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Reopening Libya’s coastal road: What’s next for the parties involved?

After a two-year closure on the backdrop of the Tripoli battle (April 2020-October 2021), the Libyan coastal road connecting Libya’s east and west was reopened. The move re-invoked a sense of optimism about the country’s political transition following consecutive frustrations due to pitfalls in political files. 

In fact, it is difficult to separate the security and political issues because they affect each other. In addition, foreign factors can’t be ignored in this regard. Before the road was reopened, two military delegations from the two parties visited Moscow. It is important to factor in that reopening the coastal road successfully was a test for the role of the Joint Military Commission (5+5), concerning the following security arrangements and the subsequent steps, such as the evacuation of mercenaries.

I. Calculations of the parties involved

Multilateral political calculations are expected to reveal the involved parties’ next moves. These are:

1. The General Command: The General Command’s response to the request of reopening the coastal road can’t be attributed only to receiving financial support from the government to fulfill the financial commitments of the command. Some local reports indicate that Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s, the General Command of the National Army, response to this step comes within the context of following a proactive campaigning trend for his candidacy in the coming presidential elections. This step comes, particularly, after the rapprochement between Haftar and Counselor Aqilla Saleh, following a joint meeting, on 16 July, where they discussed the General Command’s financial affairs and elections. The meeting was followed by a visit of a parliamentary delegation to Italy to solve the dilemma of the constitutional rule and, on the background of this parliamentary tour is the understanding between the general command and the speaker of parliament.

While these explanations are relevant, they are not enough, as it is difficult for the General Command to unlink the reopening of the coastal road with the extraction of mercenaries, so as not to put its credibility to the test. On the other hand, certainly, this step was not taken but before reaching an understanding on the file of mercenaries, because not taking a key step in this file makes reopening the road largely lose its usefulness, given the possible threats that may lead parties once more close the road and return to the state of division. The other matter is that the consultations conducted in Russia by the delegation of the General Command led by Lieutenant General Khairy Tamimi, Director of Khalifa Haftar’s Office and member of the Joint Military Commission 5 + 5, reflect some of the multilateral movements on the mercenary file first. The announcement of German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, on the sidelines of the Berlin conference that Moscow and Ankara have understandings on the simultaneous and parallel exit of foreign mercenaries, come in parallel with the US repeated statements in the same matter. However, the statement remarkably emphasized that no party should be excluded from the process and referred to Turkey more than once explicitly, and not implicitly as before.

2- Parties in western Libya: Within the context of this development, there are some revealing indications. For instance, the military delegation of the west was not represented in the (5+5) group but was the Chief of the General Staff of the (Western-based Libyan Army), Lieutenant-General, Mohamed Al-Haddad. This indicates that the representation of Lieutenant General Khairy Tamimi was likely a personal representation of Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Therefore, it is probable that the resolution of this aspect in cooperation with Moscow took place within the context of the representation of military forces from both sides, not by the Joint Commission. 

However, the outputs of the understandings in Moscow were referred to the Joint Military Commission within the framework of implementation based on its competencies under the Ceasefire Agreement, and the file of foreign mercenaries. Thus, the role of the commission was complementary, rather than having the main role.

Consequently, this indicator shows the variant stances of armed parties in western Libya and the political stances. The stance of the western Libya General Staff shows its readiness to respond to the General Command, in case the same steps are taken in the security files. The General Staff, in turn, is not in the same category with the armed factions in the west; rather it seeks to undermine this phenomenon. However, it is still subject to the controversial political position on the Turkish military presence, which is a stance imposed on it by a logic that the Government of National Unity has inherited from its predecessor, the Government of Accord. 

The Government of National Unity may fear the implications of taking a hardline stance towards Turkey, especially given the Muslim Brotherhood’s position, as expressed by State Council President Khalid Al-Mashri, who insists on distinguishing between the presence of mercenaries and the presence of foreign forces by prior agreement with a recognized authority (the government of national accord), according to his statements following the implementation of the coastal road reopening. In addition, there are concerns that the backed-by-Turkey armed factions may take the same step. 

