needs to be assessed in terms of modalities and opportunities.
Spokespersons of the US, Italy, France and the UK over the last few weeks expressed an urge for interventionism that can only be partially justified. There are two main reasons for this perceived urgency. First, all pressures exerted on the Libyan factions to reach an agreement have proved ineffective. The different actors have yet to converge into a government of national accord and continue to play “ping pong” with the final decision. The political process toward the creation of a united government is still moving slowly, despite the new pace set by the UN negotiator Martin Kobler. The Tobruk-based Parliament, the only one internationally recognized, has yet to approve a list of Ministers presented by Prime Minister-designate Fayez Serraj, who was appointed to form a government after the signing of the agreement in Morocco. The official explanation for such a delay was the fact that the list is ‘over-crowded’ (with thirty-two ministers as candidates); in reality, however, the reason was the exclusion of nominees loyal to the influential General Khalifa Haftar from the proposed list of ministers. The General has exercised his considerable influence on the parliament to have it reject the list. Currently Tobruk has agreed to a request by Serraj to delay discussing his new cabinet (with eighteen ministers) for another week. He asked for the delay after two of the ministers who had been chosen withdrew their nominations1.
Second is the necessity for Western governments to respond to the increasing fear of terrorism stemming from the Paris attacks last November. This represented a dangerous escalation, pushing European powers to pursue military action in order not to show that they remain passive in front of such an aggression. This has also triggered rivalry-tinted inner-European dynamics, but what is important is not the competition in leadership on possible military action, but - to quote Spike Lee - to “do the right thing”. The realization that the military actions in 2011, as well as the post-conflict management phases, in Libya were not conducted correctly makes it clear that European countries, Italy in particular, cannot afford to make mistakes again, due to Libya’s geographical proximity to Europe and its relevance to Western interests.
The reaching of an agreement among the Libyan factions until recently was considered a necessary requirement prior to any foreign-led military action in the country. However, latest indiscretions seem to suggest that the West is already set for a new strategy and may start bombing the Islamic State (IS) even without a formal request from a legitimate Libyan government. Clearly the issue is more political than legal.
It is correct to assume that an armed intervention without the approval, if not the direct request, of a new legitimate Libyan government might jeopardize the fragile hopes for peace in a country still struggling to rebuild its political order. It is highly likely that foreign intervention will encourage Islamist groups to coalesce within the framework of the Islamic State, upgrading their range for potential recruitment and thus favoring a new propaganda drive. The Islamic State in Libya is certainly a relevant threat, but a rather limited one so far. The number of IS fighters is often exaggerated by the media as well as by the Libyans fighting the Islamists. Reliable and quite up-to-date sources estimate the overall presence of militants in Libya range between 3,500 and 5,000. As International Crisis Group experts also pointed out2, the revelations regarding significant reinforcements of Boko Haram, too roughly reported by the media, must be cautiously considered. The context of the Islamic State rise in Sirte is to a certain extent similar to the one that initially favored the IS expansion in Iraq. That is to say, the exclusion of a part of the people from political participation. It is not by chance that Sirte is Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown as well as a cradle of the Qaddafa tribe. Since Gaddafi’s fall, this tribe has been marginalized and ostracized by the Tripoli-based government, as well as accused by the other militias of conspiracy with the former regime, and was eventually severely struck down for this reason. Part of the regime’s rear lines as well as some tribal youth have thus joined the Islamic State cause, mostly for political rather than ideological reasons3. This is why it is key to return to a political process based on inclusion (and not on retaliation). Based on how talks have unfolded thus far, there is not much reason to be optimistic. Hurdles to a successful negotiation still exist, especially concerning the role that General Haftar will play in a future Libya, not to mention the persistent hostility to an agreement waged by a large part of the armed factions as well as by the political forces in Tripolitania with ties to the Islamist president of the Tripoli-based parliament, Nuri Abu Sahmein.
It is important to recall that the ultimate goal is the stability of Libya and that this can only be accomplished by fostering policies based on nation-building and state-building. This should be done in a way that considers not only Libya’s actors, but also international ones. For instance, it is necessary to include Egypt in any negotiations to find a solution to what has become one of the main stumbling blocks toward a successful establishment of a government of national unity: the issue of General Haftar and his position as the head of the Libyan armed forces. Egypt is the main supporter of General Haftar, because it sees in him the guarantor of the stability of its borders and the main opponent of Islamist terrorism. At the military level, Haftar has not been able to crush the Islamist forces in Cyrenaica. He appears to be capable of gathering around himself only a part of the population, fearful of extremism (especially in the city of Benghazi) and desirous of countering the rise of the most radical groups. His inclusion in a future government will not be accepted by the militias both in Tripoli and Misurata, preventing the government from settling in the capital. Therefore, it is essential to involve Egypt to find a solution to this issue, since it is clear that the fate of Haftar has become part of the problem, not the solution.
Not clearly defining the targets of a possible intervention and thus failing to outline the ultimate political goal is a serious mistake and will lead to long-term missions without much political effectiveness, as in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is evident that selective bombings cannot reach the goal of eradicating the Islamic State in Libya, as recent raids in Syria and Iraq have proven. To eliminate IS, it is necessary to put an end to the state of anarchy in which Libya has been plunged. This can only be obtained by uniting Libyans in their quest for stability and democracy.
The creation of a united government is a chance that still cannot be ruled out. It is therefore fundamental that western partners have this clear political aim. A military intervention carried out without the consensus of the Libyans and a plan shared with them would hamper the negotiations and definitely discredit any chance for the formation of a unitary government. Only after the establishment of a new government of national unity could the international community draft a military action to support it, creating a security zone in which to install the Libyan political and financial institutions. This is a goal that must be pursued within the framework of a coordinated plan with local forces – both political and military - that will support the new government. This control room allows to ensure the safety of policymakers, providing them with the ability to take effective decisions and to isolate spoilers or illegitimate militias. In this scenario the proposal of the creation of joint command centers between Libyan military forces against IS – as outlined by Wehrey and Lacher4 - could be possible. Such a solution could guarantee a minimum level of economic governance and an increase in oil exports, delivering “political gains by building confidence and demonstrating that compromise can be mutually beneficial”5.
Achieving the goal of stabilizing Libya would require a greater awareness by the international community of the need to militarily protect the Libyan government and act with it and through it. Unfortunately, in some Western and other regional capitals, there seems to be a greater emphasis on rapid, direct attack against IS than on strengthening the Libyan political process6. Although the passing of time favors IS, the international community needs both patience and a political vision, not military aggressiveness. It is necessary to do the right thing.
Karim Mezran, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council, Washington
Arturo Varvelli, Head of Terrorism Research Program, ISPI, Milan