by Valérie Stocker
In the midst of the Libyan desert, a thousand kilometers south of Tripoli, a war divides two communities that had been living a brotherly life until the post-revolutionary vortex carried away their friendship. The Tebu, an ethnic group that traces its roots to the Tibesti Mountains in Chad, and the Tuareg, the “Berbers of the desert” spread throughout the Sahel-Saharan region, had been living side by side since having signed a peace treaty in late nineteenth century. In August 2014, however, violence broke out in the Ubari oasis, where the increased influence of the Tebu community had generated tensions with the Tuareg majority. A year later, in July 2015, the clashes reached Sebha, the capital of the Fezzan. As the conflict rages on, it has become increasingly difficult to understand what it is that prolongs it. The parties involved—convinced of the presence of a fifth column—say they no longer control their destiny.
The Fezzan, Troubled Borderland
Once located on the trans-Saharan caravan route, Ubari later became a base for sightseeing tours into the Libyan Sahara. Today, the deserted town is divided into hostile areas under the control of armed groups. Heavy shelling and snipers have driven out a quarter of Ubari’s thirty thousand inhabitants, while the others resist, holed up in their neighborhoods. The fighting has left hundreds dead, and the hospital, deprived of its staff that fled the city, can no longer keep up with treating the wounded. The most severely injured often die during their transfer to the capital. With militias or bandits often closing the only road that links the oasis to Sebha and the Algerian border, little assistance gets through. Isolated from the world, Ubari has sunk into oblivion.
Yet, the Fezzan continues to be of major geopolitical importance. Bordering Algeria, Niger, and Chad, it is through this hostile terrain that transit most sub-Saharan migrants who attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya’s shores, as well as criminal gangs hauling heroin and cocaine to Europe. It is also here that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, mastermind of the attack on the Algerian In Amenas gas site, and other leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are believed to have sought refuge, and where the Islamic State Group (IS) claims to have a subsidiary branch. A perilous region, the Fezzan sparks fears of the European Union, which in 2013, set up a European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM)  in an effort to assist Libya in strengthening border controls. The security deterioration has since made EUBAM’s task impossible to fulfill.
In northern Libya, many see the Fezzan as a hotbed of unrest and are tormented by the idea of an uprising led by former Gaddafi loyalists, or the invasion of their country by “foreigners.” This designation is frequently used to include the Tuareg and the Tebu due to their originally nomadic lifestyle and family ties in neighboring countries. From time to time, the Libyan press ignites these issues but there generally is little interest in the Fezzan. This marginalization has profoundly affected how locals conceive their relationship with the north. Complaints that “they have always been exploiting our oil fields and aquifers without giving us anything in return” are frequent.
Misrata versus Zintan
In the power vacuum that followed Gaddafi’s fall, the region has been subject to clientelist policies emanating from local powers in the north that see the Fezzan as their backyard. Zintan, a small mountain town in the northwest Libyan Nafussa Mountains, seized border crossings to Tunisia and Algeria, and oil sites in the Ghadames and Murzuq basins in 2011 and 2012, recruiting Tebu fighters to guard the spoils of war. This alliance, along with the Tebu’s increased military power, displeased the Tuareg, who traditionally dominated in the areas of Ubari, Ghat, and Ghadames. In Ubari, Tuareg residents demanded job opportunities and complained that the Zintanis were granting privileges to the Tebu, such as access to the airstrip at Sharara oil field fifty kilometers from the town.
In parallel, the city of Misrata—which, since 2011, constitutes the greatest military power in northwest Libya and is in competition with Zintan—increased its presence in the Fezzan. In January 2014, Misratan brigades deployed to Sebha as a so-called “Third Force,” an alliance mandated by the National General Congress in Tripoli to stop tribal clashes in the southern city. Misratan leaders struck alliances with local forces recruited from among the Awlad Suleiman and Hassawna tribes, deemed supporters of the revolution and opposed to the Gaddadfa and the Magarha.
The latter two tribes, privileged during Gaddafi’s era and marginalized since his fall, have been suspected of fomenting a rebellion backed by former regime dignitaries based in Niger and Egypt.
Lines of division hardened when a civil war erupted in the summer of 2014 between Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn)—a coalition dominated by Misrata and supported by Islamist Congress members—and the Karama (Dignity) Coalition, led by Khalifa Haftar. The latter is politically backed by the new Parliament, which operates out of the east, and whose main western ally is Zintan. Tebu military leaders swiftly declared their support for Karama and threatened to send troops to Tripoli. But Zintan, struggling to defend its northwestern positions, largely withdrew from the Fezzan, ceding ground to the Misratan Third Force, which deployed near Ubari.
It is in this context that the Ubari conflict erupted. Accusing the Tebu of smuggling fuel and monopolizing fuel distribution networks, a Tuareg militia seized gas stations and the local police headquarters. Aided by their reinforcements from Murzuq, the Tebu responded with a counter-attack. Very quickly, narratives radicalized on both sides. The Tuareg demanded the departure of “Chadian mercenaries,” repeating a widespread cliché, while the Tebu denounced the “Malian terrorists,” suggesting that their opponents were all rebels who escaped northern Mali after the French intervention there. The Tebu also presented themselves as the last line of defense against an “Islamist” takeover under Misrata’s leadership. Early November, a Tuareg group ejected the Tebu from Sharara oil field with the support of the Third Force, which, albeit, remained at the gates of Ubari without openly intervening in the conflict. There has been little change on the battleground since, and the war entered a phase of stalemate. Ubari’s eastern neighborhoods remain under Tebu control, while the Tuareg are blocking their advance from the top of Jebel Tende, a mountain overlooking the city.
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