Besides, it seems like both parties of the agreement avoid these repercussions, so they focus on the mercenary file as a first step, from the perspective of these entanglements. Thus, Lieutenant General Tamimi discussed this file with the Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush, who takes a vivid stance within the Government to end the mercenary and foreign presence files. In addition, she is the main communication channel between the main foreign parties involved in the file, as well as the UN mission. 

3. Foreign parties: The majority of the Berlin-Conference participating foreign parties welcomed the reopening of the coastal road, most notably the US, Russia, Turkey, as well as some European states and Arab states topped by Egypt. Egypt supports implementing these files and developing them within the framework of the completion of the political transition arrangements. 

Nonetheless, these interactions have revealed other dimensions related to the approaches of most of the powers involved in the Libyan file. For example, the Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs paid a visit to Libya, during which he met with the head of the Presidential Council, the head of the government and the head of the Supreme Council of State, as well as Haftar; however, reports on the visit revealed that the Italian welcoming approach was based on Italian economic interests.

Regarding Russia, there are several gas and oil production and exploration companies, including the Gazprom Company, which resumed oil production in May 2021, and the Tatneft Energy Company held meetings with the oil institution to return to exploration in Libya again. In addition, Turkey took action in this file, through both frozen agreements signed with the government of Accord and the new agreements. 

The interests of the parties are based on getting rid of the security file, even by using the step-by-step tactic. However, the reactions to the reopening of coastal road have certainly brought this file back to the fore. Moreover, an unannounced Russian-Turkish understanding of the current arrangements cannot be ruled out, as the realization of mutual benefits, and their recent rapprochement in the Libyan file is driven by the Turkish-American mismatch in other files.

II. Possible tracks

It is likely that any possible course of action in the near future will depend on several factors to prevent backtracking, including the growth of confidence-building measures between the parties even under the exchange of common political interests for objective considerations, where the political projects of the parties cannot be removed from the equation. There is a shift in the political discourse toward adopting a softer language than before, and there is no doubt that these changes and developments are in turn reflected on the map of political alliances. With the optimism of further rapprochement, the meeting held between Haftar and the head of government, Abdel-Hamid Al-Dabiba may break the ice in the Libyan scene. That rapprochement with other parties will reinforce the resolution of the government’s fiscal budget dilemmas on the part of parliament, as well as the dilemma of the constitutional rule, amid reports of an undisclosed rapprochement between most of the parties. Added to this are the initial understandings between the various foreign powers with interests in Libya, which are currently seeking to move to the phase of reaping the benefits. 

Limits of multilateral rapprochement 

Probably, the security arrangement file of election is the urgent scenario put on the parties’ discussion table, as it is particularly related to the security arrangements, including forming a joint east and west security committee to supervise these arrangements. This is followed by understandings concerning the file of foreign mercenaries. The near future is likely to carry a variant in this file if Turkey abandons the policy of the Revolving Door, especially since it is trading this file with Russia on the one hand and, on the other, with its military presence in western Libya, and is already strengthening this presence to also trade with the mercenary file. 

That is besides the UN adoption of sending a mission to supervise the mercenaries file, which may help in realizing this context. It is important to note that Turkey does not want to abandon its allies, in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood Group, that is seeking to secure a stake in its future scene, especially because of its regional exhaustion, as is currently the case in Tunisia. 

Within the limits of rapprochement, the emergence of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi should be considered too, as his appearance on the political stage made some parties re-evaluate their calculations and alliances. 

On the other hand, the file on the unification of the military institution will remain deferred until the mercenaries file is closed, so will the foreign presence file. 

Nevertheless, the reopening of the coastal road and the action being taken in the mercenaries file will contribute to putting the military unification file into the minimum level of activity, even if there is no distinct qualitative shift. In addition, the overall parties’ political will will remain the driving factor in all these files, including the interest-approach of the parties and their implications on the political engineering of the scene and its subsequent developments. 

The bounce-back scenario may be the worst for all. It will not only lead to a return to square one of the armed escalation but also double the challenges and risks for Libya’s future.

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