assessments

In Libya, the West Heeds the Call of Intervention

10 MINS READJan 19, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
In Libya, the West Heeds the Call of Intervention
Members of forces loyal to the General National Congress prepare for battle against the Islamic State near Sirte in 2015.
(MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • A Western coalition is preparing to launch an offensive against the Islamic State in Libya.
  • Even so, Libya's foreign patrons will continue to support the U.N.-backed political agreement.
  • Deeply entrenched differences among Libyan militias will impede political stability.
  • Even if an intervention successfully dislodges the Islamic State, it will fail to materially improve the country's security conditions.

Though the fight against the Islamic State has many theaters, the front line of the conflict was drawn years ago in Syria and Iraq, devoid as they were of governments that could effectively control the whole of their respective territories. But as the Islamic State loses ground in Syria and Iraq, the group has found a home in another country — a country arguably as bereft of central authority, a country that may, too, be the object of international military intervention in the coming weeks. That country is Libya, which is now home to as many as 5,000 militants loyal to the Islamic State.

In some ways, Libya was a logical place for the militants to end up. After all, eastern Libya has been an important arms exporter to Syrian rebels since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. They began to arrive in early 2014, though many were simply returning to their home country after having fought and trained in Syria and Iraq. They arrived in the eastern city of Darnah but have since spread throughout the country, establishing a presence in Nofaliya, Ghardabiya and most noticeably Sirte.

The Islamic State has also encroached on Libya's oil-producing regions. And even though most of the ports in these regions are currently offline, Libyan authorities cannot afford to let their only viable source of revenue fall into the hands of extremists. Without that revenue, they would be unable to fund the social services that would instill the kind of loyalty that keeps their constituents from joining groups like the Islamic State in the first place. Authorities cannot contain the Islamic State on their own, hence the calls for international intervention.

Preparations Are Underway

And it is a call that several countries seem willing to heed. Libya's proximity to Europe makes Islamic State advances a security concern for Western countries, particularly Mediterranean countries. Not only would Libya be ideally suited as a launching pad for terrorist attacks, greater conflict could produce even more refugees, which Europe has struggled to effectively manage. Moreover, Western countries are concerned that the Islamic State could further destabilize nearby countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.

Italy and Spain are particularly concerned about how Libyan insecurity would affect their oil and natural gas interests. Currently, the Islamic State has not infringed on the areas in which Italy and Spain operate, but that could change if the group starts to advance westward. For these reasons, it appears increasingly likely that a military intervention is in the offing, but the exact shape and scope of the intervention would depend on how rapidly the security situation deteriorates and how effectively a national unity government in Libya legitimizes its leadership.

What is clear is that, for now, the military intervention would focus on empowering Libya's indigenous capabilities. As with other Western-led anti-Islamic State operations, the mission would be to train and advise Libyan security forces and to improve intelligence collection. Limited targeted airstrikes and support from special operations units, particularly against high-value targets, can also be expected.

Preparations are already underway. Reports from Jan. 4 indicate that the British Special Air Service will work alongside some 1,000 British troops who would in turn be supported by 6,000 U.S. and European military personnel. Italy would lead the operation. In fact, the Italian air force has already deployed four AMX fighter aircraft and a Predator drone to Sicily's Trapani airport. Increased aerial activity suggests that Italy is enhancing the role it plays in conducting reconnaissance and collecting imagery. On Jan. 18, Germany's defense minister also raised the prospect of participating in a military operation in Libya.

Of course, foreign military aid in Libya is nothing new. In 2015, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes in support of the Libyan National Army, the powerful militia aligned with the eastern government in Tobruk. In mid-2015, the United States launched two airstrikes in Ajdabiya that killed two Islamic State leaders and one airstrike in Darnah a few months later. But as modestly successful as the airstrikes were, they could not by themselves dislodge the Islamic State, something that would require a functional ground force.

Members of the international coalition understand as much, and the way they create that ground force will be informed by lessons that were learned in Syria and Iraq. It was in this terrain that Western troops most recently fought a costly and inefficient counterinsurgency, which revealed the importance of engaging local actors and empowering domestic security forces. Accordingly, the coalition will try to work with regional partners to collect intelligence on potential targets, but the focus will be on uniting disparate militant groups in a broad anti-Islamic State operation.

If the Western coalition can be expected to act more intelligently in Libya, it can also be expected to act more rapidly. Geopolitically, there are simply fewer impediments to intervention. Unlike in Syria and Iraq, foreign patrons do not see Libya as a theater for a larger proxy war in the Middle East, so the consequences for supporting one group over another are less dire. Geographically, Libya's flat, open terrain lends itself more easily to troop movement and precision airstrikes than the mountainous areas of Syria.

