A Ground Invasion of Libya?
The emergence of Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya is just the latest, if predictable, surprise that Libya’s anarchy has produced.
As the spring approaches and Europe worries about the now traditional surge of migrants venturing to reach European (Italian) shores, interventionists want to launch direct military attacks in Libya, ground troops and all. The NATO/U.S. attack in Sabratah, 40 miles northwest of Tripoli and once known more for its Roman amphitheater than international terrorism, killed two of the men behind the Tunis Bardo museum attack in 2015.
It is odd that NATO chose Sabratah as the target. While reports have indicated a growing IS presence in the small city, the actual Islamic State presence in Libya is in Sirte, some 373 miles to the east of Tripoli. Perhaps Sabratah was a safe house for the Tunisians? After all, Sabratah is about 45 miles from the Libyan-Tunisian border.
Distance aside, what could a renewed NATO campaign—with a strong American component—realistically achieve?
Nothing. Libya continues to be divided politically by two governments and two parliaments. A diplomatic solution in the short-term seems impossible (there is no credible interlocutor). Meanwhile, Egypt’s President Mohammed al-Sisi, who seems highly motivated to lead a major military campaign (perhaps to distract his people from chronic social and economic problems) has his own territorial ambitions in Libya.
A military solution, however, would be at best ill considered and at worst catastrophic; after all, outside military intervention is largely responsible for Libya’s current mess.
The main reason why a military intervention, even one in the guise of a peacekeeping mission, is unwarranted is the sheer complexity of its crisis. Islamic State aside, Libya’s situation has only gotten more complicated and difficult over the course of the past two years. One of the main problems is that by intervening, any international force would necessarily have to adopt a local political ally.
This would be either the Eastern “government” in Tobruk (backed by General Haftar) or the Western government in Tripoli, led by Dawn of Libya, a group related to the Muslim Brotherhood and backed by Islamist militias. Islamic State is a threat to both, but foreign military intrusion cannot be neutral. It would be impossible to restore a political process extended to all of Libya’s social and tribal components. The alternative might be to back General Haftar’s forces and ultimate rule.
Indeed, there is some blame to be dispensed involving Libya’s descent into its present catastrophic situation. After the fall of the Qadhafi regime in 2011, Libya has suffered a “bit of everything.” There were two parliamentary elections (2012 and 2014). All the while, Libya was under the control of dozens of militias.
Then there is Libya’s geography: Libya has six million inhabitants and covers an area six times the size of Italy or five times the size of France. Most Libyans live on the coast; the rest of the territory is practically desert. There are two major regions, separated by the Gulf of Sirte, Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east.
The current struggle, in broad terms, is between the government in eastern Libya that is recognized by the international community and the “Dawn of Libya” in Tripoli. The foreign coalition would have to decide which of these two governments to support. Again, this brings excessive interference in Libya’s affairs.
The threats to Europe are mainly that Italy is the European country closest to Libya, geographically and economically. Italy imported at least a fifth of its oil and a 10th of its natural gas from Libya (although supplies have been erratic over the last two years). However, of great concern is that the current Libyan situation has served as one of the main causes of the increase in arrivals of immigrants through the central Mediterranean (more than 100,000 in 2015). Nevertheless, armed intervention in Libya would pave the way for a new bloody war that would fuel ever more terrorism and increased instability, and would not help the victims.
After the dramatic failure of the intervention against the former dictator Qadhafi in 2011, which opened the current Pandora’s box, a Western war in Libya would not lead to any solution. It would give IS and other jihadist factions a chance to re-launch their “holy war” against the new crusaders.
It would take tens of thousands of troops to have any real impact. Military intervention makes no sense and, as impossible or difficult as it sounds, a political solution is the only way—even if it means breaking Libya into a federation, as it was in the years before Qadhafi. The West has confronted the problem of terrorism since 2001 through military means, achieving absolutely nothing but military occupation of so-called rogue states, generating even more terrorism.
Qadhafi did warn us.