A Return to Libya?

After fading from global attention, it appears Libya has crept back into the consciousness of world leaders. Now, signs suggest regional powers are preparing to intensify their engagement with the troubled country.

SIGNS OF CHANGE

Public Statements

Recently, states (most notably Italy) have begun publicly discussing intervention in Libya. In January, Italy’s Defense Minister explicitly stated that an intervention was needed before the end of spring [June] and that the Italians would assume “a leading role in the Libya mission.”[1] During the months since, potential coalition members have been meeting with Italy.[2]

Diplomatic Actions

Representatives from rival factions after signing the unity government deal. Source: AP.
Representatives from rival factions after signing the unity government deal.
Source: AP.

After more than four years of inaction, the United Nations suddenly arranged a unity government plan between Libya’s two rival governments in December.[3] After initial rejection, the plan was quickly revised and secured majority support in the internationally-recognized legislature.[4] Threats from hardliners have delayed a final vote, but France is now organizing EU sanctions against these hardliners to prevent obstruction.[5] The speed of the negotiations and the EU sanctions indicate a new urgency towards Libya.

Special Forces Actions

Since late 2015 (post–Paris attack), the United States, United Kingdom, and France have quietly increased special forces activity in Libya — developing local contacts, collecting intelligence on ISIL locations, and training local Libyan forces.[6] This activity allegedly includes frontline combat operations with local forces in Benghazi and accompanies a surge in targeted strikes.[7]

Conventional Military Actions

France’s aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
France’s aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In late February, France redirected its aircraft carrier to the Egyptian coast for joint military drills.[8] As noted by Israel’s DEBKAfile, these drills could be preparation for intervention.[9] Drills allow France and Egypt to amass forces next to Libya and rehearse joint actions.

WHY INTERVENE?

Terrorism Threat

November’s Paris attack thrust counter-terrorism to the top of European agendas. Libya is currently one of ISIL’s most powerful strongholds. Libya’s ISIL affiliate has territory, sophisticated arms, and training facilities (see Figure 3 for cities under ISIL affiliate control). For states like Italy and France, which are near enough to be at risk and have experience intervening in Northern Africa (see France’s 2013 intervention in Mali), the pressure to act is strong.[10]

Territory Controlled by Major Factions in Libya (2016) Source: BBC, Le JDD.11
Territory Controlled by Major Factions in Libya (2016) Source: BBC, Le JDD.11

Refugee Threat

Libya’s insecurity has transformed the country into a transit hub for migrants and refugees traveling to Europe (see Figure 3).[11] Libya is not yet a major refugee-producer because its oil-funded welfare system remains functional and battle lines are relatively static. However, if the end of winter brings new offensives that break the stalemate or disrupt oil revenue, the number of displaced Libyans could rise. European states, especially southern states like Italy, have an interest in stemming migration and preventing new refugee surges.

Migration and Refugee Routes to Libya (2014–2015). Source: The New York Times and Frontex
Migration and Refugee Routes to Libya (2014–2015). Source: The New York Times and Frontex

Spillover Threat

As demonstrated by the clashes along the Tunisia–Libya border on March 7 and March 8, Libya poses a spillover risk to its neighbors (all of which are already struggling with homegrown extremists).[12] Both ISIL-aligned and al-Qaeda-aligned factions in Libya have expansionist ambitions that aren’t limited to Libya’s conventional borders. These groups could seize territory outside Libya (replicating ISIL core’s incursion into Iraq from Syria) or franchise existing extremist groups in neighboring states (i.e. establish new affiliates).

Chemical Weapon Threat

The 2011 civil war erupted before Libya finished destroying its declared chemical weapons stockpile and significant caches of chemical weapons remain unaccounted for.[13] Despite joint U.S.–Libyan efforts to destroy chemical weapons and precursor material, extremists have reportedly seized mustard gas and sarin caches.[14]

WHAT TO EXPECT

If an intervention occurs, it will likely take one of three forms:

Option A: Limited Counterterrorism Mission

If concerns about a slippery slope to open-ended war prevail, regional powers may restrict their involvement to targeted counterterrorism strikes. Though it would not provide a long-term solution to Libya’s security vacuum or the migrant problem, this method can address short-term terror, spillover , and chemical weapon threats, while remaining cheap, sustainable, and politically low-risk.

The fate of the new unity government will be a key determinant of the scale of intervention. If the unity government deal succeeds, it will provide the foundation for a viable state and regional powers may feel comfortable contributing greater support (Option B or Option C). If the deal fails, regional powers may not see a path forward for Libya and opt for a counterterrorism-only stopgap approach.

Option B: Proxy Assistance

If an anti-extremist faction capable of securing stable control of Libya emerges (be it the new unity government or another faction, like General Haftar’s forces), regional powers may choose to work through this partner, rather than intervene with a large conventional footprint (Option C).[15] Partner assistance may include training, planning, intelligence, logistics, and economic support. This aligns with the Italian Prime Minister’s recent commitment to the “protection of the government when it takes office in Tripoli, education and training.”[16]

This option is still relatively low cost politically and financially, but can also definitively resolve the terror, refugee, spillover, and chemical weapon threats. The primary shortcoming is that regional powers would cede control of political and security development to local actors. As seen in Maliki-led Iraq, this could undermine long-term stability. Regional powers may also disagree on which factions qualify as acceptable partners. For example, Egypt may be unwilling to support a unity government that grants too much influence to Islamists groups like Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Option C: Ground Campaign

The third foreseeable option is for a conventional peace-building force led by European and/or Egyptian troops. This could be used to support a unity government, if the deal succeeds, or to impose a new government, if the deal fails. This option is the most expensive in terms of human, political, and financial cost s, but it provides the greatest control over Libya’s future and probably the quickest pathway to security. If successful, this option could definitively resolve the terror, refugee, spillover, and chemical weapon threats. However, it could also fuel jihadi propaganda, overstretch U.S. and partner resources, and trap regional powers in another long conflict.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A new intervention is far from guaranteed, but the motives and signals are all there. If plans for a spring intervention progress, we can expect Libya to enter the public discourse during the coming months, as officials move towards building public support. The next front against ISIL may be about to open.


