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Control over energy resources key in regional domestic conflicts

03 October 2016

Ongoing developments in the struggle for oil in the Middle East has revealed that production facility protection forces are one of the most effective parties in the conflict between governments, terrorists and militias. Generally, protection forces have played a supportive role to governments in the region such as Iraq and Yemen. They have occasionally taken on a combative role against ISIS, as seen in Iraq and Kurdistan. These forces even assist when it comes to preventing illegitimate forces from gaining control of oil production facilities, as is seen in Yemen.

Oil protection forces have played a similar role in Libya, countering ISIS attacks over the first few months of 2016. This might change in the coming months, as their role has been decreased due to the Libyan National Army retaking control of the primary oil fields in the Oil Field Crescent on Sep. 11th, 2016. It seems that for the protection forces to undertake their roles efficiently in the coming period, continued financial and logistical support must be received by the local governments or the International Community. This all falls within the framework of combatting terrorism, with ISIS as the top priority.

Continued support for the protection forces also requires that regional aspirations move towards merging all political factions involved with the protection forces in order to stabilize the environment surrounding oil production facilities.

Differing Patterns:

These forces, in almost all cases, are comprised of tribal men and armed local militias. They can be divided into two main characterizations:

1. Official Forces: The protection forces in Iraq fall under the jurisdiction of the Energy Police. Their structure is considered to be a security apparatus and has shifted in the last couple of years from depending heavily on local security firms and tribal fighters, to helping them combat ISIS and playing a much larger role in protecting the oil fields. 

Aside from these forces, the Iraqi government still relies on semi-official forces, such as the Shiite Militias, to secure oil production fields and their resulting pipelines. The government also relies on security firms in a limited scope to help in securing their facilities. For example, “Basra Gas Company” signed an agreement with security company G4S in 2014 in order to secure their facilities.

2. Semi Official/Unofficial Forces: In most cases, protection forces that work in regional countries experiencing struggle, work under a semi-official status, as is the case in Syria, Yemen and Libya. In this respect, and despite the government creating an official protection force, the Libyan Facilities Protection Forces, in 2005, the current status after the collapse of the Libyan National Institutes is mostly based on military alliances that include tribal fighters in the Oil Crescent Region, specifically the Magharebia .

Yemen presents a similar case. After state institutions collapsed once the Houthis seized the capital of Sanaa in September 2014, popular resistance forces began to protect these facilities alongside tribal forces in the provinces of Maareb and Hadramout. In Syria, due to the splitting up of the oil fields between ISIS, the Kurds and the Syrian Regime, each party is responsible for protecting their own oil facilities.

Mapping the Struggle:

Oil protection forces have been transformed into a primary actor in the struggle for oil. Other actors are the numerous terrorist and militia groups of the region. Given the value of what the forces are protecting, they were always going to be a source of conflict. Their role in the regional conflict can be summarized by the following:

1. Taking Control of Oil Production Facilities: The protection forces are one of the leading causes of strife for oil resources in regional states since 2011. The Libyan Facilities Guard is a standard model for this, as per the indicators over the last couple of years.

Besides the number of protests that have been repeatedly started by the Libyan Facilities Guard over the last period in order to receive higher salaries, in March 2014 the Libyan Oil Guard, led by Ibrahim El Gadran, undertook their first attempt at an illegal oil sale with approximately 230 thousand tons of crude oil from the port of Sedra. The result was that the tanker was forced to return to the Libyan coast after a US fleet was able to take control of the ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, sending a clear signal that the US would not allow for the illegal sale of Libyan oil. This action was in line with Security Council Resolution 2146 issued in 2014 which stated that illegal oil sales from Libya would be met with reprimands on all who seek to abuse this, or who try to turn Libya’s oil into their own fortune.

2. Protecting Facilities from Terrorist and Militia Groups: Until recently, oil was a primary resource for ISIS, who had succeeded in gaining control over a number of oil fields in Syria and Northern Iraq. However, in light of the increased military strikes against their positions and oil facilities from the international coalition, their production capabilities have been reduced to only 30,000 barrels of oil per day, roughly half of its former capacity.

Besides these losses, the Peshmerga Kurdish forces have also sought to take responsibility for protecting oil fields in the provinces of Kirkuk. That would include the fields of Kirkuk, Bay Hassan, Gambour and in Khabaz. In light of the military and security vacuum caused by the retreat of Iraqi forces from these facilities, the Kurdish forces may gain control. At the moment, this region produces almost 150,000 barrels of oil a day and Kurdish control would allow the Kurdistan government to put pressure on the central government in Baghdad in the ongoing negotiations over splitting up oil revenues.

In the same way, ISIS in Libya (who are centered around Sirte), have repeatedly tried to take over the Libyan oil fields (Mabrouk, El Ghany and El Baidaa), however protection forces have been able to prevent them from carrying out their attacks.

From another point of view, the Libyan National Army’s control over the ports in the Oil Crescent Region (Ras Lanouf, El Sedra, El Zawyatena and El Berqya) will increase confrontations with protection forces of oil fields in the coming months. The Libyan National Army is more than certain to seek control over these ports, with the aim of regaining its financial and political status through its security ventures there.

Since the Houthi takeover In Yemen, the mission of the resistance forces, in cooperation with the internationally recognized government in Aden, has been to protect oil facilities in the province of Maareb, Hadramout, and any others that need military and financial support in order to face up against attempts by the Houthis or Al Qaeda to take over the oil fields.

In light of Arabian support, these forces have been able to secure the oil facilities. In fact, the Yemeni government declared in August 2016 that it has been able to resume production and export crude oil from the province of Hadramout after it was cut off for nearly 1.5 years, showing an improvement in the security environment there.

Future Paths:

Until now, the balance of power is in favor of protection forces in most of the countries in the region. Mostly due to the support being given to these forces from a number of regional and international actors.

The success of government plans in retaking control over oil resources will depend on two primary factors: one, reinforcing the military power of the oil guard and two, supporting the opportunities of rapprochement between the various political actors involved.