By Bel Trew
The prime minister’s government currently relies on a hodgepodge of ‘recognised’ militias that have intermittent loyalty to his cabinet, including that of alleged war criminal, general Haftar.
When the powerful east Libyan military commander general Khalifa Haftar announced his forces were marching south to conquer it (and its oilfields), the news was met with less than a shrug.
Most updates from Libya have been eclipsed by other areas of the Middle East since the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe has largely spluttered to a halt and Isis has been ousted from its Mediterranean caliphate.
A myriad of militia fiefdoms, including those belonging to the general, have been left to dictate the politics of the country with their guns.
But Haftar’s southern offensive on the strategic area of Murzuq, some 900km south of Tripoli, is an important one that should not be ignored. It has seen forces loyal to the Gaddafi-era general secure control of the country’s last remaining oilfields, which are, coincidentally, the biggest ones.
Last year, after back and forth battles with controversial militia commander Ibrahim Jadhran, gen Haftar swept the oil crescent in the east, which stretches from the coastal facilities of Ras Lanuf down to Waha.
With the recent acquisition of the Sharara and al-Feel oilfields in the south, which have a total production capacity of around 430,000 barrels a day or close to half of Libya’s current output, gen Haftar holds all of Libya’s onshore oil sector in his hands.
Oil exports are still managed by the Tripoli-based National Oil Company, which is loyal to the toothless UN-backed government, but gen Haftar and his men can effectively turn on – or off – the taps.
In short, one man now has the power to sever the country’s economic artery.
It comes at a crucial and tricky time. Last week gen Haftar and the country’s recognised prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj met in Abu Dhabi for peace talks, during which they agreed to hold elections.
Peace in Libya, a country awash with weapons and a diving board for jihadi groups in north Africa, is crucial for the stability of the region.
This meeting was welcomed by the UN and the UK among other countries, who emphasised that a military solution to Libya was not the way.
But with Haftar holding the power to the purse strings, how much can that be true? How can a peace deal be brokered in Libya and a civilian democratic structure hold power if a powerful and divisive military commander has so much sway? The show of joint leadership was little more than just that: a show.
“Haftar has clearly gained leverage through the advances of the armed force in this south. This was highlighted in the UAE meeting,” Valerie Stocker, a researcher on Libya told me.
She said systematic neglect and growing insecurity in the south of Libya over the past year had left southerners feeling abandoned by the recognised government in Tripoli and the international community. The assumption is that the conflict, between a bewildering mix of ethnic groups and tribes, is too niche to effect the rest of the country.
“There has been a pronounced lack of interest in the south and an assumption that the region had no direct impact on the country’s peace process. But the turn of events this year has clearly illustrated that this is not true,” she added. “The operation has inflamed simmering tribal tensions and unleashed a cycle of violence that may be hard to contain.”
Sarraj’s government currently relies on a hodgepodge of “recognised” militias in the Tripoli area, which have intermittent loyalty to his cabinet.
He desperately needs gen Haftar, despite the fact that the rogue commander has supported a rival government in the east for years and has agitated against the UN-backed authorities.
In interviews over the last few years his forces have repeatedly declared to me that they will march on Tripoli and seize control of it by force.
Gen Haftar lived for decades in exile in the US after being abandoned by Gaddafi during Libya’s disastrous war with Chad in the 1980s. He returned to Libya during the 2011 Arab Spring and declared himself to be chief of Libya’s so-called “army”.
Since then he has started numerous wars in eastern cities such as Benghazi and Derna, where human rights groups and the International Criminal Court have said that war crimes have been likely been committed by members of his forces.
Last July, the ICC issued a second arrest warrant for his special forces commander Mahmoud al-Werfalli after several videos appeared online apparently showing him murdering captured fighters.
In January, London human rights lawyers said in a report shared with The Independent that his forces may have committed war crimes in Derna, including instances of torture, murder and mutilation of corpses.
While the battle to take Murzuq appears to be far less bloody than others – and his army were in many ways welcomed by local populations suffering amid an upsurge in criminal activity – there are concerns that abuses are also being committed.
One resident, Ahmed, who sent me photos of looted and destroyed houses in Murzuq, said 27 people have been killed in dubious circumstances, more than 140 families displaced and dozens of houses burned and destroyed by forces loyal to Haftar since the offensive began in mid-January.
Haftar’s troops are largely battling the Tebu, an ethnic group based in the south that bleeds over Libya’s border into Chad and Niger, and which for years have had control over many areas there.
Mohammad Adam Lino, a Tebu Libyan MP, resigned over the violence, saying that forces affiliated with Haftar were targeting his people. He said 90 houses had been burnt down since the offensive, including those of his brother and father.
Resident Ahmed told me: “The situation is very bad, the fighting, the killing, the burning of the houses. Families have been forced to run away. It’s terrible.
“Haftar is extremely powerful. He already controls the east and now the south; it will be very easy for him to take Tripoli.”
Bel Trew – Middle East reporter for The Times based in Cairo.