While Islamic State has been largely eliminated from Libya there are growing worries about the potential for increased jihadist activity in the south once France partially withdraws its Operation Barkhane forces in the first quarter of 2022. France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced the planned troop withdrawal from the Sahel after: Paris’ ally, Chad’s President Idriss Déby was assassinated; and there was a second coup within a year in Mali. The departure of 2,500-3,000 professional soldiers will severely deplete the multilateral campaign against the Islamists which is why Paris has been putting so much pressure on Algeria to send troops to the region.
Our Sahara Focus sister publication analyses the situation in considerable depth. The slides and hour-long podcast of our 21 July webinar on Will the Sahel become Africa’s Afghanistan? are now available here.
For his part, Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah is keeping noticeably quiet on the matter which is perhaps unsurprising because the Government of National Unity’s (GNU) power does not extend into the south, which remains loosely under the control of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).
but Khalifa Haftar is also seeking to demonstrate his control
Haftar has recently engaged in a number of military operations in the south. In June he announced that the LAAF’s Tariq Ben Ziyad Brigade had attacked and killed three terrorist elements operating in the south and that it had closed the border with Algeria. Yet, despite these operations, the LAAF is in no position to be able to secure Libya’s southern borders which is a job that proved too difficult for even Muammar Qadhafi to achieve. As such the south could well see further unrest and violence in the coming months.
It should be noted, however, that, according to Menas Associates’ local sources, the Algeria border incident and Haftar’s two highly provocative decrees were not quite what they seemed (Algeria Politics & Security – 22.06.21). Firstly, he ‘decreed’ that the Algeria-Libya border region is now deemed to be a military zone. Secondly the LAAF’s Battalion 128 allegedly took full control of the Ghat (a.k.a. Essiyan) border post which is adjacent to Algeria. As far as we are aware there is no place called Essiyan. Instead, we presume that this is a reference to the Algerian military base of In Ezzane which is close to Algeria-Libya-Niger tri-border point in the extreme southeast corner of the country. Whether Haftar has actually stationed some of his forces adjacent to the In Ezzane base cannot be easily checked because the entire area is a military zone that is off limits. We also assume that Haftar may also have closed the border crossing at Tin Alkhoum, just south of Ghat, which, in any case, is heavily controlled on the Algerian side. Haftar’s actions came on the eve of the Berlin II conference and just as the GNU and Algeria negotiated the re-opening of the Deb-Deb – Ghadames frontier crossing at the northern end of the common border.
There is little or no chance of Haftar launching any sort of incursion across the border which is under tight surveillance and well defended. Nevertheless, his moves were an embarrassment and a provocation to Algeria which is exactly what they were intended to be. This is because, during an interview with Al Jazeera a few weeks earlier, Algeria’s President Abdelmajid Tebboune referred to Tripoli — in the context of Haftar’s unsuccessful 2019-2020 assault against the capital — as being a ‘Red Line’ for Algeria. Haftar appears to have moved that red line.
Haftar’s moves are part of a much wider and more complex geo-political situation in the MENA region and Sahel, and he is backed by the Emiratis, Saudis, Egyptians, Russians and France. They are all opposed to Turkey, which not only angers the conservative Arab states by supporting the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood, but whose President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has aspirations for it to become the major regional power. The intervention of Ankara’s armed forces — formally invited by Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) — supported Tripoli’s predominantly Islamist militias and defeated Haftar’s forces in June 2020.
Haftar’s backers are therefore angry with Algeria, and especially President Tebboune, who they see as being on extremely friendly terms with Turkey. They strongly suspect that Tebboune is, or was, in the pay of the Turks because so many lucrative construction contracts were awarded to Turkish companies when he was Minister of Housing. This is probably also why the Emiratis have been so critical of Algeria over its recent elections. We understand that Haftar’s allies have therefore encouraged him to provoke Algeria which he seems to have done in no uncertain matter.