Almost four years after NATO member states and Arab allies began launching the airstrikes that helped overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, those same powers are again discussing an international intervention in Libya. But this time the target would be the Islamic State movement, against which a similar coalition is already fighting in Syria and Iraq.
In Libya, Gaddafi is gone, but his legacy is very much alive: State institutions barely exist, while the former dictator’s security architecture — a collection of loyal militias and a weak army — has further fragmented, leaving hundreds of armed groups engaged in a new civil war that has claimed 3,000 lives and brought human rights violations by all sides.
The civil war is reflected in competing governments, one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk. Only the latter has international recognition, although it currently controls less than half of the national territory and only part of one of the three major cities.
The Tobruk-based coalition includes former officials of Gaddafi’s state, secularists and federalists; the Tripoli-based “Operation Libya Dawn” includes militias from the city of Misrata, parts of the Amazigh — often called Berbers, a term many find offensive — community and various self-described “Islamist” parties. But these coalitions are fast fragmenting.
The “Dawn” camp is weakened by divisions over whether to join a U.N.-sponsored dialogue seeking a political solution, while over in Tobruk, rebel military leader General Khalifa Heftar is pursuing a slow motion coup against Prime Minister Abdullah al Thinni. Heftar, who last year declared “the main enemy is the Muslim Brotherhood” and launched a war to purge all likeminded groups from Libya, is now demanding appointment as head of a military council that would effectively substitute the existing government.
Amid this chaos, armed groups prosper. Some of them are allied with the Tripoli government: Ansar al Sharia, an organization listed as a terrorist organization associated with Al-Qaeda by the U.N. and accused of murdering U.S. ambassador Chris Stephens in Benghazi in 2012, has a temporary alliance with Operation Libya Dawn in order to fight Heftar. But Ansar is losing members to the local chapter of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Libyan branch of ISIL has grown rapidly over the past three months, having established a significant presence in at least three major cities beyond its birthplace in Derna: It has bombed several facilities in Tripoli, controls at least one checkpoint in Benghazi, and occupied several administrative buildings in Sirte in the heart of the so-called “oil crescent.”
Three factors explain the rapid rise of ISIL in Libya:
- a tradition of Libyans answering the call to arms from abroad, which became evident when many Libyan fighters joined the anti-Soviet fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s;
- personal ties to the leadership of ISIL among Libyans who have fought in Syria and then returned to Libya in the past year; and
- the combination of a vacuum in state authority and the presence of oil fields — a favorite ISIL source of revenue.
ISIL in Libya appears to have made a calculated provocation by murdering 21 Egyptian copts last weekend, which prompted Egyptian airstrikes in coordination with Hiftar’s small air force on Sunday night. Egypt’s intervention in the Libyan civil war is not new; the novelty is that it is now public.
Last August, Egypt was accused by U.S. officials quoted anonymously in the New York Times of conducting airstrikes on the outskirts of Tripoli in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates. Cairo has also provided training to the Tobruk government, and the past weekend’s escalation is likely to end Egypt’s reticence to supply arms to Tobruk. Libya now presents itself as a matter of domestic security for Egypt.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wants diplomatic backing, however, and has asked for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss a new international intervention in Libya. Italy, the former colonial power, has offered to take the lead in any U.N.-sanctioned mission in Libya.
But there are two very different models of possible U.N. military interventions in Libya. One would be a peace-enforcement mission supporting the U.N.-led dialogue organized by Spanish diplomat Bernardino Leon. Despite its slow start, this dialogue has recently gained momentum with support from more pragmatic elements in both Tobruk and Tripoli. In order to succeed, Leon’s dialogue would need to create a national unity government capable of taking control of government institutions in Tripoli. Such a government would provide a credible interlocutor for outside powers and potentially forge a national consensus necessary for an effective fight against ISIL. With the right political makeup, it could also potentially count on some of the most important armed groups in the country.
Under such a deal, a U.N. peace-enforcing mission would likely be required to replace politically aligned armed groups at government buildings and key infrastructure points such as airports, to allow a new government to function.
Such a scenario may be a goal of the U.N. political dialogue on the ground, but it’s an ideal-case outcome for which Europeans, anxious over the rise of ISIL, are unlikely to wait. Recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen have a created a greater sense of urgency in Europe, where governments are more likely to cast intervention in Libya as part of a wider campaign against ISIL.
The more likely U.N.-mandated intervention, then, will be one focused on fighting ISIL rather than on ending the civil war. Such an intervention, which Egypt is requesting, would be made in response to a request by the Tobruk government, which would effectively link it with the Libyan civil war. The Tripoli-based council has already condemned the Egyptian airstrikes and is unlikely to acquiesce in an intervention requested by the rival cabinet.
Absent a political solution to the civil war, a new Libya intervention could in fact exacerbate that conflict and even potentially create new allies for ISIL.