After the ‘Liberation’ of Benghazi, What Next?
On 5 July, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar declared that the Libyan National Army (LNA) had fully liberated Benghazi from the coalition of jihadists including the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), Ansar al-Sharia and Islamic State (ISIS). However, skirmishes have continued to take place between the LNA and fleeing jihadists since the official liberation announcement, with at least 20 LNA fighters killed and many more injured.
UNSMIL and the ambassadors of several Western countries praised the LNA’s victory over jihadist groups in Benghazi. Recently, there has been an increase in levels of international engagement with military and political actors in eastern Libya and this is expected to continue in the coming weeks. On 3 July, the German ambassador to Libya visited the House of Representatives (HoR) President Ageelah Saleh in Tubruq, then met with Haftar in Benghazi on 4 July. On 9 July, Italy inaugurated a visa centre in Tubruq while the British Council is expected to reopen an IELTS centre in Benghazi soon. Benghazi residents are also putting pressure on HoR to relocate its headquarters from Tubruq to Benghazi to take up its official constitutional seat in the city now that it is ‘liberated’. Benghazi’s Benina airport is scheduled to fully reopen on 15 July and Benghazi’s port is also expected to reopen soon.
On 8 July, Haftar traveled to Abu Dhabi where he met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. They reportedly discussed joint cooperation between the two countries in combating extremism and terrorist organisations. Haftar has visited the UAE several times in recent months, including for a meeting hosted by Abu Dhabi between Haftar and Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj in early May.
It is as yet unclear what Haftar’s next steps will be, but it is symbolically important that his first post-‘victory’ visit was to the UAE. The visit signals Haftar’s gratitude for the UAE’s help in this fight – including the supply of military aircraft in violation of the UN arms embargo, according to a recent UN report — and his increased military cooperation with them. It also makes it more likely that Haftar will feel emboldened and even encouraged to continue his military campaign to eventually ‘liberate’ Tripoli as he has threatened so many times before, a move which would likely destabilize the country further and derail tentative political rapprochement efforts.
Furthermore, although full victory against the jihadists means that safety and security will likely improve in the city in the short-medium term, threats and instability are likely to remain, especially from retaliatory suicide bombings and IEDs. Furthermore, the scale of the destruction and warfare in the largely demolished city centre and battle areas of Sabri, Souq al-Hout and Sidi Akribish means these areas are littered with IEDs, booby traps and mines, as well as being contaminated by sewage and pollution. Clean up operations could take months.