Despite the fact that Libya has two capitals, many have identified a third city as the most important power base in the North African country. This third city, Misrata, is home to the most powerful militias in Libya, many of which were key in defeating Ghaddafi’s army. Not only do Misrata militias protect the Libya Dawn capital of Tripoli, but they also provide security in a variety of areas in which the Tripoli government has interests. One of these groups, the Third Force, has established itself a significant power in southwestern Libya and in recent months has begun an attempt to provide public goods and enforce law and order. There is little evidence that the Third Force has secured cooperation from local tribal elements in the south, seriously decreasing their political power in the region — particularly in pivotal cities such as Ubari and Sebha. However, the Third Force militia has achieved many of its military goals in the south, including preventing LNA forces from gaining footholds in the region, securing oil fields, and ensuring a basic level of peace.
In early 2014, the General Staff of the Libyan Army (Libya Dawn) deployed the Third Force to secure the restive southern city of Sebha. It is unclear exactly how many fighters were sent, but the Third Force was able to regularly mobilize patrols of 10–15 technicals, and operated at least one helicopter and several non-military aircraft. The group garrisoned the Barak Airbase as well as other positions outside and within Sebha, and worked to secure the major roadways that serve to move goods throughout Libya and across African borders. At this time, the Third Force did not explicitly engage in governance activities, although they did issue directives prohibiting the open carrying of weapons and distributed a newsletter (it appears that at least three issues were printed ). The area was relatively peaceful, with rare clashes or attacks near Third Force checkpoints. Casualties were low enough that the group’s social media pages devoted three posts across several days to the death of a Third Force member in a car accident.
Beginning in March 2015, the Third Force began battling tribal fighters who later unified under Col. Mohammad bin Nile, forming the LNA’s 241st Infantry Brigade. A number of ceasefires violated and several prisoner exchanges were cancelled before the LNA-affiliated forces seized the airbase on March 18, 2015. Third Force fighters captured Col. bin Nile on April 8 and brought him to Misrata, where he died in custody. Following this the Third Force reinforced its positions in the south and recaptured the airbase on April 14. This final assault destroyed the capability of LNA-affiliated units near Sebha and no significant LNA operations have been observed since the takeover.
Both the Third Force and their tribal opponents remained relatively quiet until early August, when former regime loyalist elements protested the death sentence handed down to Sayf al-Islam Ghaddafi. Fighting in Sebha reignited on August 7, when Third Force fighters opened fire on demonstrators. Third Force armored units, backed by the local Ahrar Fezzan Battalion, as well as Bahir al-Din and Awlad Suliman tribal fighters, continued to clash with gunmen from the pro-Ghaddafi Ghaddadfa and Magarha tribes in the Sukara and Manshiya districts of Sabha (it should be noted that much of the 241st Infantry Battalion consisted of Magarha tribal fighters). The clashes lasted for several days before the Misratans retreated from the city. After several failed efforts, the Third Force cleared the armed protestors and secured the city on August 13.
Almost a month later, the Third Force issued a statement ordering the punishment of any person destroying life or either public or private property. This was followed by three separate publicized “governance” efforts in the month of September. The Third Force distributed photosets showing their forces returning stolen fuel, arresting smugglers, and providing sacrificial animals for Eid al-Adha. This attempt to project a positive public image indicates the need to attain some level of popular support for the group to continue their presence in southern Libya.
It does not appear that the Third Force seeks to become the governing body in Southern Libya. However, it is critical that the Tripoli government maintain leverage in that region in order to protect the oil supply and prevent LNA incursions. In particular, Tripoli requires a relatively secure route from the Sharara Oil Field, through Ubari and Sebha, to export terminals on the Mediterranean Coast. While the Third Force remains the most powerful military force in southwest Libya, a unified tribal alliance could easily oust the Misratans. The group’s “public relations” efforts will probably not convince any tribes to change sides, but could be sufficient to prevent such a large-scale popular uprising. Given the resources that have been devoted to reinforcing the Third Force over the past six months, it is unlikely that the group will withdraw from the south barring a major development.
Sources: (al-Wasat)(al-Wasat)(al-Wasat)(Akhbar Libya 24)(al-Wasat)(Akhbar Libya 24)(Good Morning Libya)(Libya Akhbar)(al-Wasat)(al-Wasat)(al-Wasat)(al-Wasat)(al-Wasat) (LANA News)(al-Wasat)(Libya Akhbar)(al-Wasat)(Akhbar Libya 24)(al-Wasat)(Third Force Facebook)