Sunday marked eight years since longtime Libyan dictator Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed. In the post-2011 aftermath, another military man, Khalifa Haftar, has taken control over Libya’s east and much of its vast southern region, Fezzan. The battle for the capital, Tripoli, between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), based in the east, and the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the west in Tripoli, has dominated international attention on Libya. But the stability of the south is all too often overlooked. The region is critical to U.S. interests and any effective policy must not only focus on achieving reconciliation between the east and west, but on building stability in Fezzan.

Fighters loyal to the U.N.-backed government battle ISIS in Sirte, Libya, June 23, 2016. Although ousted from Sirte, a security vacuum in the south could lead to the reemergence of ISIS. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Fighters loyal to the U.N.-backed government battle ISIS in Sirte, Libya, June 23, 2016. Although ousted from Sirte, a security vacuum in the south could lead to the reemergence of ISIS. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Why Fezzan Matters

The people of the Fezzan want security, development, and a political voice. The security vacuum in recent years has led to the emboldening of criminal gangs, smuggling of illicit goods, human trafficking, and clashes between tribal militias, leading to the degradation of living conditions. Development and shorter-term needs have been neglected. The south has been historically marginalized in the country’s politics despite ample resources, like oil, gas, agriculture, and water. Those in Fezzan want their political voice to be heard on par with east and west.

Haftar’s self-styled LNA is purportedly anti-Islamist and aspires to a military-style government, whereas the GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, has Islamist elements and is dominated by militias despite its international backing. Fezzan’s diverse demographics and tribal dynamics do not fit neatly into this east-west binary.

A sparsely populated desert region, Fezzan is home to less than a half-million people made up of a mix of tribes including ethnic Arabs (or “Ahali”), Tuareg, Tebu, Gadhadfa, and Awlad Suleiman. The southern region is closely interlinked with Libya’s southern neighbors and has long-established ties between cross-border communities in Algeria, Chad, Niger, and Sudan. Fezzan’s trade routes have long connected sub-Saharan Africa with the Mediterranean coast.

Geographically remote from Libya’s large coastal cities, the south has often been marginalized by Libya’s leaders. Qaddafi also exploited the region to maintain power—much as he did throughout the rest of the country—by empowering some (mostly Arab) tribes and disempowering others. Yet after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, local forces in the south had to fend for themselves and took advantage of the faltering border security. Qaddafi had used borders to blackmail European states by threatening to let migrants flow north unless they did what he asked. Formerly deprived groups like the Tebu gained importance by attempting to gain control of trade routes and amassing weapons and resources, which shook the previous hierarchy.

With the GNA having struggled to consolidate its rule outside of Tripoli, it has paid little attention to the south. This includes representatives from the south. One Sebha resident noted last year, “Most of the leaders [from Fezzan] are now busy amassing money, and the south depends on Tripoli and Benghazi as the sources of basic commodities.” This adds to the sense that no one cares, driving people into the informal economy, which is thriving due in part to Sebha’s location as a transit choke point for goods and people to the north.

After 2011, the international community and different Libyan national authorities have tended to look at the south as needing short-term stability rather than long-term peace and inclusion. This has led to ad hoc peace agreements like the so-called Rome Agreement between Awlad Suleiman and Tebu. Also, noble attempts to broker social agreements, like the Charter for Peaceful Coexistence in Fezzan, were not implemented with the requisite resources and related political processes.

This is in part because the security situation has been tenuous, with tribal-based militias dominating different Fezzan cities, or, like in the case of Sebha, controlling neighborhoods and strategic assets like airports, medical facilities, and key entrance and exit roads. Sebha, indeed, is a bellwether for stability in the south. Its most prominent tribe, Awlad Suleiman, displaced Qaddafi’s tribe, the Gadadfa, as the main player in the city and is currently in charge of its major institutions.

The Tebu’s status has been downgraded, and they—along with the Tuareg, who Qaddafi promised citizenship for military service—are relegated to marginalized enclaves. Many of them, and other groups that Qaddafi promised citizenship, are in a similar situation: up to 200,000 people throughout Libya and approximately 30 percent of people in the south are in legal limbo with an undetermined legal status under the law. This is a driver of militia recruitment and illegal activity.

