Militia violence reared its head in Libya again last week in the southern outskirts of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, while the Libyan National Army has launched a military campaign aimed to assert control over southern and central Libya.
The renewed violence and the consequent aggravation of social tensions have raised concerns over the prospects of the comprehensive National Conference that had been planned for this month with the aim of forging a consensus on a roadmap to end the Libyan crisis.
On Wednesday, 16 January, clashes broke out in the suburbs of Tripoli between the 7th Infantry Brigade and the Tripoli Cartel, which is also known as the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF).
By last Sunday, according to the Libyan Health Ministry, the fighting had claimed 11 dead, including a freelance photographer who contributed to The Associated Press, and 43 wounded.
A delegation headed by the social council of the Warfalla tribes arrived in Tripoli on Sunday to help mediate in order to restore calm in and around the capital.
This is the first time since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 that the Warfalla, the largest tribal confederation in the country, stepped in as a mediator between warring groups in the country.
The delegation hopes to re-consolidate the frayed truce between the 7th Infantry Brigade, which is based in the town Tarhuna where it is known as the Kaniyat Brigade, and the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF), which consists of four main militia groups: the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB), the Nawasi Battalion and the Abu Slim unit of the Central Security apparatus.
In September 2018, the two sides, meeting in the southeast town of Zawiya, signed a UN-brokered ceasefire that initiated a range of security arrangements.
The Interior Ministry’s attempts to implement these have since stirred tensions between it and the TPF.
The clashes in the south of Tripoli were reportedly sparked by a mysterious incident involving the abduction of three members of the 7th Brigade by an unidentified group said to come from Tarhuna.
This abduction occurred after militia groups in Tripoli refused to carry out Interior Ministry instructions to secure the environs of Tripoli International Airport, signalling a breakdown in the implementation of one of the arrangements agreed to in the UN-brokered truce signed in Zawiya.
Aguila Al-Jamal, who heads the Warfalla social council, announced over the weekend that the two sides to the dispute in Tripoli agreed, in principle, to a halt in the fighting and to restore calm.
His delegation had been mandated by Tarhuna elders to represent them in talks with elders and dignitaries from Tripoli on how to restore calm.
The talks have yielded a proposal for a new ceasefire that the delegation will be taking back to the elders in Tarhuna and that is expected to obtain considerable support there.
The proposal calls for a ceasefire in the areas south of the capital, the release of detainees on both sides, the withdrawal of the 7th Brigade to the administrative boundaries of Tarhuna and an official apology to the inhabitants of Tripoli for damage caused by the conflict that flared in September 2018 and flared once again in January 2019.
Tensions have also surfaced between Fathi Bashagha, interior minister of the Government of National Accord, and TPF contingents which oppose his internationally supported efforts to end the militia groups’ control over the capital.
Bashagha has accused TPF leaders of refusing to carry out the agreed upon security arrangement calling for the transfer of responsibility for the security of government buildings and vital facilities from the militias to official security forces.
Al-Ahram Weekly has learned that a US delegation headed by Peter Bodde, the charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Libya, which is currently operating out of Tunis, is to meet with Bashagha in Misrata, rather than in the Interior Ministry building in Tripoli.
This is seen as a strong signal of US support for Bashagha’s efforts to free Tripoli and sovereign government institutions from the grip of the militias.
Contingents of the TPF, in turn, have been asserting intensive pressure on Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidency Council, to replace the current interior minister with Major General Diaaeddin Al-Amrouni who currently serves as commander of the Presidential Guard.
It is noteworthy that the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) did actively intervene in the recent outbreak of conflict between the TPF and 7th Brigade, in contrast to the mediating it played during the spiralling violence between them in September last year.
On this occasion, UNSMIL organised a meeting between representatives of the diplomatic community and Libya with Bashagha and security officials as a means to rally international support for Bashagha’s efforts to implement the security plan for the capital.
In another development that casts a shadow over the prospects for stability and peace in the country, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander-general of the Libyan National Army (LNA), has launched a military operation that stated purposes of which are to regain control over Fezzan region and protect its inhabitants from terrorists and criminal gangs, to secure control over crucial oil and gas fields and to protect the artificial river system, to safeguard local and foreign petroleum companies and the agricultural projects in the area, to reopen and secure all routes connecting the south to the north, and to bring fuel, medical supplies, food and other essential goods and services to the people of the south.
However, the UN Special Envoy to Libya and head of UNSMIL, Ghassan Salame, has warned that the amassment of forces in the south could precipitate an “immanent dispute” between the tribes in the area because of tensions that have prevailed between them since 2011.
He urged all parties to exert the utmost self-restraint.
It is noteworthy that a video broadcast by the LNA press bureau showed Jordanian-made Al-Wahsh armoured vehicles among the military reinforcements being sent into Jezzan to take part in the operation to “purge” southern Libya of terrorism.
The mine and ballistics-resistant MRAP Al-Wahsh was specifically designed to help armed forces carry out operations against militia organisations such as the Islamic State (IS) group which routinely uses mines and other explosive devices to halt the advance of armed forces.
On last Friday, LNA spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Mismari announced, “the terrorist Abdel-Moneim Al-Hasnawi AKA Abu Talha, the terrorist Al-Mahdi Dengo and the terrorist Al-Masri Abdallah Al-Dessouki were killed in a major operation carried out at dawn today by a special operations group drawn from the Martyrs of Al-Zawiya Brigade and the Tarek bin Ziyad Brigade in the area of Wadi Al-Shati,” which is located 60 kilometres north of Sabha.
These individuals had been the subject of warrants of arrest because of their affiliation with IS at the time it controlled Sirte two years ago. Al-Mismari confirmed that the three men had been involved in several terrorist attacks, most notably the massacre of Egyptian Copts in Sirte in February 2015.
The forces that the LNA command has sent into Jufra and Tamanhent airbase north of Sabha are said to consist primarily of Madkhalist brigades.
Madkhalism is a strain of Salafism that opposes other Salafi and radical Islamist movements.
It is feared that this ideological factor could further aggravate rising tensions between the tribes and cause them to spiral out of control, especially given their instance on retaining their private arsenals of heavy weapons.
Against the backdrop of militia violence around the capital and combat in the south, UNSMIL chief Ghassan Salame, in his briefing to the UN Security Council Friday, warned, “the various gains I described are fragile and reversible.
In this political environment, they will eventually break.” Given the delicacy of the current situation, he said, “it is vital that the National Conference is held under the right conditions, with the right people, and that it is capable of concluding with an outcome that is agreeable to the broad majority.”
Previously, Salame had planned to hold this conference in the opening weeks of 2019. However, his remarks to the Security Council suggest a postponement.
“We are working night and day to pull together these various elements to ensure the most productive event.
Once the essential ingredients for a new consensus on a national agenda to rebuild a capable and united Libyan civil state have been agreed upon by the major players, we will be ready to state the exact date and venue.”
At the same time, he warned, “without the concerted support of the international community, spoilers will sabotage the political advancement and undo any progress made. If this were to be allowed, Libya’s progress will be set back years and almost certainly open the door to those who believe there is only a martial solution to Libya’s woes.”
The latter appears to be a pointed reference to last week’s resurgence of violence in western and southern Libya which the head of UNSMIL fears will jeopardise the plans for the National Conference and, accordingly, the prospects of holding general elections in the middle of this year and hopes for a peaceful resolution to the Libyan crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Libya tensions heighten