Tunisia readying for Western military strikes in Libya
TUNIS - Tunisian authorities are wary of the effects of a potential Western-led military campaign in Libya, which would target Islamic State (ISIS) militants in the chaos-stricken North African country.
Any such campaign would put Tunisia in a tricky situation as it reels from the effects of jihadist attacks, economic slowdown and youth dissatisfaction over lack of opportunities.
Tunisian security forces have shown greater confidence since the terrorist attacks in 2015 that wrecked the country’s tourism industry. The forces remain on heightened alert against possible jihadist infiltration from Libya or terrorist activity in mountainous areas near the Algerian border.
Tunisian Defence Minister Farhat Horchani, said the country’s armed forces were prepared to protect the border. “Tunisia is capable of fighting against terrorism in an active and efficient way,” Horchani said, while touring a new border barrier on February 6th. He ruled out, however, any Tunisian role in the expected intervention.
Tunisia has finished building a water-and-sand barrier to prevent jihadist infiltration from Libya and is putting the final touches on a defence and civil strategy to absorb any negative spillover from military intervention by a US-led Western coalition.
The 200km barrier was built with US and German help. European and American military specialists are expected to soon begin training Tunisian forces on improving electronic surveillance.
Washington has been sending signals that it intends to do something about the worrisome situation in Libya. Speaking to the US Congress on February 9th, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the ISIS affiliate in Libya is “one of its most developed branches outside Syria and Iraq.” ISIS, he added, “is well positioned to expand territory under its control in 2016″.
Estimates of ISIS troops in Libya vary from 4,000-6,000. Experts agree, however, that their numbers almost doubled over the last year after the terrorist group suffered setbacks in Syria and Iraq.
Tunisian pundits have been speculating about the possible start date for the operation. “The Western military intervention is likely to take place in March or April. Preparations are going that way,” said former senior Tunisian diplomat Slaheddine Jemmali, citing unnamed French sources.
US officials have said that any campaign against ISIS in Libya could take place within a few weeks or maybe months.
It remains to be seen whether and when Libyan factions are able to put in place a functional unity government that could formally authorise a Western intervention.
Jemmali casts doubt about the chances of success of any foreign military intervention in Libya, saying Western powers have no stomach for long-term military efforts to defeat ISIS. “They are not ready for land operations. Striking Daesh from the air will have limited impact,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the terror group.
The track record of Western nations during the 2011 NATO-led campaign, which ended with no clear exit strategy, is not reassuring.
Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer now with the Soufan Group consultancy, told Agence France- Presse: “The international coalition is going to air strike its way out of the chaos created by air strikes.”
Regional experts fret over the repercussions of a new Western military campaign on neighbouring countries. The interests of the latter, they feel, may not be taken into consideration.
“Libya is a purely Western matter. They [Western powers] will allow no role for regional states because of oil, migration and Daesh. It is a security issue for Europe,” argues Egyptian security expert Safwat Zayat, a former army general.
If Libya is at the top of Europe’s security agenda that is not necessarily reassuring to Tunisian experts. “A military intervention in Libya risks further destabilising Tunisia, not only because of the refugee crisis it will cause, but by exposing its territory to the threat of terrorist revenge,” said Olfa Lamloum, country manager for International Alert in Tunisia. “Tunisians expect to pay the price in terms of the insecurity and economic chaos any intervention would create.”
Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemais Jhinaoui, who met with Algerian counterpart Ramtane Lamamra on February 14th, said Tunisia and Algeria oppose a foreign military intervention.
“A war in Libya could have adverse fallouts on Tunisia’s stability and that of the region as a whole,” he said.
The decision to launch a campaign will depend on the evolving threat in Libya and its assessment by Washington. Obama administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that military options under consideration include “raids and advisory missions by US special operations forces” and “narrowly targeted air strikes”.
The United States has conducted special operations in Libya in recent months. In November, the United States announced the targeted killing from the air of an ISIS leader, Abu Nabil, an Iraqi also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi. In December, special operation troops posed for pictures at Libya’s Wattiya airbase before being asked to leave. They left but are likely to be back soon.