An Example of Disunity

But several things need to happen inside Libya before the coalition can get started. Western countries need a united government that at least theoretically represents the entire country so that there is a group with which the coalition can coordinate its operations. It is little surprise, then, that several countries have supported the acceleration of unity talks between the House of Representatives, the internationally recognized government in eastern Libya, and the General National Congress, the Tripoli-based body that the West believes undermines the authority of the House of Representatives and thus the legitimacy of a military intervention. While the West would prefer a government that effectively consolidates all the political and military forces operating in Libya, it would settle for any entity that enables them to build a security apparatus in which the country's various militias voluntarily participate. 

The U.N.-brokered unity government, which will be known as the Government of National Accord, is slated to begin its mandate in late January. Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj will govern with a presidential council that aims to gain buy-in from different regional and tribal factions. Notably, the General National Congress and House of Representatives are supposed to approve Government of National Accord members, casting doubt on the possibility of the government's implementation.

And therein lies the difficulty of cobbling together a cohesive security force in a country as politically diverse as Libya. A successful intervention depends on at least tacit support from Libya's militias, but those militias have different long-term objectives and political orientations. Frequently the only thing they share is a historical hatred for one another. Oil revenues pay militia salaries, so their members tend to fight one another for primacy of oil infrastructure and facilities. Still, most groups understand the long-term threat the Islamic States poses to their financial well-being — an understanding that may well lead to a higher degree of cooperation.

The question of who would lead a unified military perfectly exemplifies Libya's political disunity. The natural choice is Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who heads the Libyan National Army in the east. He is supported by several eastern cities, including Benghazi, Bayda, Tobruk, and Marj, as well in the west, thanks to his strategic alliance with the city of Zentan. More important, he was the military commander under the House of Representatives in Tobruk.

But he is decidedly less popular in other corners of the country. Some in the west believe Hifter is a counter-revolutionary who wants to rule Libya as forcefully as Gadhafi once did. His forces will therefore struggle to work with General National Congress-aligned militias in the west, including collectives such as Libya Dawn and Libya Shield, both of which have been subject to Hifter's anti-Islamist operations; Libya Dawn comprises Islamist and non-Islamist groups and is particularly active in the west, whereas Libya Shield is more active in central and eastern Libya. Though some General National Congress-aligned militias have thrown their support behind the unity government, many have not, and they will have a hard time supporting a government if its military is led by someone they despise.

Hifter is also unpopular among the country's federalists, who, unlike the general, believe Libya should separated into constituent states. This is problematic because a military intervention against the Islamic State would necessarily involve support from the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which protects export terminals around As Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Marsa el Brega and Zueitina. The Petroleum Facilities Guard is led by Ibrahim Jadhran, a staunch federalist who has clashed with Hifter in the past. Jadhran controls Libya's central oil ports and thus determines which of Libya's national oil companies can move their oil to market, giving him considerable political power. Western military support for Petroleum Facilities Guard supporters could give Jadhran even more influence over the unity government's national oil company contracts and its revenue distribution. Put simply, the two leaders will struggle to work together, as will all the other groups that possess a vested interest in Libya's future.

Narrow Parameters

Even if all of Libya's militias were willing to unite, several other factors will prevent them from becoming a viable military. First, foreign resources such as money, equipment and training will necessarily change the country's balance of power. Newly strengthened militias, for example, may choose to battle their traditional rivals. This kind of shake-up could create new bids for power in opposition to the fledgling unity government.

Second, foreign governments will have a hard time deciding which groups they will back, especially when a lot of those groups practice jihadism. While virtually every group in Libya can agree to rid the country of the Islamic State, they cannot agree on the status of al Qaeda-aligned groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Darnah and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. Granted, these groups have been effective in combating the Islamic State, but the West will nonetheless have a hard time justifying arming and training them. As conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan show, however, arming, training and funding these kinds of groups is, to a degree, inevitable. Backing any group or groups will be an even more daunting task considering Hifter's intransigent view on virtually all Islamist militias. In turn, the political entities these militias back could be forced to withdraw their support from the unity government.

Last, a foreign military operation against the Islamic State will damage Libya's oil and natural gas sector — the government's sole reliable source of revenue. To realize its hydrocarbons potential, Libya needs strong, functional institutions such as major national oil companies and the Central Bank of Libya, and their survival depends largely on the security forces that protect them, namely the Petroleum Facilities Guard. But that introduces the very problem international coalition members want to avoid: inciting a conflict between rival powers. The prospects of success, even within the narrow parameters of the impending intervention, seem low.

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