Flashpoints, north and south, ratchet up Libya tensions

The clashes in southern Tripoli threatened more than the Libyan capital’s security arrangement.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Spraying bullets. Militia fighters shoot at enemy positions during clashes in southern Tripoli. (AP)
Spraying bullets. Militia fighters shoot at enemy positions during clashes in southern Tripoli. (AP)

TUNIS - That Libya is a mass of problems rather than a single one appeared to be confirmed when concerns about stability shifted abruptly from one part of the country to another.

While the focus had been on southern Libya, on January 15 it was announced that Libyan National Army leader Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar ordered a military operation in south-western Libya to rid the region of smugglers, kidnappers and foreign fighters and to secure oil and gas production in the area.

Within hours, the focus swung from southern Libya to southern Tripoli, where Tripoli militias and the 7th Brigade from Tarhouna, were fighting each other. Although the death toll was much less than the 100 killed in previous battles, the situation was potentially far more momentous.

Unlike September, when Libya’s Presidential Council was on the sidelines, the recent crisis developed from a struggle between the two military groups into a power struggle between the Tripoli militias and the Presidential Council, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the Government of National Accord (GNA).

Prior to the clashes, GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha had been trying to shift power from the militias and had handed over control of the destroyed Tripoli International Airport, which is in the area of the recent clashes, to the Tarhouna brigade.

The militias, which have come together as the Tripoli Protection Forces (TPF), accused Bashagha — and by extension Sarraj — of supporting the brigade. As a result, the militias said they would no longer obey instructions from Sarraj unless they were endorsed by all members of the Presidential Council.

It is a potential game changer in Tripoli.

Since the Presidential Council arrived in the city in March 2016, militias have effectively been its military arm, providing it, courtesy of a deal between them and the UN Support Mission in Libya, with security needed to operate in the city.

It was they who enabled the Presidential Council to enter Tripoli and they who defended it when forces supporting the Libya Dawn regime, which ran the city from 2014-16, tried to take over again.

They also have been accused of amassing fortunes and expropriating vast amounts of Libya’s oil revenues. When it began its first southern Tripoli offensive in September, the 7th Brigade said its aim was to cleanse the city of corrupt militias.

Fully aware that Sarraj and Bashagha want to sideline them and build new state security institutions totally loyal to the GNA, the militias are trying to take advantage of a separate power struggle within the Presidential Council.

By mid-2018, the nine-member body was effectively down to five: two members had stopped attending sessions almost from the start, one resigned at the beginning of 2017 and another stopped reporting in July 2018.

Since late last year, Sarraj has increasingly been making all decisions himself. In December, the man who had been regarded as Sarraj’s principal deputy in the Presidential Council, Ahmed Maetig, declared Sarraj’s unilateral appointment of a new health minister was invalid. Since then, he and two other members of the Presidential Council issued declarations condemning Sarraj’s action and telling officials they could face legal action if they implemented orders not countersigned by other Presidential Council members.

In one, issued three days before the clashes in southern Tripoli started, they warned that the monopolisation of power was taking the country to an unknown outcome and could result in further armed conflict.

Sarraj has ignored his Presidential Council colleagues’ declarations but whether he can continue to do so, now that the militias threaten to refuse his orders, remains to be seen.

The clashes in southern Tripoli threatened more than the Libyan capital’s security arrangement. They could affect the works of UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame, who plans to convene a national conference on the country’s future within the next four weeks.

It was Salame who brokered the latest ceasefire between the Tripoli militias and the 7th Brigade. The latter withdrew after being assured that new security arrangements would be introduced. So far, nothing has happened.

As a result, not only is it going to be difficult for Salame to convince the brigade that he can succeed this time, there is a general air of mistrust that may well affect plans for the conference.

It is not just Sarraj and Salame facing fresh difficulties.

The TPF, criticising Bashagha and Sarraj over the Tripoli clashes, demanded to know who benefited from them. The answer, others suggested, was Haftar. Before the Tripoli clashes started, Haftar’s spokesman pledged that that the Libyan National Army would enter Tripoli with the support of its residents.

However, in southern Libya, Haftar has two major problems.

First, despite what he says, he does not have spare forces to pacify the south. He must rely on allies there. In this, fortunately for him, they are lining up, at least in Sabha, southern Libya’s principal city. Local forces there are reported to have agreed to join the most prominent militia commander in the city, Masoud Jedi al-Slimani.

However, this leads to the second problem. Slimani is a member of the Alwad Suleiman tribe. That is no problem for most of Sabha, home to the influential tribe, but it is hated by the Tebu community. South of Sabha, towards Chad, it is the Tebus who control the area. There have been numerous clashes between the two groups since 2011, with many civilians on both sides killed.

Last year, Haftar convinced the Awlad Suleiman-dominated 6th Brigade to switch sides from the Presidential Council to him but the result was that most of the Tebus broke with him. The reality in southern Libya is that Haftar cannot have an alliance with the Awlad Suleiman and the Tebus. It is one or the other.