Can Egypt drag Europe into a new Libyan intervention?
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The drums for an international military intervention in Libya against the Islamic State (IS) group are beating from Cairo to Rome. But four years after a NATO-led intervention toppled Muammar Gaddafi, is the West ready for another Libyan mission?
Egyptians woke up Monday to blanket coverage of their country’s latest version of shock and awe, with footage of F-16 fighter jets rolling out of hangars in the dead of night, heading for bombing runs against Islamic State (IS) targets in neighbouring Libya.
As state and private TV stations broadcast a soaring Ministry of Defense loop of the mighty Egyptian military at work, a male narrator informed viewers in somber, deep tones that the nation was at war. “Honour the nation,” intoned the voiceover. “This is the slogan of men who ask for death as a sacrifice for the nation. They are men who do not know the meaning of impossible.”
But by Monday evening, as the euphoria of Egypt’s retaliation for the IS group’s killing of 21 Coptic Christians settled, reality had started to settle in. And with it, the realization that in Libya today, impossible is not just a possibility, it’s a certainty.
With rival governments barely holding together coalitions in two Libyan port cities across the Mediterranean coastline, a motley mix of Islamist groups competing with local militias for power, and an under-populated southern desert expanse providing ideal jihadist training ground, Libya today is a mess of impossible proportions.
The lack of viable options – and absence of a cohesive international or regional strategy – became apparent hours after the Egyptian Defense Ministry announced the latest strikes in Libya against IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL) targets.
As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi worked the phones, pushing his French and Italian counterparts for a robust response at the UN to the Libyan crisis, the UN Security Council by Monday night had done little more than issue a statement condemning the weekend slaughter of the Egyptian Christians in the Libyan city of Sirte.
The next day, Sisi kept up the pressure in an interview with French radio Europe 1 when he urged the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution allowing for a military intervention in Libya.
Sisi’s interview came as French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Cairo to sign a €5.2 billion contract for the sale of 24 French Rafale fighter jets.
Four years after French Rafale jets targeted the Muammar Gaddafi regime, France – and the rest of Europe – is waking to the cost of abandoning a country in the throes of post-revolutionary euphoria and expecting a nation to magically set itself on the democratic path with little international help.
With the hopes of the so-called Arab Spring crushed in a jihadist winter of discontent, Western Europe has already started suffering blowback from the latest conflicts in the Middle East. Libya, a country that lies just a short boat ride away from southern European shores, is a particularly significant threat. threat.
The risks are especially high for Italy, Libya’s former colonial power, which relies heavily on Libyan oil and natural gas to meet its energy requirements.
The drums of military intervention have been beating loud in recent days in Rome, where Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Italy was “ready to fight” to help secure Libya and Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told an Italian TV station on Sunday that, “If in Afghanistan we sent 5,000 men, in a country like Libya which is much closer to home, and where the risk of deterioration is much more worrisome for Italy, our mission and commitment could be significant, even numerically.''
The problem though is that in its rush to address the lack of attention and a post-revolutionary plan in Libya, Europe – egged on by an ever assertive Sisi – risks dragging the international community into yet another shortsighted intervention in the North African nation.
Airstrikes won’t solve a jihadi problem on the ground
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk, Mohamed Eljarh, a Foreign Policy columnist and analyst at the Atlantic Council, worried that a push for an international intervention would not ultimately serve Libyan interests.
“The problem is Libya is becoming less of a Libyan problem and more of a regional and international problem and I’m not sure how helpful that would be for Libya and Libyans,” said Eljarh. “The international community is sending mixed messages, there’s no clear idea of who to support, and the Egyptian airstrikes are not in the interests of Libyans or Egyptians. It’s just a reaction from an Egypt feeling pressured to act.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry left for New York Monday in a bid to secure backing for military intervention from UN Security Council. On Wednesday, Shoukry is expected to push the Egyptian position at an international summit on terrorism in Washington.
But some experts, such as Wolfram Lacher from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, caution against an international rush to support Egypt’s Libya plan. “I don’t think an intervention would provide a solution,” said Lacher. “If the international community is trying to intervene in the current situation with no viable Libyan interlocutor or partner, air strikes are certainly not going to solve the jihadi problem. What’s needed is action on the ground – and that requires the formation of a Libyan coalition to lead the fight against jihadis. It requires the formation of a unity government”.
