In the chaos of Libya, nowhere is more conflict-ridden than the south of the country, otherwise known as Fezzan.
Killings, kidnappings, robberies, attacks on public buildings and facilities, acute shortages of fuel, food and other necessities, remnants of the Islamic State lurking in the background, the smuggling of people, drugs and weapons — this and so much more has been the reality for southern Libyans since the 2011 revolution.
Feeding the chaos have been Fezzan’s tribal and ethnic rivalries. Since 2011, in the absence of a central government capable of imposing its authority, there have been regular outbreaks of fighting between the powerful Awlad Suleiman tribe and the Qaddadfa, the tribe of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi; between Awlad Suleiman and Tebus; and between Tebus and Tuaregs.
Since February, in Fezzan’s capital, Sabha, the main conflict has been between local Tebus and 6th Infantry Brigade, composed of members of Awlad Suleiman. It has wreaked havoc on the city.
Dozens of civilians have been killed in the clashes. Among those killed were students at the university, which had to be closed. Homes have been shelled and the city’s iconic fort, which dominates the skyline and figures on the country’s 10-dinar banknote, has been badly damaged. The terminal at the airport, closed for more than three years because of clashes, is in ruin.
The scale of the hostilities was highlighted in a report by the UN Support Mission in Libya that noted that nearly half of the 36 attacks on hospitals in the country in the past year were on Sabha Medical Centre. From February-May this year, it was shelled or hit by bullet fire 15 times.
Complicating the chaos, the conflict between the Tebus and 6th Infantry Brigade has taken on a national dimension, becoming a proxy war between the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Tripoli-based Presidency Council’s Government of National Accord (GNA) under Fayez al-Sarraj.
The brigade had supported the GNA while the Tebus forces were nominally linked to the LNA. However, in February, eastern tribal elders, who were supposed to mediate a truce between the 6th and the Tebus, offered legitimacy to the former as an LNA unit. The LNA then provided it with weapons and ammunition that Tripoli had promised, along with funding, but never delivered.
Matters came to a head in early May. The man appointed by Haftar as military governor of the south, Major-General Al-Mabrouk al-Ghazawi, arrived in Sabha and ordered a ceasefire between the warring parties.
The Tebus, who were already drifting away from Haftar and the LNA, demanded to know whether the 6th was an official LNA unit. Ghazawi said it was. The response infuriated them. Their war, a member of their Sabha crisis committee declared, was no longer just with the 6th, it was with the LNA.
The Tebus, well-armed and considered among the best fighting forces in the country, launched an immediate attack, driving the brigade from Sabha castle and its nearby headquarters.
For the moment, they are the winners in Sabha and have moved to cement their position through alliances with local tribes and also to the Awlad Suleiman.
But for how long?
Ghazawi has been reported saying that the 6th withdrew because the LNA could not afford to fight on two fronts — Sabha and Derna — at the same time. The inference is that once Derna is dealt with, it will turn its attention to Sabha.
There is concern that this could create ethnic conflict in Libya that would spill over into a regional war, drawing in Chad. The Awlad Suleiman, the LNA and their supporters are already presenting the Tebu victors as Chadian invaders. The Tebus claim that many of the Awlad Suleiman are from Niger.
In his report to the US Security Council on May 21, UN special envoy Ghassan Salame highlighted those fears. “There is a serious risk that these clashes will deteriorate into an ethnic conflict,” he said. Given the presence of armed groups in the south coming from neighbouring countries, this had the potential to go regional.
“The Sabha case demonstrates the need for Libya to work with southern neighbouring states to secure its borders and resolve the matters of human trafficking, flows of fighters and smuggling goods,” Salame said.
Most southerners seem convinced that the GNA and the LNA do not care about them or their problems and that they are interested in the south only as a place to extend their power and control while denying it to the other. There is deep alienation that sometimes expresses itself in sympathy for the Qaddafi era, when the south was anything but sidelined in Libyan affairs.
Sarraj’s talks in Tripoli in May with a Fezzan delegation and his announcement that a military force for the south would be set up are seen by many as nothing more than opportunistic.
Southerners remain equally suspicious of the LNA.
“People in the south do not really care about either Sarraj or Haftar,” explained a senior southern tribal elder. “They are interested only in who is going to help them, by providing money and support, and who is going to take them seriously.”
The head of the Council of Fezzan Tribes and Towns, Ali Abu Sbeihah, refused to attend Sarraj’s Tripoli meeting. He said there was calm in Sabha on May 21, when he was interviewed, but an uneasy one. People were waiting to see how the rivalry between the east and west of Libya would play out in the south.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.