Younes's assassination could trigger tribal warfare

Analysis

The death of Abdel Fatah Younes will be of little military consequence.

In the first place, others will swiftly step into his shoes. Earlier in the rebellion, military command was fiercely contested between General Younes and Colonel Khalifa Heftar, a hero of the Libya-Chad war who had lived in the US for 20 years. Colonel Haftar lost that tussle, but he can now stake his claim to leadership.

Even if a power struggle ensues, however, this is unlikely to affect the course of the war. General Younes would have had little to do with the recent advances in the west of the country, driven by local fighters.

Libya's revolution is not a monolithic movement, but an agglomeration of hundreds of unco-ordinated rebellions, some of which violate all the lofty principles of humane warfare articulated by the Transitional National Council (TNC).

As if to underline this, news of the assassination unfolded alongside major rebel successes in three western towns within striking distance of key supply lines into Tripoli. Those fighters, who have swept down from the western mountains over the past month, have exhibited a mobility and lethality absent in the slow-moving campaign for the eastern oil towns. Those western battles have shaken loose the stalemate, and the war will be won or lost far from the machinations of a committee in Cyrenaica.

But the political ramifications may be more severe. General Younes's death prompted his supporters, many of whom are members of his Obeidi tribe, to peel away from the front line around Brega, establish roadblocks in Benghazi and flex their muscles towards the TNC leadership.

If the military chain of command in the east fractures once more, the danger is that Libya's tribal divisions, hitherto muted under a common front, generate a scramble for influence as the regime crumbles. Unlike other rebel movements, the TNC has made genuine efforts to ensure broad tribal representation. The irony is that it might struggle to remain relevant at the moment it has received the backing of Western countries.

Diplomatically, rebel fratricide would be a matter of dismay for Britain in particular, which recognised the TNC days ago, swallowing concerns that the rebel movement might perpetrate war crimes of its own or splinter into tribal factions. However, London and Paris have too much political capital invested in the TNC to abandon it. Ultimately, it is the only game in town. No other Libyan body enjoys comparable stature, and it is inevitable that, when Gaddafi falls, it will stand at the front of the queue for power. That will be the moment of maximum danger, when the political forces unleashed by this assassination could tear apart the fabric of a democratic Libya.

The writer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute

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