The next phase of the conflict in Libya is likely to be in the south of the country, given the proliferation of armed groups along the border and the ongoing offensive by the Libyan National Army.

Tanks outside Misrata Credit: Flickr/joepyrek

By Umberto Profazio, ACD Analyst

Six years after the uprising that caused the fall of the regime of Muammar Gadhafi, and one year after the arrival of the government of national unity in Tripoli, political instability is growing in Libya. Despite international efforts to promote the reconciliation process, fragmentation of the country has continued. The Libyan Political Agreement (commonly known as the ‘Skhirat agreement’, signed on 17 December 2015) and the establishment of the Government of National Accord (GNA) were considered positive developments in this critical phase. However, they have not eased the centrifugal tensions or inverted the dynamic of the conflict, which instead has been exacerbated by competition between the different centres of power on the ground.

While public attention has been focused on the oil crescent region, where Libya’s most important oil terminals are located, and the balance of power between rival militias and armed groups in this area, other regions of the country fell off the radar. The power outages that occurred in January 2017 brought international attention to the severity of the situation in the southwestern Fezzan region. The disruption was caused by armed groups in Zawiya, which cut the gas supply to the local power station in order to secure the release of 90 militiamen detained by a rival militia in Warshefana. The episode exemplified the GNA’s inability to assert power, revealing the lack of substantive rule of law in Libya.

The blackouts in Fezzan lasted up to ten days in some cities, causing water shortages and major disruption. Mayors in southern Libya declared the region a disaster area, accusing Libyan authorities of neglecting them. They also asked southern representatives to return to Fezzan in protest against the disruption, and condemned the lack of interest of various Libyan institutions. As a result, several members of the House of Representatives (HoR, the Libyan parliament based in Tobruk since 2014, when it was forced to leave Tripoli after the start of Operation Libya Dawn) suspended their membership. This decision had a direct impact on the activities of the HoR and also on the reconciliation process: at the end of January the HoR could not appoint new members to its delegation to the Libyan Political Dialogue, apparently because of the boycott by southern representatives.

The boycotters also demanded the withdrawal of the Third Force from Fezzan. A Misratan militia based in southern Libya since 2015, the Third Force currently controls two important air bases: Jufra, in central Libya, and Tamanhent, near Sabha. Forced to reduce its presence in this area after the launch of Operation Solid Structure (Bunyan Marsous) against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Sirte last year, the Third Force is now facing increasing pressure from the Libyan National Army (LNA). Led by General Khalifa Haftar, who launched Operation Dignity in 2014 to fight against Islamist factions in and around Benghazi, the LNA is affiliated with the HoR and fiercely opposed to the GNA. Since December 2016 it has frequently targeted Jufra and Tamanhent, while on 8 December the 12th Brigade of Gen. Mohamed Ben Nayel (part of the LNA) took control of the Brak al-Shati air base in southern Libya from the Third Force. At the end of March the Third Force was also forced to hand over control of the Gwirat al-Mal checkpoint near Tamanhent to the Sabha security department. Its control over Tamanhent is now considered untenable, and tribal elders are trying to mediate between warring factions in order to ensure a bloodless handover and prevent any clashes with the 12th Brigade.

The LNA’s offensive in central and southern Libya is of considerable strategic significance. LNA officials have reportedly said that once in control of the Jufra air base, Haftar would be able to launch airstrikes throughout Libya, directly threatening the GNA and power brokers in Misrata. Considering the stalemate in the oil crescent region, where on 14 March the LNA recaptured the two oil terminals of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, having previously lost them to Islamist militia the Benghazi Defence Brigades, the internal turmoil in Fezzan and Haftar’s interest in the strategic air bases can only increase tensions in the area. LNA airstrikes on Tamanhent and Jufra intensified in early April, leading to retaliation by Misrata aircraft on Brak al-Shati. Despite a ceasefire between the LNA and the Third Force brokered by tribal leaders on 16 April, sporadic clashes continue to occur around the two air bases, further illustrating the increasing instability in the area.

Meanwhile, a third factor threatening the security of southern Libya has emerged. Instability in the Sahel region and Libya’s long and porous southern border with Chad, Niger and Sudan are enabling various non-state armed groups (NSAGs) to infiltrate Fezzan, revealing a complex network of alliances and rivalries in the area. The proliferation of NSAGs in Libya’s southern region became evident in December 2016 when the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) claimed that the LNA had twice attacked its positions in southern Libya. A splinter group of the Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement (UFDD), FACT is a Chadian armed group established in 2016 to oppose Chadian President Idriss Déby. Despite its stated neutrality in the Libyan conflict, FACT is considered close to militias in Misrata.

The LNA defined FACT as a rebel group whose aim is to destabilise a neighbouring country. The statement revealed the solid partnership between Haftar and the Chadian government, further confirmed on 5 January when Chadian Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacké announced the closure of the border with Libya. Padacké declared the border region a military zone, saying that the move was a security measure following reports that terrorist groups in Libya were moving south. However, the presence of FACT bases in southern Libya was likely the real reason behind the closure, which was partly reversed in early March when the border crossing at Wour was reopened for humanitarian reasons.

Haftar can also rely on the support of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – a Sudanese opposition group strongly backed by the former Gadhafi regime – in the LNA’s offensive in southern Libya. In November 2016 reports emerged that JEM fighters were supporting the Qadhadhfa tribe during clashes between the Qadhadhfa and Awlad Suliman tribes in Sabha. More interestingly, the presence of JEM fighters alongside Haftar’s forces has been reported on several occasions during the most recent clashes in the oil crescent region.

Political tensions in Fezzan, the LNA’s expansionism towards the south and the presence of various NSAGs along the southern border are all factors contributing to the strategic challenges in southern Libya. Moreover, the reported movement of ISIS fighters towards the south after the defeat of the group in Sirte, and the established presence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in this area complicate matters further, making the region the likely location for the next phase of the conflict.

This article is part of our content to accompany the launch of the Armed Conflict Survey 2017, which provides in-depth analysis of the key political, military and humanitarian developments and trends in all active armed conflicts, as well as data on fatalities, refugees and internally displaced persons. The Armed Conflict Survey launches at Arundel House on 9 May.

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