Sabratha clashes: Haftar pushes for control and legitimacy in western Libya
As the UN’s new roadmap for Libya gains momentum, it is apparent that General Khalifa Haftar’s newfound international legitimacy demands his inclusion in any peace deal in order for it to succeed. In an attempt to bolster his political leverage and gain critical infrastructure, Haftar now appears to be pushing for strategic control of Libya’s northwest coast.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) will have to overcome former Libyan Dawn militias in Sabratha and Zawiyya who perceive the LNA’s presence as a threat to their control over smuggling and migration activities. Fighting that began on 16 September continues in Sabratha between the Government of National Accord (GNA) affiliated Anas Dabbashi Brigade and Brigade 48 on one side, and the recently formed Anti-ISIS Operation Room, which is also nominally affiliated with the GNA but is more aligned with the LNA, on the other. The local Wadi militia, which reportedly comprises mainly Madhkali Salafists, is also fighting with the Anti-ISIS Operation Room. The Anas Dabbashi Brigade is the dominant force in the area, leading an anti-smuggling campaign with indirect cooperation from Italy, despite (or as a result of) being key players in smuggling networks themselves.
Fears that Haftar’s LNA will seize control of Sabratha has seen the Dabbashi militia gain a number of reinforcements from former Libya Dawn allies in Zawiyya, potentially tipping the balance of power in their favour. However, Italy’s recent diplomatic outreach towards Haftar may provide an opportunity for the LNA to cooperate with Italy for a new security arrangement in Sabratha, denying the Dabbashi militias international support and weakening their position on the ground. Haftar and LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari have said that the Anti-ISIS Operation Room will continue to fight to eradicate the ‘terrorist groups’ from Sabratha. The eastern Dar al-Ifta has also called for jihad against the ‘Khajirites’ in Sabratha. A victory for the LNA in Sabratha would result in a major power shift in its favour west of Tripoli.
In Tripoli, Haftar will be unable to take the city by force and is rumoured to be undertaking rapprochement efforts with the city’s key militias who, for the most part, currently support the GNA. Last week, the leaders of the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade (TRB) and the Abu Saleem Central Security (ASCS) force were rumoured to have attended the UN-led discussions in Tunis and conducted secret talks with LNA affiliated figures. The potential for some of Tripoli’s key militia leaders to have a closer relationship with Haftar at the ‘exclusion’ of others (such as the militias fighting in Sabratha and hardliner pro-Islamist groups), is already seeing fragmentation and violent confrontations in Tripoli.
The looming spectre of Haftar as prime minister or defence minister in the new UN recognised government already has many former Libya Dawn militias across western Libya scrambling to regroup and protect their advantage. This may see the groundswell of military action that began in Sabratha work its way east through the coastal region and potentially trigger larger conflict in the capital.