Five years after the start of the revolution that would lead to war against Gaddafi, Libya is in chaos. Libya remains divided between two governments, which are fighting for what remains of oil revenues. A given Libyan militia, one of hundreds that have mushroomed in the country since it was ‘liberated’ – no thanks to NATO forces – controls some oil-producing facilities. Some of these militias have decided to pledge allegiance to Islamic State. This has given the impression that Islamic State has moved into Libyan territory with increasing intensity over the past months. In February, the United States launched an attack against alleged ISIS fighters, hiding in Sabratah, some 65 km west of Tripoli. The targets were suspected of playing a key role in last summer’s attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, targeting British tourists on the beach. Yet, whether Sabratah is an ISIS ‘safe house’ rather than a stronghold is another matter. The target was Noureddine Chouchane. He along with 41 other suspected ISIS militants are said to have been killed in the attack near Sabratah. There were no confirmations
These militias know the territory and understand the role that oil has played in the economy. Unlike in Syria, where they protect oil wells for production and smuggling, in Libya ‘ISIS’ militias destroy related facilities to create economic problems for the government. In so doing, they prevent national reconciliation and maintain the state of anarchy that allows militias to grow in strength. Since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya has faced lawlessness, civil war, tribalism and now Islamist terrorism. The country has collapsed into an epochal crisis that might be likened to Somalia on steroids. But, Libya’s high quality, sweet crude, draws a lot more international interest than Somalia. ISIS wants oil production to stop entirely. Sabratah, where the US launched an attack against ISIS fighters on February 19, is a key location determining the control of oil installations in western Libya.
A Unity Government in Name Alone
Meanwhile, on March 14 – it is not clear how because the Tobruk government did not vote – the National Unity Government of Libya officially came into effect. Europe and the UN are considering enforcing sanctions against those Libyan factions that reject the new “unity” government. In fact, this is hardly a unity government at all. This is a government which the Egypt-backed Tobruk parliament opposes. It has much more support in Tripoli from Turkey-backed Muslim Brotherhood militias. Closer to Paris, London, and Washington, the national unity government recognition has swung the door open for another round of Western military intervention in Libya. The first campaign helped to remove Gaddafi. The potential forthcoming one would be a sectarian intervention. It would necessarily support one against many other and opposing sides. Russia has already requested, through the Foreign Ministry, that any armed intervention, even bombing or the use of special forces in support of said ‘unity’ government be approved by a UN Security Council vote.
The Fight against Islamic State in Libya
As for the Islamic State in Libya, a Western military campaign would be nothing short of a gift. The self-proclaimed upholders of the Caliphate would view it as an armed invasion of Libya’s remains by “crusaders” (Italian, French and other Europeans) and “corrupt apostates” (plus various Arab or African forces), which would fall right into the ISIS/militias’ trap. On paper, a counter-insurgency operation to be developed in desert territory five times the size of France in utter geopolitical chaos sounds bad enough. In practice a military operation, where Western forces, needing as Field Marshal Rommel would observe, “many tanks,” to confront dozens of bands and militias of various color and ethnicity, local or regional but surely armed to the teeth holds even less promise.
A military campaign in Libya would look a little like the Soviet or American wars in Afghanistan. Rather, it would unfold in an even more confused context – if this were even possible. The Europeans would have fewer means than either one of the superpowers. Like the Americans though, the Europeans would have no clear or achievable objectives. If the goal is to stop the spread of Islamic State in Libya, with an eye on keeping the terrorist group away from European shores, it is a mistake. Contrary to the way the media has presented the situation, ISIS has not invaded Libya or moved in. What is much more likely is that some already embattled and sufficiently violent factions now pursue their slaughter under the “Caliphate” brand. There is no word as to what official, if any, links exist between the main branch and Islamic State in Libya. Still, the ISIS brand can help these local militias gain in visibility, recruits, and influence.
For historic and even geographic reasons, Italy would play a central role in a European intervention in Libya. Even if Italy’s efforts were limited to air strikes, NATO and other allies would be using bases in Sicily to launch missiles, drones, and aircraft. For Italy, the intervention would be a very bad idea. The Libyans have not forgotten the Italian colonial past in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. “All that we aspire to is to have the new Italians here in my hands,” tweeted one of the most followed bloggers from Misratah – a city split among several factions. The Islamist would love to avenge Omar Mukhtar and other Libyan martyrs (who fought against Italian colonialism in Libya during in the 1930s). Meanwhile, even as the EU and UN have supported the National Unity government, the military intervention would end up helping the Tobruk government more. The self-proclaimed general with ambiguous credentials, Khalifa Heftar, backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and other Gulf petro monarchies, effectively leads that government. Heftar has exploited the “war on terror” as a method to gain support from Western governments and public opinion. In the event of an intervention, he would sit on the sidelines while Western forces take out his opponents: not necessarily ISIS, but the militias in Misratah and other groups he has labeled as “Islamist.”
Such adventurism exposes Europe to more rather than less risk of jihadist terrorism. It would be best if Europe limited itself to more indirect action. If it really wants to do something to help the new government of national unity – itself at risk with unclear chances of survival – it should avoid fresh outbreaks of war which it would have no hope of winning. It would be better for the EU to continue controlling the flow of money coming to the armed groups. It could hurt the smuggling and trade networks that facilitate the movement of funds, arms, and jihadists. In Iraq and Syria, Americans hit some of the refineries and plants controlled by the “Caliphate.” In Libya, they should leave the refineries and oil wells standing. However, they could sink, before they leave, the boats that human smugglers use to take people on risky trips across the Mediterranean, making money off thousands of desperate people.
Therefore, despite frequent appeals for international intervention in Libya, the so-called Libyan International Assistance Mission (LIAM) is doomed to fail before it even begins. Libya’s national unity government has risky few days ahead. It has not yet won the confidence of the parliament of Tobruk, and the Islamist militias that control Tripoli do not intend to relinquish their authority or weapons. Moreover, the two governments in the west and east that must agree to unity have little to gain from direct Western intervention. They would rather the West supply them with arms, training, and air support to fight militias aligned with Islamic State. Both are decisively opposed to receiving foreign troops on the ground, a development that could influence which of the two prevail in their own fight for Libya.
Some sources also indicate that the secret (though revealed by the media) military support provided by France, Britain, and Egypt to Tobruk and the presence of special forces or contractors Anglo-American support for the militias of Misratah have strengthened the tribal camps encouraging the marginalization of the new government. There is one hopeful sign. In a recent interview of President Obama published in The Atlantic, the US president criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy for pressing the use of military intervention in Libya.
“You have massive protests against Qaddafi (Gaddafi),” the president tells Atlantic reporter Jeffrey Goldberg. “You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya. Benghazi is a focal point for the opposition regime…. You’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”