Published daily by the Lowy Institute

As threat from ISIS in Libya grows, West may lose sight of bigger picture

As threat from ISIS in Libya grows, West may lose sight of bigger picture
Published 10 Mar 2016 

The death of two Italian construction workers, kidnapped by ISIS last July, in a raid in the western Libyan city of Sabratha last week has ramped up the pressure on Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to intervene militarily in Libya. John Phillips, the US Ambassador in Rome, even suggested Italy had committed up to 5000 troops to an international force under its leadership in the wake of the raid.

Alleged US Special Forces in Libya, December 2015 (Libyan Air Forces/Facebook)

Prime Minister Renzi dismissed Phillip's suggestions and stressed military intervention would only be considered upon the request of Libya's new unity government. Yet contingency planning for an intervention is well underway.

According to US Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, the Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAF) commander, a Coalition Coordination Center has already been established in Rome. Meanwhile, American, British and French special-operations forces have been deployed to Libya, where they are likely gathering intelligence and vetting local factions to support in an anti-ISIS surge. A contingent of 50 Italian special forces is scheduled to join them shortly. The flagship of the French Navy, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, has also been redeployed to the Mediterranean from the Gulf. 

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon has presented President Obama with 'the most detailed set of military options yet . . .  including a range of potential airstrikes against training camps, command centers, munitions depots and other militant targets.' Already, US F-15E strike fighters, operating from the UK, have been targeting alleged ISIS leaders in Libya. On 13 November, a US airstrike killed the senior ISIS leader in Libya, Abu Nabil, an Iraqi national. Last month, US airstrikes targeted a training camp near Sabratha likely killing Noureddine Chouchane who is suspected to be behind the ISIS-claimed attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and a beach resort near Sousse. [fold]

A request by the Pentagon for an additional $200 million in funding in 2017 for counter-terrorism operations in northern Africa is an indication the US will further extend its drone war to Libya. In January, Italy approved the use of its Sigonella air base in Sicily for 'defensive' US armed drone flights aimed at protecting US special forces operations in Libya. While this does not require any international authorisation, an intervention of the kind considered, including offensive air strikes, training of local military and police officers, and protection of critical infrastructure, would. Experts have argued that a UN Security Council Resolution would provide the coalition with such legal cover by calling 'upon all Member States to respond urgently to requests for assistance from the Government of National Accord for the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement.'

The UN-backed effort to create such a unity government is thus not merely about creating political legitimacy, but also a legal basis for an intervention. So far, a vote of confidence in the internationally recognised Libyan House of Representatives has not been held due to a lack of quorum. However, a vote of confidence would be no guarantee the new government would be able to operate from Libya let alone exercise authority over the country's militias.

According to insiders, UN Special Envoy for Libya, Martin Kobler, is ready to move forward without a vote of confidence. The international community is anxious not to repeat its mistake and allow ISIS to grow until it is too big to be defeated by limited military action. Also, fears that Libya's war is spilling over to neighbouring countries have been growing. On Monday, deadly clashes between security forces and suspected ISIS gunmen near the border between Libya and Tunisia left at least 55 people dead. Paradoxically, the prospect of foreign intervention remains a source of concern for neighbouring countries that fear that military action may trigger an outflow of ISIS fighters. While Tunisia has completed a fence along the border with Libya, countries such as Niger and Chad have been grappling with ISIS fighters heading south.

The real risk, however, is that in their frantic effort to stem ISIS from metastasising, the international community could lose focus on the wider conflict in the country, and the role the Libyan Political Dialogue could play in tackling other drivers, in particular the struggle over Libya's oil and gas industry and state finances. A petro state that pays the salaries of militia members with decreasing oil revenues and rapidly depleting financial resources risks mutiny by militias, popular revolt and ultimately further chaos. 

In order to avoid a further deepening of the conflict, parallel tracks to the main negotiations in the Libyan Political Dialogue, particularly on security arrangements, short-term economic policy and management of key institutions, as argued for by Libya analysts such as Claudia Gazzini, are crucial. Without it, a limited military intervention may well have to tackle more than one crisis.

You may also be interested in