Egypt and the Emiratis have been the most overt supporters of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives
that was elected in June and of retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter
, who leads a coalition of Libyan troops, loyalists to former Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi and a special operations forces unit against Islamist militias in eastern Libya. Saudi Arabia has also supported Hifter, but less visibly. Egypt wants to remove the Islamist threat on its western border, or at the very least ensure that Libya's Islamist actors only play a minimal role in the government. Cairo is wary of militancy spreading across its borders, and Egypt has propped up actors such as Hifter's Operation Dignity forces and the democratically elected House in an attempt to establish a buffer in eastern Libya. Egypt has a limited capacity to address Libyan unrest due to insecurity at home and a dire financial situation, so Cairo has come to depend on the Emiratis and Saudis to back its interests in Libya.
By backing Egypt in Libya, the United Arab Emirates is seizing an opportunity to prevent rival Qatar from regaining leverage in North Africa. Having solidified their influence in Cairo, the Emiratis would rather not see this undermined by instability generated by Islamists in neighboring Libya. Abu Dhabi has a tense relationship with its own domestic Muslim Brotherhood movement, al Islah, and would like to see Qatar's leverage
with Islamist communities held to a minimum. The United Arab Emirates has also joined Egypt in limited airstrikes over Libya, deploying aircraft from Egyptian air bases. These airstrikes have had at best a minimal effect on the situation on the ground.
Striving to turn the security situation around in Libya, Abu Dhabi and Egypt have purportedly turned to Paris for help. France has notable interests in the region — energy, military basing and arms trade — and Cairo and Abu Dhabi are hoping the French are willing to consider a serious intervention. France has repeatedly pushed the issue before the U.N. Security Council, but so far France has stopped far short of anything that suggests a full-scale intervention. Paris did announce Sept. 9 that it could deploy forces based in countries bordering Libya in an attempt to shore up border security, but that would not be a substantial commitment.
France also has the ability to mount a wider air campaign over Libya, but the effects of this would likely be minimal and France would probably avoid carrying the full weight of such an intervention. Other Western allies, such as the United States, have announced support for the Libyan government but have been reluctant to match that support with direct military efforts — anything beyond training elements of the Libyan armed forces. Even Italy — which sits close to Libya, has direct energy interests there and is vulnerable to streams of immigrants seeking refuge on European shores — doesn’t want to overcommit. During the air campaign in 2011, Rome only dedicated a portion of its full capabilities to operations in Libya.
Regional Actors' Limitations
The distance between Qatar and Libya limits Doha's involvement; there are no nearby friendly bases from which it could stage operations. Turkey has offered Qatar some limited backing because Ankara saw Egypt's deposed President Mohammed Morsi as a key ally and would prefer not to see Egypt dislodge another entrenched Islamist polity, this time in Libya. Access to cheap energy and potential infrastructure bids for the firms that support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party have also compelled Turkish involvement, but Libya simply is not high enough of a Turkish priority to justify a level of engagement similar to that of Qatar.
Doha has also likely worked through Sudan to deliver arms to Libya, which puts it in direct competition with Egyptian and Saudi interests for influence in Khartoum. The Sudanese military industrial complex is useful in directing secondhand support of armed groups, but Sudan depends on investments and loans from both Qatar and Saudi Arabia to keep its economy going. Conflicting influences could therefore limit Sudan's usefulness in this particular situation.
Even if the actors backing Tobruk and Hifter's forces want to increase their active support, they would have to act cautiously because their assistance would undermine the credibility of the supported militias in Libya itself. Further, the effect of an air campaign would be fairly limited. Only a few Islamist groups would be targeted so as not to antagonize the Libyan population at large. While this could ease the pressure on Hifter's forces, targeting groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi would only have temporary benefits. The targeted militias could simply deploy forces that are being held back right now because they are not necessary. Any air campaign over Libya would thus be mostly a token intervention with little real chance of stabilizing Libya.
An airstrikes offensive against Islamist militias in cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi would be difficult, and to have a lasting effect it would need to be followed by intense state-building operations that would require a level of commitment nobody is willing to offer. External actors will remain reluctant to move forward with such a campaign.