More

[1] Paolo Valentino, “Pinotti: ‘We Must Act in Libya Now, but with Our Allies,” Corriere Della Sera, January 28, 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.corriere.it/english/16_gennaio_28/pinotti-we-must-act-libya-now-but-with-our-allies-ff34c22a-c5c8-11e5-b3b7-699cc16119c2.shtml.

[2] “Harjit Sajjan hints at a Canadian military mission in Libya,” CBC Radio-Canada, 13 February 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thehouse/tom-mulcair-takes-responsibility-for-ndp-s-extremely-cautious-campaign-1.3443873/harjit-sajjan-hints-at-a-canadian-military-mission-in-libya-1.3446865.

[3] “UN proposes unity government to end Libya conflict,” Al Jazeera English, 9 October 2015, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/libya-unity-government-151008223631097.html.

[4] Kareem Fahim, “Libyan Lawmakers Reject U.N.-Backed Unity Government,” The New York Times, 25 January 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/26/world/africa/libyan-lawmakers-reject-un-backed-unity-government.html?_r=1.

“Libya’s presidential council announces revised unity government,” Reuters, 14 February 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/libya-security-politics-idUSL8N15T0WR.

“US, UN Welcome Libyan Lawmakers’ Support of Unity Government,” Voice of America News, 25 February 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/us-un-welcome-libyan-lawmakers-support-of-unity-government/3207328.html.

[5] “US backs Libyan politicians pushing for unity government,” Middle East Eye, 25 February 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/us-backs-libyan-lawmakers-pushing-unity-government-2031353921.

“France says time to act on Libya, will push for EU sanctions,” Reuters, 10 March 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-crisis-france-idUSKCN0WC2VC.

[6] Rami Musa (AP), “Two Libyan military officials say French special forces are helping to battle Islamic State militants in the eastern city of Benghazi,” U.S. News & World Report, 24 February 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2016-02-24/is-briefly-takes-center-of-strategic-libyan-city.

Ruth Sherlock, “British ‘advisors’ deployed to Libya to build anti-Isil cells,” The Telegraph, 27 February 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/libya/12176114/British-advisers-deployed-to-Libya-to-build-anti-Isil-cells.html.

[7] Rami Musa (AP), “Two Libyan military officials say French special forces are helping to battle Islamic State militants in the eastern city of Benghazi,” U.S. News & World Report, 24 February 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2016-02-24/is-briefly-takes-center-of-strategic-libyan-city.

Note: The increase in targeted strikes have included major decapitation missions, like the November killing of Abu Nabil (the leader of ISIL’s Libya affiliate) and the February killing of Noureddine Chouchane (an agent behind the 2015 Tunisia museum and resort attacks).

Eugene Scott, “U.S. airstrike in Libya kills ISIS leader,” CNN, 14 November 2015, accessed 12 November 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/14/politics/airstrike-libya-isis-leader-paris-attacks/.

Greg Botelho and Barbara Starr, “49 killed in U.S. airstrike targeting terrorists in Libya,” CNN, 20 February 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/19/africa/libya-us-airstrike-isis/.

[8] “France joins military exercise with Egypt,” Radio France International, 6 March 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://en.rfi.fr/africa/20160306-france-joins-joint-military-exercise-egypt.

[9] “French nuke carrier for sea-air drill with Egypt ahead of Libya offensive,” DEBKAfile, 29 February 2016, accessed 12 February 2016, http://debka.com/article/25266/French-nuke-carrier-for-sea-air-drill-with-Egypt-ahead-of-Libya-offensive.

[10] Alexis Arieff, Crisis in Mali (CRS Report No. R42664) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2013), 1–4, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R42664.pdf.

[11] Christopher Blanchard, Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy (CRS Report No. RL33142) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2016), 8–10, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33142.pdf.

[12] Farah Samti and Declan Walsh, “Tunisian Clash Spreads Fear That Libyan War Is Spilling Over,” New York Times, 7 March 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/08/world/africa/attack-tunisia-libya-border.html.

Bouazza Ben Bouazza (AP), “5 Dead in New Tunisia Fighting Near Libyan Border,” ABC News, 8 March 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/tunisia-death-toll-55-clashes-libyan-border-37483426.

[13] “Libya: Chemical,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, April 2015, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.nti.org/learn/countries/libya/chemical/.

[14] “Report: Chemical weapons in Libya ‘seized by extremists,’” i24 News, 21 February 2015, 12 March 2016, http://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/africa/61872-150221-report-chemical-weapons-in-libya-seized-by-extremists.

[15] Ghaith Shennib, “Islamic State’s Setback in Libya Bolsters Defiant General,” Bloomberg, 3 March 2016, accessed 13 March 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-03/islamic-state-libya-setback-bolsters-ambition-of-defiant-general.

[16] Paolo Valentino, “Pinotti: ‘We Must Act in Libya Now, but with Our Allies,” Corriere Della Sera, January 28, 2016, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.corriere.it/english/16_gennaio_28/pinotti-we-must-act-libya-now-but-with-our-allies-ff34c22a-c5c8-11e5-b3b7-699cc16119c2.shtml.

 

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