition leaders such as Abdel Hafiz Ghoga have been saying they are opposed to the introduction of foreign troops. But seeking a no-fly zone under a U.N. flag will not compromise the integrity of the movement.
The opposition is united in seeking a no-fly zone, but there are some people who are unsure whether even without the threat of Mr. Qadhafi's Air Force the opposition forces would rapidly advance. The problem, they say, is not shortage of weapons but the quality of the opposition's foot-soldiers.
An opposition supporter said: “We have a mix of raw volunteers led by army professionals who have left Mr. Qadhafi. But these forces are yet to gel. I saw it first hand in Ras Lanuf when orders were issued to advance towards Sirte [Mr. Qadhafi's hometown] but many volunteers tailed way behind.” Nevertheless, most people agree that a no-fly zone may help the opposition forces to emerge as a recognised anti-Qadhafi force, and as a shadow regime awaiting Mr. Qadhafi's formal political exit from Libya.