Libya: A new power struggle is taking shape in Sebha

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Monday, 20 December 2021 15:47

Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi, 16 November 2021. © ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI/REUTERS

The strategic southern capital of Sebha is the scene of a new power struggle between the armed groups of the Government of National Unity (GNU) and those of Khalifa Haftar. All of this is taking place while the Gaddafi forces reshuffle their tribal alliances.

The situation remains extremely tense in Sebha, the capital of Fezzan, following clashes on the night of 13 December between the Government of National Unity (GNU)-affiliated 116 Brigade and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Madkhalist Tariq Bin Ziyad Force (TBZ). According to conflict observers, the skirmish between the two groups broke out after the latter stole all-terrain vehicles intended for the Sebha police force. The 116 then attacked the headquarters of Haftar’s forces in al-Qarada.

Sebha has become a powder keg in recent days. The situation there is being closely monitored because the emergence of a new conflict could shatter the ceasefire agreement that was signed in October 2020 by the two enemy camps in western and eastern Libya.

Not to mention the presidential election, which is already highly compromised and is unlikely to take place as scheduled on 24 December. Maintaining the security status quo is a prerequisite for continuing the electoral process. But in Tripoli, over the past few days, the militias have begun to reposition themselves in certain districts and reshuffle their alliances.

Military escalation

Certain factors could also lead to an escalation of the conflict in Fezzan. Mohamed El Menfi, the president and army’s supreme commander, seems to want to take back his positions. However, the area has been under the control of Haftar’s forces since January 2019. The head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) has managed to impose himself in the region by taking advantage of tribal alliances, thus securing the Sharara and El Feel oil fields. It has also taken over the Barak Al Shati military base and the Tamanhint airfield, which are located a stone’s throw from Sebha.

Menfi recently promoted the 116 Brigade in order to ensure southern Libya’s security. Composed of units from the Ould Suleiman, a dominant Arab tribe in the region, the militia is currently still holding some of Sebha’s axes. The current tug of war between the GNU and Haftar highlights the fact that the two camps have changed alliances. Commanded by Masoud Al Jadi, the 116 joined the GNU in June. However, the Ould Suleimans had initially supported Haftar when he was trying to conquer Sebha, following financial arrangements for them to secure the oil fields.

For its part, the LNA is mobilising to regain control of the city’s checkpoints. In fact, it has an ace up its sleeve, as it has formed a strong alliance with Wagner. The Russian paramilitary company has been present in this southern region since August 2020. In total, Wagner has deployed at least 1,000 men in Libya.

The Kadhadhfa’s tacit support

Sebha has always been marked by security instability. The city is located along migratory and jihadist routes and thus has become a centre for all kinds of trafficking, including hydrocarbons, human beings and lucrative activities that are regularly the object of power struggles between militias. The region also has vast oil fields, as well as aquifers and gold mines in the south.

The tribal patchwork of the area is also a source of tension. Several local communities are at loggerheads. The Ould Suleiman and Toubous have clashed regularly since 2012, and the Tuaregs and Toubous went to war with each other from 2014 to 2016 over territory. So far, these tribes have not taken sides between the 116 Brigade and the TBZ. However, the Tuaregs remain divided as one fringe rallied around Haftar, while the other decided to support the GNU. As for the Toubous, they have maintained an anti-Haftar position, due to the latter’s rapprochement with the Tuaregs and the Ould Suleiman.

On the other hand, the 116 Brigade enjoys tacit support from the Kadhadhfa, Muammar Gaddafi’s tribe. This is because they are angered by the fact that the LNA, which is loyal to Haftar, blocked the presidential candidacy of the Guide’s son, Seif el-Islam Gaddafi, on 25 November in the Sebha court. The relations between Gaddafi and GNU forces could lead to a domino effect. The Tuaregs, many of whom served within the former raïs’ ranks, are close to the Gaddafi forces. But in Libya, nothing is more volatile than an alliance.

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