Until the LNA’s takeover of Fezzan, militias had been vying for control over resources like trade routes and oil fields. This constant vying for resources has hampered development and led to dissatisfaction and even protest movements like the one in 2018 that shut down El-Feel, Libya’s largest oil field.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

The U.S. should pay more attention to Libya’s south as it is crucial to the country’s stability. Developments in Fezzan have proven central to key U.S. interests: oil and fighting terrorism, as well as irregular migration, which disproportionately affects U.S. European allies. Following Qaddafi’s overthrow, the region’s tribes have fought for control of resources, revamping long-standing feuds. Further complicating these dynamics is the support of regional backers for various groups, such as the UAE siding with the LNA and thus against the Tebu.

The inflow of weapons from these backers has only added to the chaos. In October 2019, the situation in Libya has evolved into an international battleground in the sense that all local forces are receiving outside support, especially in terms of weaponry. AFRICOM’s four rounds of airstrikes in Fezzan in September 2019 indicate that the U.S. perceives risk from security vacuums and accessible weaponry in southern Libya.

The U.S. should consider the following recommendations for Libya policy moving forward:

  • Leaders from Fezzan must be part of any political processes dealing with the country’s future. Any national Libyan political processes need to include voices from the south on an equal or at least representative basis. This cannot be an afterthought to bringing east and west together. The people of the south know which southern leaders are self-interested and which desire peace: ask them who needs to be at the table and convey to all stakeholders involved that compromise is ultimately key. This could immediately begin with a restarted dialogue around a constitution. This foundational document must be the basis for the future structure and function of government, but discussions around it have dissipated.
  • Grassroots voices must be included in political processes. Including grassroot voices from Fezzan is vital, as it lays the groundwork for a process that could lead to lasting peace. New voices, particularly young people, need to be included in talks if an inclusive political system is to emerge from the anarchic post-Qaddafi power struggles. The U.S. Institute of Peace is working with civil society on community-based dialogues in the south to foster collaborative problem solving, transform views of “the other,” and identify potential and current leaders with political skills. Libyans in Sebha and Ubari have expressed their commitment to peace and stability. As one participant of the recent round of dialogues in Ubari said, “We want peace. We are done with war.” When organizations like UNSMIL, the U.N. mission in Libya, work to broker political dialogues between leaders, they should consult with many groups of people on the ground and ensure inclusive representation—including those that would propose workable solutions to the questions swirling around citizenship. Women in Libya, particularly in the Fezzan, are a powerful and dynamic group that must also be included at each step.
  • Local-level security should be prioritized, and security forces need training. The lack of security in Fezzan is dramatically impacting the population. From a long-term perspective, the training of security forces is crucial. As security is considered a basic need of any society, police should see themselves as part of the community they serve. This is important for addressing the root causes of terrorism and preventing radicalization, particularly among those who have received indiscriminate, violent treatment by security forces and border officials. This goal cannot be achieved through technical training alone; developing police skills and knowledge related to community-oriented policing is the only way to counter radicalization and terrorism, as well as safeguard freedoms that are under attack.
  • To keep the flow of oil, build peace. Libya’s oil production has largely kept apace over the last eight years, despite the chaos in the county. Continuing this trend is central to U.S. interests, especially after the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia. Libya’s southern Sahara is the source of the country’s wealth and contains the biggest oil and gas fields. So, building stability in the south is not only important for local interests, but also has larger implications for the global oil market. 

The ongoing battle for Tripoli that started in early April this year has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe and needs international attention to end the fighting. However, the south cannot continue to be marginalized in the eyes of the international community, as this neglect will have lasting repercussions for overall stability in the region and oil security on the global market. While U.S. policymakers have begun focusing on the region, there is more to be done. The U.S. has critical interests related to Fezzan and its policy should reflect that. If Libya is ever going to reach a modicum of stability, the south must be part of any political process.

Inga Kristina Trauthig is a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

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