Haftar achieves major breakthrough in Libya’s south
TUNIS - In a major military and political shift — possibly the most important in southern Libya in more than two years — Sabha, the region’s main city, is firmly in the hands of Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) and tribes and other towns across the region have come out in support of him.
Haftar’s forces are poised to take control of the Sharara oilfield — the country’s largest — in south-western Libya and only the Tebu-controlled deep south remains firmly beyond his control.
Haftar has been planning for months to establish control over what is Libya’s most chaotic, most dangerous, most divided and most deprived region. In its lawless environment, militants from the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram plus opposition fighters from Chad, Mali and Sudan have used the area as a haven.
For ordinary Libyans there, life has been miserable, with shortages of petrol, cooking gas, cash in banks, bread and many other commodities. There is also rampant crime, especially kidnappings by Chadian mercenaries and other criminals.
The LNA has held strategic locations in the south, such as Tamanhent Airbase near Sabha and, further north, Brak al-Shati Airbase, for more than two years but they were islands of control.
Haftar’s hopes of establishing the same grip over the south that he has over eastern Libya was hampered by the lack of manpower and equipment as well as the region’s tribal and ethnic rivalries. However, those rivalries and the general turmoil in the region have played into his hands.
Public desperation has built a desire for law, order and normality, giving birth to the Fezzan Rage Movement. The LNA has taken advantage of this, presenting itself the only liberator available.
Developments, including the forced closure of the Sharara oilfield in December by Fezzan Rage and the local Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) and the pursuit against those responsible for the December 27 attack on a military camp at Traghen 125km south of Sabha, changed the region’s dynamics.
The chase was considered a success for the LNA. Although they did not find the suspects, they freed 22 hostages originally seized by ISIS.
The Sharara closure was a defeat for the Tripoli-based government of Fayez al-Sarraj. He travelled to Sharara on December 19 to negotiate a deal under which the oilfield would return to government control and he would meet the demands of those who closed the facility.
These included remitting unpaid salaries of some PFG personnel, reopening Sabha airport and delivering of fuel and cash to Sabha. However, Sarraj was not able to fulfil his side of the bargain. Even National Oil Company Chairman Mustafa Sanalla, who is supposed to be on his side, refused to back him.
Sanalla said Sarraj had surrendered to blackmailers. The field would only reopen when a new security force took it over, he insisted.
In Sabha, various small militias were lining up behind a local pro-Haftar commander, Colonel Massoud Jedi al-Slimani.
However, with LNA forces and allies heading towards Sabha and LNA-backed units in the city strengthened, the Tebu forces that had been the main opposition to the LNA, in a deal with an LNA unit at Tamanhent, agreed to hand over their positions and leave. A Tebu source said the Tebus realised that they would lose any fight.
Since then, Sarraj’s rival in the east, the Beida-based government of Abdullah Thinni, has moved quickly to assert its role in southern Libya. Led by its interior minister, a team flew into the Sabha airport on January 28. It also delivered nearly $60 million in cash for distribution to banks and 160,000 bags of flour for bakeries in Sabha and Brak al-Shati.
Able to provide not just law, order and stability but also money and food, the Haftar bandwagon has gathered support from tribal figures and municipal leaders.
When the head of the Tripoli-based State Council Khalid al-Mishri, a foe of Haftar and the LNA, called on the Presidential Council to send its troops to the south, Haftar condemned him saying Mishri should have been among the first to support the LNA in liberating Sabha and one of the first to visit but he had done the exact opposite.
There were reports that Haftar had approved LNA forces to secure Sharara. If that happens, along with control of the neighbouring El-Feel field, which depends on Sharara for its electricity supply, Haftar would control more than 90% of Libya’s oil and gas fields. This would increase his political status enormously, especially in the international community.
That, however, is not necessarily a permanent situation. The Tebus are divided: some are reluctantly supporting Haftar but others are opposed. All are far from happy with the new state of affairs. So, too, are many Qaddafi regime sympathisers.
Haftar is opposed to any reconciliation with the Qaddafi family, specifically Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, and this does not go down well with the Greens, who have strong support in the south.
Even more important is money and supplies. The eastern government has moved to back the LNA’s arrival by sending cash and flour but if this turns out to be a one-off effort and there is no financial support for the southern municipalities and for public services, people will again turn to Sarraj’s Government of National Accord.