Libya battles shift south and to diplomatic front

Events south of Libya may have a much greater longer-term effect on the country.
Saturday 24/08/2019
Fighters of Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj take their position during clashes with LNA forces in Tripoli. (DPA)
On shaky ground. Fighters of Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj take their position during clashes with LNA forces in Tripoli. (DPA)

TUNIS - There have been new offensives in the fighting south of Tripoli between Government of National Accord forces, which targeted the small town of Esbeia, and the Libyan National Army, whose soldiers struck at Gharyan.

The Government of National Accord (GNA) attempt to take the small town of Esbeia, south of the destroyed Tripoli International Airport, and the Libyan National Army (LNA) battle to recapture Gharyan, 100km south of Tripoli, were both about the LNA’s supply lines.

Esbeia controls the LNA’s main route from its Tarhouna base to the capital. Capturing it would cripple the LNA ground offensive. Gharyan had controlled the LNA other main supply route until it was lost. Recapturing it would enable the LNA to extend the ground offensive.

The Esbeia attack was highly coordinated. For the first time, the GNA used combined air strikes and artillery fire followed by an advance by ground forces. Casualties appear to have been high. The LNA said it killed 15 GNA fighters and destroyed 12 vehicles. It did not disclose how many of its men had been killed.

Both attacks apparently failed. Despite claims by both that they took territory, the stalemate continues.

On the political front, UN Deputy Special Representative Stephanie Williams was in Misrata for two days of talks with municipal and military leaders and civil society representatives about a ceasefire and restarting the dialogue process.

Egypt, too, while backing the LNA, is trying to entice Misrata into a political compromise. In phone talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry agreed on the need for a comprehensive political solution.

Officials in Misrata, however, reportedly told Williams that any dialogue must exclude LNA Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a view also endorsed by GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj.

Events in southern Libya may have a much greater longer-term effect on the country.

Following months of intermittent clashes between the LNA and Tebus nominally loyal to the GNA, a mainly Tebu force took Murzuq on August 17. This resulted in a mass exodus of the majority Arab population, members of Al-Ahali tribe, which supported the LNA. It was reported that, over three days, 25,000 people fled. The mayor of neighbouring Wadi Utbah, where many went, requested urgent help because his municipality could not cope.

There were differing accounts as to whether they fled out of fear or were forced out. There were also various reports of whether the Tebu who, until the exodus accounted for about 40% of the population, would let them return.

A Tebu source said negotiations were under way to enable them to return and that Tebu leaders realise the political dangers of not allowing them back but that the talks had been complicated by Ahali demands for security guarantees involving the presence of other forces. However, the Tebus were unwilling to make such guarantees because it would mean the return of pro-LNA forces.

The LNA carried out air strikes against Murzuq after it fell but it cannot afford to begin a new ground offensive to take it and maintain the fight south of Tripoli. Haftar is likely to leave it for the moment.

The exodus of the Ahali could poison the relationship in Libya between Arabs and the Tebus, one of the country’s three ethnic minorities, along with the Amazigh and the Tuareg.

Just as the LNA refers to all those whom it is fighting against in Tripoli as militants or terrorists, it has taken to referring to the Tebus as “Chadians” and “mercenaries,” who have to be forced out of the country.

A number of the Tebus in Murzuq and elsewhere in southern Libya are Chadians, either opponents of Chadian President Idriss Deby or those who moved into Libya after the 2011 Libyan revolution in search of opportunity. Many, however, are Libyan Tebus, with full Libyan nationality.

Additionally, there are the Tebus brought in from Chad by Muammar Qaddafi in the 1970s and ’80s with a promise of citizenship that was never delivered. They and their children born in Libya consider themselves Libyan.

The blanket dismissal of the Tebus as Chadians is not heard just within the LNA and its supporters. It is increasingly being heard in western Libya as well. The exodus of the Al-Ahali from Murzuq is likely to fuel this further.

An ethnic war is the last thing Libya can afford. It would almost certainly draw in the far more numerous Amazigh in northern Libya, fearful that they might be next on the hit list. They are highly sensitive to the slightest criticism.

In Chad, Deby’s government, which is on friendly terms with Haftar, ordered the border with Libya closed except for two monitored crossings. This has to do with ethnic clashes in eastern Chad; the borders are also closed with Sudan and the Central African Republic. In the case of Libya, however, Deby wants to be assured that his opponents there do not cause him additional trouble.