The two rival Tebu and Tuareg tribes in Libya's neglected southern desert are putting aside a four-year feud to beat back Khalifa Haftar's military advances.
Indigenous tribes Tebu and Tuareg, at loggerheads since 2014, are forging an alliance under the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to defend southern Libya against military advances by forces loyal to the country’s eastern government.
Libya’s vast southern Fezzan region has languished outside any meaningful government control since 2011.
Now the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, are fanning out into the central south to consolidate the power and reach of east Libya’s Tobruk-based government.
The LNA fuelled rising tensions last week by claiming control over Sharara oilfield. Sources on the ground told Middle East Eye that, despite this show of publicity, LNA forces only reached the outskirts of the sprawling facility and were pushed back by the Tuareg Brigade 30, which has controlled Sharara since mid-2017.
Advances by Tobruk’s LNA forces prompted the prime minister of the rival Tripoli-based GNA government, Fayez al-Sarraj, to appoint Gaddafi-era Tuareg commander Ali Kanna as the new military commander for the south.
A senior member of the Tebu community in the Fezzan town of Murzuq, Mohamed Ibrahim, told MEE that part of Kanna’s role would be to unite and jointly mobilise existing independent Tebu and Tuareg militias against the LNA.
Local Tebu and Tuareg militias have independently secured large areas of the south, including oil facilities and lengthy border stretches, since the 2011 uprising, in response to near-total neglect from successive faltering and competing Libyan governments.
From tribal foe to tribal friend
Tensions between powerful tribes in southern Libya were long kept at bay under Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, when he worked extensively with tribal leaders, although he consistently marginalised the Tebu. However, they have burgeoned since 2011.
Recent developments, threatening to throw the delicate balance maintained in the south by local tribes into violent turmoil, have both soothed and reignited past tribal grievances.
The indigenous Tebu and Tuareg tribes have been foes since 2014, when post-2011 tensions erupted into civil war in the southern town of Ubari, breaking a century-long peace agreement between the two Saharan tribes.
During the Ubari conflict, the Tuareg were backed by a now-redundant government that was based in Tripoli, while the Tebu received modest support from the Tobruk government.
Tensions persisted after a shaky peace deal was brokered in late 2015, but the recent advances of Tobruk’s LNA forces have pushed the two tribes into shelving former differences.
“The Tebu fully backed the GNA’s appointment of Ali Kanna,” said Ibrahim. “Although some Tuareg militias – notably Brigade 173 – are still loyal to Haftar, all Tuareg forces were under Kanna before 2011 and he can fully regain their loyalty.”
The Tuareg commander of Brigade 30 holding Sharara oil field, Ahmed Allal, is already allied to Kanna. Ibrahim added that most Tebu and Tuareg militias were putting recent disputes behind them, pledging support to Tripoli’s GNA and uniting against Tobruk’s LNA forces.
When a plane allegedly carrying Kanna landed at the southern al-Feel oil field on Saturday, the airstrip was targeted by a “warning” airstrike from LNA warplanes, according to southern-based social media account Fezzan Libya. The account said Kanna held talks with the Tebu forces holding al-Feel before heading to Tuareg-secured Sharara.
The Tebu’s former alliance with the Tobruk government faltered in 2016, after allegations of favouritism towards Arab over non-Arab militias left many Tebu disenchanted.
Any vestiges of good-feeling vanished when Haftar formed an alliance with another long-term Tebu foe – the Arab Awlad Suliman tribe – in the south’s main town of Sebha, undermining a peace treaty signed in Rome between Awlad Suliman and Tebu tribal leaders in March 2017.
Haftar’s new alliance with the Awlad Suliman enabled him to take control of Sebha in late January, securing a major foothold for the Tobruk government in Libya’s south.
As LNA forces pressed further south towards the town of Murzuq, they clashed with Tebu forces in the Ghuddwa Oasis, some 60km south of Sebha, resulting in casualties on both sides, according to a Tebu source in the area.
In protest against the escalating violence in the south and advances into traditionally Tebu territory, several Tebu members of Tobruk’s parliament and government resigned.
Tripoli’s GNA has long lacked any quantifiable control beyond western coastal Tripoli, and its military capability – heavily reliant on often feuding militias – is questionable. An alliance of Tebu and Tuareg militias under its umbrella is thought to be the only way to curb LNA advances in the south.
“The Tebu alone are militarily weak and the Tuareg alone are military weak, but united they have enough force to defend their areas,” said Ahmed, an engineer from Sharara.
“Kanna doesn’t have his own forces but, heading a joint Tebu-Tuareg force, he would have considerable military power.”
At present, the Tuareg and Tebu have full joint control over the strategic town of Ubari – their former battlefield – which lies 60km from Sharara oilfield.
“It would be almost impossible for the LNA to control Sharara without also Ubari,” said Ibrahim. Haftar’s LNA forces currently hold military positions some 40km from Ubari.
Another oil facility becomes fulcrum in Libya chaos
Battles for control over Libya’s main oil facilities and airports, as well as towns and cities, have defined the country’s post-2011 chaos, as rival forces – with often confusing and fluid allegiances to different governments – have vied for power.
Sharara’s remote desert location has kept it largely free from warfare but the oil field’s security has changed hands several times.
Sharara has also been under force majeure since early December, after local protestors entered the facility complaining about general neglect of Libya’s south, and demanding funds from Libyan National Oil Company (NOC) revenues be used to support local development projects.
“We haven’t worked since early December because the Tuareg demanded money from NOC but [the company’s chairman Mustafa] Sanalla said they were criminal militias who were illegally using Sharara as their base,” said Ahmed.
“Sanalla shut down Sharara operations and we all went home, leaving only basic staff keeping oil infrastructure ticking over.”
Sanalla, who for several years has had the unenviable task of trying to keep the oil facilities tapping into Libya’s vast hydrocarbon reserves operating throughout complex civil conflicts, urged military restraint on all sides at Sharara.
“Worker safety remains our primary concern. We urge all parties to avoid conflict and the politicisation of key infrastructure,” he said in a statement on Friday.
“Any damage to the field could have serious consequences for the sector, the environment and the national economy. Obviously, normal operations cannot restart until security is restored.”
Alleged presence of foreign forces
Accusations and counter-accusations are also flying about the alleged presence of militias from neighbouring Sudan, Chad and Niger.
The Tebu say Haftar has brought in mercenary militia forces from Sudan, not least because troops from coastal Libya sometimes struggle fighting in desert terrain.
Tebu and Tuareg have long been accused – and have in the past accused each other – of bringing relatives and tribal comrades from Chad and Niger into Libya to boost their military forces.
The terms “terrorists” or “mercenaries” are frequently applied by all sides, in an attempt to undermine the national legitimacy of the opposition while promulgating their own.
The lack of any coherent border control since 2011 has facilitated not only unchecked smuggling operations, including prolific people-smuggling of sub-Saharan migrants, but also fluid movement of individuals and militia groups.
Clashes in the south have also thrown France’s controversial involvement in Libya back into the spotlight.
Libya’s indigenous southern tribes have long accused France of having vested interests in the sprawling oil-rich Fezzan region and say it is now throwing its weight behind Haftar in an attempt to secure its future presence in the area.