All eyes on UN-brokered peace talks
The Libyan post-revolutionary political crisis reached surreal proportions last year, when Islamists and their allies reacted to their defeat in the June 2014 parliamentary election by forming the Libya Dawn militia alliance and seizing the capital of Tripoli. The newly elected, internationally approved parliament then fled to the eastern Libyan port city of Tobruk and the two sides have been at war of sorts from either side of the Mediterranean coastline.
Efforts to reach a political solution have centered around UN-brokered peace talks to try to bring the two sides together. Last month, UN special envoy to Libya Bernadino Leon opened talks in Geneva, which were promptly abandoned since Libya Dawn representatives failed to show up.
The turnout at subsequent talks in the northwestern Libyan city of Ghadames last week was better, although participants acknowledged that the process was in its very early stages.
Nevertheless Leon, a seasoned Spanish diplomat, remains convinced that the peace process represents the only solution to the current impasse – and many experts and Western officials agree with that assessment.
In a column in the English language Libya Herald on Tuesday, US Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones noted that the US continues to “support Bernadino Leon’s UN dialogue despite the arguments of those who now insist that the urgency of the fight against ISIL makes the dialogue irrelevant.”
Airstrikes ‘can be counterproductive’
The voices of caution have been gaining support in some anti-terror circles despite Egypt’s call for an expansion of the US-led fight against the IS group from the Syria-Iraq theater into North Africa.
International aerial campaigns against jihadist groups are, by their very nature, limited by the lack of targets on the ground. In Libya, the situation is complicated by the presence of myriad Islamist groups, some of them competing for influence and others forming temporary alliances against a common enemy.
At least three militant groups inside Libya have pledged allegiance to the IS group. The Egyptian airstrikes earlier this week targeted IS position in Derna, an eastern Libyan city with a long history of Islamist radicalization. But within Derna, rival Islamist groups, including breakaway brigades, have been fighting for control of strategic sites across the city.
While most Libyans have little patience for jihadist groups, FRANCE 24’s Wassim Nasr warns that continued airstrikes could change public opinion on the ground. “We know that airstrikes and drone strikes can be very counterproductive,” explained Nasr, an expert on jihadist groups. “The Egyptian airstrikes hit a neighborhood in Derna, so civilians were killed. This equation made the IS group stronger in Syria, the same equation made them stronger in Iraq so it’s very delicate and they can gain support if total war is waged on Libyan soil.”
‘Haftar is a vigilante’
If Libya’s complex stew of Islamist groups presents a massive hurdle for any international military coalition, the state of the Libyan anti-Islamist camp presents hardly any solace.
Libyan anti-Islamist groups routinely refer to all stripes of Islamist factions as “Daesh” – the derogatory Arabic acronym for the IS group. On the other hand, Islamist groups are known to slam anti-Islamist militias as remnants of Gaddafi-era soldiers and “fedayeen”.
One of the more controversial figures in the latter camp is General Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi-era military official who briefly enjoyed CIA support when he turned against the Libyan strongman in the late 1980s.
Despite lingering allegations of Haftar’s CIA-linked past, Washington has made it increasingly clear in recent times that the controversial Libyan militia chief does not enjoy US support.
In a detailed profile on Haftar, the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson quotes a senior US official as emphatically stating, “The US government has nothing to do with General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is killing people, and he says he is targeting terrorists, but his definition is way too broad. Haftar is a vigilante.”
Haftar is widely believed to enjoy the support of Egypt’s Sisi – according to the New Yorker, his army “reportedly receives weapons and financing from Egypt” as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.
Any move by the international community to get behind an Egyptian initiative risks pitting Western countries into a regional cauldron with Egypt, Saudi Arabic and the UAE supporting Haftar’s Dignity forces against the Islamist Libya Dawn camp supported by Qatar and Turkey.
Amid the growing hazards of the international community getting embroiled in yet another Arab proxy war, Washington has increasingly calling for a Libyan solution to a Libyan problem. “It is time for Libyans to realize that only they can build a new Libya; only they can save their country,” wrote US Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones in the Libyan Herald.
The problem though would be if European governments are slow to come to this realisation and wade into another conflict with no viable local partners or political or military strategy in sight.
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