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Libya's ceasefire: Hold your fire, but be ready to fire

A Libyan volunteer takes part in an operation to renovate the Libya's Martyrs school on 19 November 2020 [MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images]
A Libyan volunteer takes part in an operation to renovate the Libya's Martyrs school on 19 November 2020 [MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images]

On 23 October, Libya's 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) agreed to a country-wide ceasefire which has been holding ever since, with the exception of little wars and episodes of violence in different parts of Libya. The commission comprises an equal number of military officers representing the main warring sides – Tripoli's Government of National Accord and its rival, the Libyan National Army in the east. The JMC was endorsed by the United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2510, which in paragraph 4 calls for a permanent ceasefire.

The agreement signed in Geneva under the auspices of the UN envoy did not fully spell out the terms of reference, nor did it specifically indicate how the ceasefire conditions are to be implemented. Above all, the document lacked any ceasefire verification mechanisms or details on who will be checking that terms are being respected.

The idea was that trust and goodwill among JMC members would develop once it moved back home, where discussions will help build consensus among its members, automatically leading to agreement on difficult issues that were not clearly included in the original document. Since October, the JMC has been working from Sirte, in the middle of the country, making some progress in the area of prisoner exchange, for example, while keeping guns silent.

But counting on the goodwill of both parties has so far failed to fully reach a common understanding on how to implement other ceasefire conditions. However, the ceasefire, per se, has been respected so far. For nearly five months now, the frontlines have been quiet, while almost all prisoners have been exchanged under the supervision of a sub-committee.

READ: What awaits Libya's novice prime minister-designate

However, the overall demobilisation of frontline forces has not been implemented, and fighters from both sides still face off along the Sirte-Jufra battle line. However, the JMC succeeded in providing security for members of parliament during their meetings in Sirte to debate the new government of national unity. This is not a JMC responsibility, but it became such when parliament decided to meet in Sirte. However positive this may be, it still falls short of what the ceasefire agreement requires.

For example, paragraph 6 of Article II of the ceasefire document calls for the immediate opening of the highway connecting the east, west, north and south parts of the vast country. Yet, the main coastal road connecting Tripoli-Misrata-Benghazi is still closed, forcing travellers to drive around for an extra two hours just to negotiate the roadblocks. The new prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, himself, was forced to travel to Sirte from his hometown of Misrata by air to attend the 8 March parliament session, which voted overwhelmingly to approve his cabinet.

Libya: Never-ending chaos - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libya: Never-ending chaos – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

On 6 March, Dbeibeh visited the little town of Abu Grain, east of Misrata, where the road is blocked, hoping to open it and become the first traveller to pass through to Sirte; but he was disappointed. Forces there refused to remove barriers and ditches. Rumour has it that the militias loyal to the government in Tripoli asked for $250 million in return for the request.

The prime minister neither confirmed nor denied this in his speech before parliament. Instead, he affirmed: "We hope the road will be open very soon." When asked how soon, he responded: "In the coming few days."

Most importantly, the ceasefire agreement calls on all foreign troops and mercenaries to leave Libya by 23 January. Almost two months later, not a single foreign fighter or mercenary has left.

The JMC has also failed, so far, to agree on a ceasefire verification process, prompting the UN chief, António Guterres, to call for independent non-armed observers to be sent to Libya. On 6 March, a ten-member advanced team of UN observers arrived in the country to assess how their verification mission will work. They might soon get help from the European naval mission if details can be worked out. In an interview with MEMO published on 11 February, Rear Admiral Fabio Agostini, commander of European naval operations reinforcing the arms embargo on Libya, hinted at the idea of providing observers.

Apparently, evacuating foreign fighters from Libya is not up to the JMC to decide. An estimated 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries are thought to be on the ground in at least ten different sites. There are Syrian mercenaries and Turkish regular troops in the west and a couple of thousand from Russia's Wagner Group in the east, including Sirte.

The United Nations and Libya: The habit of putting the cart before the horse

Evacuating them is difficult, requiring "negotiations" with Russia and Turkey, the incoming prime minister disclosed on Tuesday. It seems that neither Ankara nor Moscow are done with Libya, despite the current positive political momentum there manifested in the recent agreement to set up a unity government and launch the unification process.

The JMC, however, scored some success when its sub-committee met with Ali Al-Deeb, commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guard – a military force protecting Libya's vital oil and gas facilities. In the 17 November meeting in the Brega oil terminal, both sides tried to deescalate tensions around the oilproducing region. They discussed restructuring and unification, and how to bring it under one command structure instead of two, as it stands now. But a follow-up meeting is yet to be convened, giving rise to mistrust over the control of the oil region currently controlled by General Khalifa Haftar's forces.

The incoming prime minister will have to be creative in finding ways to speed up the unification issue, as the government coffers depend, almost entirely, on oil and gas revenues.

Indeed, the ceasefire is still holding, but the war is not over yet. Troops might not be firing at each other along the Sirte-Jufra frontline, but the stalemate in the JMC is worrying. If anything, it points to the fact that each side, with the support of its foreign backers, still has second thoughts about the country's entire political process.

Firing may have stopped, but fingers are still on the triggers, ready to fire. The demobilisation of forces and the unification of army commands are areas where the incoming government will be strongly tested.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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