As Unification Hopes Shrink, ISIS Grows in Libya

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentilioni, and U.N. Special Representative Federica Mogherini sit with Libyan negotiators. Rome, Italy, December 13, 2015. (State Department Photo/Public Domain)

The struggle to unify Libya continues, with various domestic actors posing obstacles to United Nations-sponsored efforts. In the meantime, conflict continues to plague the center of the country as militants linked to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) continue to take control of territory and threaten the critical oil processing and export sites in the Gulf of Sirte. This has raised further concern among the international community, members of which are discussing a wider military involvement to reduce a threat that might extend into Europe.

Representatives of Libya’s two rival parliaments and governments, the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and Tobruk- and Al-Baida-based House of Representatives (HoR) engaged with the UN-talks through 2015. The talks were fruitful and the parties agreed to the wide-ranging Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December. This accord offered a chance of regaining a semblance of stability and beginning the path towards reunification.

That optimism was swiftly quashed in January when HoR representatives voted against the agreement on a Government of National Accord. Despite agreeing to the deal in principle, these representatives disputed Article 8 of the agreement, which would hand command of the military to the new government’s Presidency Council. There was also opposition to the size and makeup of the proposed cabinet. Given these grievances, it is unclear why the accord was originally approved. The reasons for now opposing it appear directly linked to positions of General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the HoR’s Libyan National Army.

Haftar came to prominence in Libya in 2014 when calling for the replacement of the GNC, which had recently extended its mandate. He later united a number of Libyan military elements against the GNC in Tripoli and Islamist-leaning militia in Benghazi, under the banner of Operation Dignity. Haftar’s forces, which continue to fight in and around Benghazi, remain some of the strongest in the country. Relinquishing their control is considered a red line for key powerbrokers within the HoR. These leaders are likely unconvinced that relinquishing military power to the Presidency Council—currently headed by businessman Fayez al-Sarraj—would meet their immediate objectives in Benghazi and planned future offensives. Haftar has recently stated that once Benghazi is liberated, his force would move on ISIS in central Libya.

While the political machinations continue, ISIS forces have increasingly sought to capture territory. In December and January they launched assaults east of Sirte, capturing the town of Bin Jawad in early January. While the offensive has slowed somewhat in recent weeks, the ISIS strategy has raised alarm domestically and internationally. The presence in the Gulf of Sirte threatens Libya’s key oil export facilities. While production has slumped dramatically in recent months, it still holds the potential to provide the country with much-needed funds once the political situation has stabilized. Creating a unified government awash with oil revenue—albeit diminished by current low global prices—to provide for urgent state development is an immediate goal of both domestic and international actors. For the international community, safeguarding these facilities is critical.

External interests had also hoped that the UN-sponsored deal would produce a government capable of providing them a mandate to take on the ISIS challenge. During a recent meeting in Rome, the United States and Italy underlined the importance of maintaining the momentum against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but also confronting its growing threat in Libya. The West, and countries in Europe in particular are concerned about the increasing proximity of the group and a repeat of the attacks in Paris in 2015.

A second, but no less important consideration, remains the continue flood of migrants into Europe. Libya is one of the key transit points for the thousands of asylum seekers crossing into southern Europe each month. Not only does the flood of migrants represent a logistical challenge for Europe, it also carries a growing security threat. There remain deep concerns across the security and political apparatus that migrant routes have increasingly been infiltrated by militants. Stemming the flow of people across the Mediterranean remains a key short-term objective.

There are growing indications that several major states, including the US and Germany, are already preparing for a wider military involvement in Libya. The HoR has, however, thrown the timeline for a possible intervention in doubt and the EU is reportedly considering sanctions against the leadership of both governments for failing to find an agreement.

Should external actors intervene, ISIS is likely to be severely degraded. Airstrikes, in conjunction with Special Forces and local allied militia operations—akin to the fighting in Syria and Iraq—would be useful in preventing further advances. It may also force it to consolidate its forces—numbered at 3,000 fighters—in the Sirte area. The alternative of a conventional ground-based military deployment would likely lead to the defeat of ISIS. This is unlikely, however. In Europe and the US, public opinion is still informed by the effects of ground troop deployments Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a number of local militias in Libya have already indicated they would oppose any foreign fighters in the country.

Continued progress toward unification is essential for stabilizing Libya. Only a competent government can provide the impetus required to resolve the country’s lingering conflicts and begin to diminish the domestic and international threat posed by ISIS. Nonetheless, the challenges of achieving unification are considerable. Factions within many ethnic, tribal, and religious groups, political organizations, and communities remain opposed to any internationally-sponsored agreement and have called for a dialogue process that involves only Libyans. The two primary political actors also lack the legitimacy of broad public support. The HoR came to power after elections in June 2014 with an 18% turnout and the GNC, in its current guise, only took control in Tripoli in 2014 with the support of strong militias. With these obstacles, and a possibly destabilizing foreign military intervention being considered, it is difficult to imagine Libya emerging from its current crisis any time soon.