Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

More military intervention?

Talk of a new Western military intervention in Libya is being driven by the diverse motivations of the actors involved, writes Mattia Toaldo

Al-Ahram Weekly

Is the West ready for another military intervention in Libya, four years after Operation Unified Protector that led to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime?

According to the UK newspaper The Times, “hundreds of British troops are being lined up to go to Libya” as part of an international mission that would include personnel from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States.

This operation would help a Libyan government of national consensus to be formed through the UN-led dialogue, but there would also be a “counter-terrorism element” in which Libyan troops would take the lead, even though US or French air strikes could still happen.

According to the article, published on 1 August, the operation could kick off by the end of this month. To those who have been following Libya over the past year, this is not necessarily a new idea.

The idea that the EU would contribute to Libya’s security once a unity government was formed was first proposed officially by the summit of Europe’s foreign ministers in February. It has been clear to all parties that when and if a unity government was created, it would be in a position to ask for protection by an international force.

Libya lacks a genuinely functioning and neutral army. What is known as the Libyan National Army (LNA) is in fact the remnants of the old Gaddafi-era armed forces, together with many civilians, and is under the command of the anti-Islamist Khalifa Heftar.

In the event of a national-unity deal, the militias now in control of Tripoli would have to withdraw. However, it is unlikely that they would accept to be replaced by the LNA, so a neutral international force would have to guarantee the security of government buildings and main transportation hubs, starting with the airports and the port in Tripoli.

Given the long time lapse needed to create a full UN peacekeeping force, initially there would need to be a “stabilisation force” constituted by a coalition of the willing and authorised by the UN Security Council at the request of the Libyan government of national consensus.

But it is one thing to deploy a stabilisation force tasked with protecting facilities in Tripoli and quite another to extend to Libya the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group that is being conducted by the multinational coalition in Syria and Iraq.

Militarily, the two types of missions involve different resources: some thousands of ground troops in the case of the stabilisation force, and a more complex deployment of special operations and air forces should Libya becomes another battleground of the anti-IS coalition.

Politically, the stabilisation force would come into being only when there is wide agreement among all the Libyan factions, including the now reluctant General National Congress (GNC) that controls the capital. In the case of the anti-IS operation, the risk of being dragged into the local civil war, as recent developments in Syria demonstrate, remains high.

In fact, two aspirations coexist in the major Western countries. On the one hand, the British, French and Italian leaders — David Cameron, François Hollande and Matteo Renzi — all feel the pressure to do something to counter the potential threat of seeing IS in the Mediterranean, just 200 miles from Lampedusa.

On the other hand, there is a need to give breathing space and security to a Libyan national unity government so that it can fill the power gap that has created opportunities for IS in the country. Coincidentally, such a government could become a real partner for European operations against people smuggling.

Italy could take the lead in this operation, as was suggested by Italy’s Minister of Defence Roberta Pinotti in an interview in February. Italy is interested in fighting IS and in preventing migration flows as much as it is in supporting the transition.

Other countries have also shown concern over the expansion of IS in Libya, and France is already very engaged in North Africa with Operation Barkhane to counter terrorist groups throughout the Sahel.

There is a major French base in Madama in Niger close to the border with Libya and on one of the major smuggling routes across the Sahara. French Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian said as early as January that it was time to act in Libya by “shifting Operation Barkhane” northwards. France is concerned that the jihadist groups that have been chased out of Mali may have ended up in southern Libya.

The US has not hid its concern at the sprawling jihadist networks in North Africa, particularly those linked with IS. Fewer than two months ago, an American air strike unsuccessfully tried to kill the Al-Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and in recent weeks the US has reportedly sought to establish a drone base in North Africa close to Libya.

Finally, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has reportedly ordered plans to be drafted to strike at IS in Libya following the attack in Sousse in Tunisia where 30 British tourists were killed by jihadists apparently trained in Libya. According to the Times article, however, the British intervention would focus on training the Libyans to fight IS.

These concerns over the presence of IS in Libya and the stated willingness to use force against it should not, however, be confused with discussion of the creation of a stabilisation force to support a Libyan unity government. The fight against IS could take more “informal” routes through occasional air strikes and special operations.

UN Security Council Resolution 2214, approved in March, “urges member states to combat by all means” IS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations in Libya. Such operations could be a response to the simultaneous rise of IS-related attacks stemming from Libya and the impasse in the negotiations for a national consensus government.

On the other hand, a stabilisation force may not be around the corner precisely because of the difficulties in forming a consensus government. UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon must still win the support of the GNC for the deal that all the other Libyan factions signed on 11 July.

After that, negotiations on the names of the new ministers can begin, along with on the “annexes” of the deal regulating the functioning of financial institutions and the new state council that will replace the GNC and act as a consultative chamber. This process could take several weeks, and the expiry of Leon’s mandate on 15 September looms ever closer.

The crucial question, though, is whether international intervention in Libya would work. The task of a stabilisation force would be more limited and therefore more achievable, being to guarantee the security of various installations in case of a consensus agreement.

This would not guarantee the success of the transition, but if properly devised and with the agreement of all the factions it could be a strong element of support for the new government.

As for the anti-IS coalition scenario, this would be part of a much more worrying development, one in which no realistic political agreement was in sight and in which the West aimed simply at containing the jihadist groups.

In order to be effective it would need to take place in tandem with some form of implicit agreement between the major Libyan armed groups that they would fight IS rather than each other. IS in Libya is not as powerful as it is in Syria or Iraq, so the military strategy against it would have to be different.

Finally, there is the worst-case-but-not-unlikely scenario in which, faced with GNC stubbornness, the international community works with a “unity government” that does not include those now controlling the capital.

This new government would try to conquer Tripoli by military means, counting on the meltdown of the coalition of militias that now control the city, some of which have made clear their opposition to GNC hardliners. This could lead to either open fighting or extended violence in a part of Libya that in recent months has benefitted from an extended web of local ceasefires.

Ultimately, this “unity government without the GNC” could ask for either an international military intervention or, more likely, the lifting of the UN arms embargo. It is not clear how the West would respond, or whether the response would be a united one.


The writer is a policy fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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