In Sabha, gateway to Libya’s south and its largest oil field, the sounds of warfare have been echoing through low-slung buildings and wide streets day and night for more than a month. The only hospital is struggling to cope, and the university has been struck by artillery fire. “Most of the wounded and dead are innocent civilians,” said Suliman Gusu, who helps run a crisis committee assisting those trapped by the fighting. “Attacks are indiscriminate.”
Libya’s southern deserts have been on the boil since ethnically distinct tribes were released from the straitjacket of Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorship by the NATO-backed uprising. But observers say this surge in fighting is being fanned by the rivalry between the nation’s two rival power blocs. Stalemated in their tussle to rule all of Libya, they are seeking to lock in allies and oil wealth in a year that might, finally, see the election of new rulers.
The consequences of a prolonged conflict are clear. Interruptions at the fields of Al-Fil and Sharara could set back an oil-production resurgence; deepening instability would be a boon for Islamist militants who could link up with others in the nearby Sahel. Europe, meanwhile, increasingly sees Libya’s southern border as its front line in stemming the flow of migrants.
The spark was the February killing of an activist.
Without the involvement of outsiders, it could have passed of as just the latest clash between his Tebu group, which has ethnic links to Niger and Chad, and the dominant Arab Awlad Suleiman community.
“The conflict started as a criminal incident,” said Gusu, who’s a Tebu. “Then it turned into tribal conflict, now it has developed into a political one, with parties in the north trying to exploit it for their own interests.”
He was referring to the United Nations-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj based in Tripoli, and its leading opponent in the east. There, former general Khalifa Haftar and his self-declared Libyan National Army hold sway with help from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
Both administrations in early March announced campaigns to control the south – Libya’s poorest region and home to about 10 percent of the pre-war population of 6 million – but have no easy way to do so.
Haftar seems intent on propelling an Arab takeover of oil facilities, according to a western diplomat involved in Libyan reconciliation efforts. That would tighten his already strong grip on the country’s economic lifeline. The fields are currently held by Tebu and other militias allied with Sarraj.
This month, in a clear reference to at least some Tebu, Haftar called on “African migrants” to leave Libya. His military then said it had launched airstrikes on “Chadian opposition groups” east of Sabha. And at the end of last week, it sent in reinforcements from a Salafist militia.
For their part, the Awlad Suleiman, who accuse Tebu leaders of plotting to create an independent state, haven’t united behind Haftar. One of the tribe’s most prominent members, Saad Ben Shrada, is a senior official in Tripoli. He says that to calm the south, it’s time to determine once and for all who is Libyan and who’s not.
Despite their ties with the Tebu, Sarraj and his allies can’t afford to ignore Arabs who dominate the towns. Their response to Haftar’s deployments has so far been political, with a delegation sent to talk to warring parties.
But with dozens killed and injured, distrust runs deep. The U.N. has called for a cease-fire.
This isn’t the first time Libya’s chief foes have contested the region. Last year, they clashed over two airbases, leaving more than 140 fighters and civilians dead. Human Rights Watch reported summary executions. Haftar sees Sabha as the key to controlling “most of the south” including the oil fields, said Libyan political analyst Amro Azouz. “The two issues are going to be important cards to hold in any future negotiations.”
The latest peace talks ended with no deal, but the UN’s Libya envoy has spoken about holding a vote on a new constitution this year, followed by elections for an assembly and president.
Many argue that rushing to the polls without a true reconciliation between East and West would make the situation worse. After all, violence that followed the last general election in 2014 triggered the split.
“Each day that passes without reaching a real deal between Libyans is increasing the risk that we lose everything,” said Shrada, the Tripoli official.
“Libya might disappear from the map in the next few years if we don’t end our disputes now.”