The West should tread with care in Libya
US President Barack Obama recently acknowledged that his mishandling of the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was his worst foreign policy mistake. He was less kind to French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron for hanging onto America’s military coattails and walking away from what quickly turned into a failed state.
Efforts by the United Nations to foster a government of national unity in Libya have, after years of apparently fruitless effort, recently taken a turn for the better. Hope is fragile but, for the first time in three years, the country looks to be on a path of slow healing and reconciliation. Meanwhile, European capitals and Washington are awash with rumours of military intervention to stop the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), whose armed militants are based in and around Qaddafi’s former stronghold of Sirte.
Some Western security experts are keen to “eradicate” what they see as a serious attempt by ISIS. which is under military pressure from United States and Russian air strikes in Iraq and Syria, to build a base in central Libya. That would be much more threatening to Europe, notably Italy, than any in the Middle East.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the temptation for Western political leaders to “clear up” is great. British and French special forces are operating in Libya. Whether it would be wise to intervene militarily in a more open way is open to doubt.
There are three reasons that dictate caution.
The first is that the exact number of armed ISIS supporters in and around Sirte, Derna and certain districts of Benghazi varies from 1,500-6,000, according to which source is quoted. Some Western “experts” are tempted to inflate the figures to justify a military intervention.
No one disputes that the presence of fighters from Chechnya, Sudan and Pakistan, alongside Arab recruits (mostly Libyan, Tunisian and Moroccan) constitutes a threat, but how much of a threat? The communication strategy of ISIS is excellent but how much is the organisation inflating its capacity in Libya and to what extent are Western pundits falling into a trap?
Second, the differences between Syria and Iraq on the one hand and Libya on the other bear retelling. The Libyan branch of ISIS was set up in Derna four months after the fall of Mosul to ISIS in July 2014. By November 2014, ISIS accepted this “allegiance”.
In February 2015, Sirte fell to ISIS. ISIS supporters are active in Benghazi, where they are fighting troops of the national Libyan army of General Khalifa Haftar but have been thrown out of Derna. Sirte was bombed by the NATO-led coalition in 2011 and is hardly represented in today’s Libyan politics. The town, from which much of the population fled in 2011, has been politically ostracised.
A third factor is the presence in Libya of tens of thousands of economic migrants from sub-Saharan countries who are keen to cross the Mediterranean and which the virtually non-existent Libyan coast guard can do little to stop. Human trafficking is in the hands of mafias and local militias. Any higher profile Western military intervention would complicate an already complex situation.
A blunt military intervention would jeopardise the frail peace process as it could throw young Libyans into the arms of ISIS. Caution suggests leaving the Libyan factions to work out a deal. The West may be in a hurry but the timescale of events in Libya, especially after the suffering and violence endured since 2011, is different.
Furthermore, both Tunisia and Algeria have voiced opposition to an escalation of outside military intervention in Libya. Algeria has been adamant its army will not be deployed in Libya, despite pressure, notably from France, to do so. Its constitution and security doctrine since 1962 strictly prohibit military interventions abroad. Algerian troops will only enter Libyan territory on ad hoc missions to defend the country’s border with its eastern neighbour and oil and gas fields near Algeria’s eastern border.
More than ever, France, Italy, Britain and the United States must take into account the views of the Tunisian and Algerian governments as they map out policies regarding North Africa.
Both countries have vital interests in greater stability in Libya. Tunisia has an economic stake in its south-eastern neighbour’s return to calmer waters. Tunisians from Medenine and Ben Guerdane have traditionally worked in Libya’s western province of Tripolitania and family links are many. Rebuilding the shattered Libyan economy would be of huge benefit to Tunisia, where economic growth has been flat.
Never have the stakes been higher since the falls of Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Qaddafi. A more stable Libya spells a more stable Tunisia. A more prosperous Libya spells a more prosperous Tunisia.
Security and faster economic growth go hand in hand, which is why Libya should be treated with kid gloves by the European Union and the United States. Both should talk to Algeria, Tunisia and Libya as equals and begin building a new security and economic architecture for North Africa and the central Mediterranean region.