Sarraj throws a wrench in Haftar’s southern plans

Haftar’s tactic, having secured the south, is to move towards Tripoli, building on alliances in Zintan and other towns in western Libya.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Forces loyal to Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar patrol in downtown Sabha, the biggest city in southern Libya, February 6. (AFP)
Eyes on oil production. Forces loyal to Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar patrol in downtown Sabha, the biggest city in southern Libya, February 6. (AFP)

TUNIS - For more than a year, Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar has said that he would take Tripoli and unite the country under a single leadership but not by force. He would do so, he said, only when he was welcomed by the various forces controlling the city.

That seems a long way off. Haftar has been banking on law and order in Tripoli totally breaking down and the capital’s people turning to his Libyan National Army (LNA) as the only force capable of restoring stability and security.

That is the strategy that has been put into operation in recent weeks in southern Libya.

Haftar’s tactic, having secured the south, is to move towards Tripoli, building on alliances in Zintan and other towns in western Libya.

It had appeared everything was going to plan. The LNA moved into Sabha, where they were welcomed by much of the population, and moved south deep into Tebu territory, previously thought inaccessible to it, and west towards the Sharara oilfield.

Sharara is Libya’s biggest oilfield but has been closed since early December because of protests by Petroleum Facilities Guards over salary payments and by the Fezzan Rage Movement, whose members had concluded that closing it was the only way to make authorities pay attention to the dire situation in southern Libya.

The appropriately named Sharara — “spark” in Arabic — had triggered the LNA advance. Haftar had said one of his aims in moving the LNA into the Fezzan region was to secure and reopen the oilfield as well as eradicate militants and foreign mercenaries based there.

The LNA captured the strategically located, Tuareg-majority town of Ubari, 200km west of Sabha, February 7 and announced it had secured the neighbouring Sharara field. It was poised to take the other major oil and gas field in the area, El-Fil, protected by Tebu forces. Doing so would give Haftar control of 90% of Libya’s oil production.

It would not give him control over exports and oil income, however. The United Nations ensures that those remain with the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation and the Central Bank of Libya. It would increase his political stature at home and in the international arena.

The LNA had swept past the Tebu-controlled checkpoint 17km south of Sabha, taking the village of Ghudwa, which had been held by Chadian opposition forces and other Chadian mercenaries, and bombing the Tebu regional centre of Murzuk, 140km south-west of Sabha.

Tebus accused the LNA of killing civilians in the raid but the effect of the advance was to force Chadian opposition forces using southern Libya as a haven back into Chad. As soon as they crossed the border, they were attacked by French Air Force jets.

A 40-vehicle column was hit just inside Chad on February 3 and another 50-vehicle column bombed within days. It is not known if information was shared between the French and Haftar’s forces but it was reported that the French had been tracking the Chadians.

It seemed the LNA was going to be triumphant across the south but the UN-supported Presidential Council in Tripoli and headed by Fayez Sarraj looked to sabotage Haftar’s advance.

It was announced that a pro-Presidential Council Zintani force was being sent to secure Sharara and then, the same day Ubari was taken by the LNA, Sarraj appointed former Qaddafi-era General Ali Kana to be military commander of the Sabha region.

The consensus among political analysts and activists across Libya was that it was too little, too late. A Tuareg and still considered a Qaddafi supporter, Kana was said to have no more than 1,000 fighters under him.

“Not even those [Tuareg fighters] at Sharara will follow him,” said one political analyst from Fezzan.

The analysts were wrong. On February 7, just hours after Kana was appointed, his forces moved into Ubari and attacked the LNA. The local hospital manager reported eight dead and seven wounded from both sides. Clashes were reported near the Sharara oilfield, which local sources said the LNA had not yet captured, despite its earlier claims.

However, it appeared that, while the LNA had achieved much of what it wanted in the south and it imposed a no-fly order over the region, this was not going to be the walk-over that earlier seemed likely.

Kana and his Tuareg forces appear to be stronger than expected and, in the deep south, the Tebus, incensed at the raid on Murzuk, are likely to rally their forces for a counter-attack.

It looks as though Sarraj’s move to undermine Haftar’s southern advance has succeeded, at least for the moment.

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