On 16 January, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), launched a military campaign to bring the anarchic southwestern region, Fezzan, under control. Stretching across more than 550,000 square kilometres, or about 30 per cent of the country’s total land area, the region is inhabited by Arab, Berber and African tribes, primarily from the Touareg and Toubou ethnic groups, and the Awlad Suleiman tribal confederation, all competing for control over smuggling routes, human trafficking, and water and oil resources. Given the demographic and topographic complexities of the region, any attempt to restore security and stability there is an extremely hazardous venture.
Initially there was open international encouragement for a military campaign towards this end. Terrorist organisations have resumed activities and local residents have increasingly complained of the proliferation of militias as well as of the activities of opposition groups from Chad and Sudan which, according to UN reports, had been meddling in the Libyan conflict since 2011. However, soon after Haftar launched his military campaign, the UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), in response to complaints from Toubou leaders, voiced its concern that the mobilisation of armed forces in the South would jeopardise the delicate security situation and precipitate renewed fighting between the ethnic and tribal components there.
Three weeks ago, LNA regiments, which include Madhalist Salafis who fought with the army in Benghazi, Derna and the petroleum crescent region and a collection of local militias referred to as “auxilliary forces”, began to arrive in Sabha, the capital of Fezzan, and station themselves in the city’s military airport, other military and security installations in the city, as well as in the Tamanhent Airbase north of Sabha.
On Friday last week, clashes erupted between LNA forces and Toubou militias in Ghadwa, a town 70 kilometres to the south of Sabha. The LNA is reported to have lost at least four soldiers in the fighting while the outcry from Toubou leaders and other quarters of society led Haftar’s adviser for social affairs and a minister in the eastern government based in Beida to tender their resignations in protest against what they described as the “persecution” of the Toubou people.
One reason why the LNA entry into Sabha went so smoothly was because it had struck an alliance with the Awlad Suleiman, an ethnically Arab tribe. The alliance has alarmed the Toubou, an ethnically African people, who fear that it is directed against them.
The Awlad Suleiman, the Qadhadhfa (another Arab tribal group), the Toubou and the Touareg are the largest demographic components in Fezzan and the most influential in the region’s military and security affairs. All these groups possess sufficient military hardware to hold their own against any standing army, especially given their familiarity with the terrain and far-flung towns and villages. Since 2011, a fragile balance of forces has prevailed in the region, intermittently disrupted by flareups in tribal disputes. Local and international mediating efforts have yet to succeed in resolving underlying causes behind the tensions.
In Sabha, relations are fraught between the Awlad Suleiman, a dominant influential force in the southern capital, and the Qadhadhfa, to which Colonel Muammar Gaddafi belonged. But relations between the Awlad Suleiman and the Toubou are even more volatile, especially in the wake of a series of feuds in which the Toubou were accused of soliciting assistance from their tribal extensions in Chad. To the west, the Toubou have been rivalling the Touareg based in the oasis town of Awbari, near Algeria, over control over the smuggling roots in that border region.
In 2018, tensions flared between the Awlad Suleiman and the Toubou in Sabha. Although the fighting subsided thanks to the mediation of local elders and notables, their efforts did not yield a more permanent truce. A year earlier, Rome had brokered a reconciliation agreement between the Toubou and Awlad Suleiman, but it collapsed or, according to the Italians, France deliberately undermined it. Western news sources have reported that France supported the Toubou militias in spite of Paris’s overt support for Field Marshal Haftar.
Not all Toubou clans appear to share the same concerns over the LNA operation in the South or the same attitudes to Haftar. If the Toubou in the southwest, especially in Sabha and Awbari, are opposed to him, those in Kufra district and in the southeast oases are allied with him. At the same time, in Kufra district, which is part of the Cyrenaica region, there are longstanding tensions between the Toubou and the Zawiya, an Arab tribe that moved into the district around two centuries ago.
Adding to the sensitivity surrounding military escalation in Fezzan is that it is home to Al-Sharara and Al-Fil oil fields, two of the largest oil producing fields at present. The former is controlled by Touareg militias and the latter by Toubou militias, which gives these tribes a trump card to play their dealings with the central authorities in Tripoli.
Now, as part of its current operation, the LNA aims to wrest control of the oil from the militias. This creates a very precarious situation and the danger can only be averted if international and regional powers step in to persuade tribal leaders to ally with Haftar and distance themselves from the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. But regardless of how the tribes align themselves, they will not easily relinquish control over the oil fields.
So far, neither Touareg nor Qadhadhfa leaders have declared their positions on military developments in the area, perhaps because they are waiting to see the Toubou opposition to the military mobilisation and escalation plays out. On Sunday, Toubou leaders accused the LNA of recruiting fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a Sudanese militant opposition group that has had training bases in southern Libyan since the Gaddafi era. The accusation was made after LNA command announced that it had carried out an air strike against what it described as the “Chadian opposition and its allies” in Murzuq, the capital of Murzuq district in Fezzan and long a major Toubou stronghold.
The LNA has denied accusations of bias. On Saturday, it released a statement asserting that the army does not favour one social component at the expense of another and it cautioned that “certain segments opposed to this [impartial] outlook” are “spreading false rumours in order to sow dissension between the people and the legitimate institutions”. But the army still needs to take more practical measures to allay Toubou concerns, especially given that some of the commanders in the current operation belong to the rival Awlad Suleiman tribe.
At the broader level of international attempts to resolve the Libyan crisis, UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame and his deputy for political affairs, Stephanie Williams, arrived in Cairo Sunday to meet with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, members of the Egyptian National Committee on Libyan Affairs and representatives of the Libyan community in Egypt. The talks are part of the UN envoy’s drive to convene a Libyan National Conference, which he had originally planned for January. Salame has described the National Conference as the “last bullet” and vowed not to fire it unless he could be sure it hit its target. His hope is that the conference will serve as a platform for promoting Libyan consensus over a roadmap to general elections and an end to the years-long political stalemate in the country.