The Smart Way to Intervene in Libya

Opinion Articles

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the Libyan Revolution. On Feb. 17, 2011, Libyans launched the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi, who had lorded it over them for 42 years.* The popular revolt came at a high cost: Thousands died in the fighting that toppled the dictator. Still, the overwhelming majority of the population welcomed their new freedom with joy. There was also a widespread sense of gratitude to the NATO forces that had intervened on the side of the revolution.

Today there is little rejoicing to be seen. The mood now is one of desperation, and the general sense of optimism that accompanied the end of the Qaddafi era has evaporated. For the past four years the rest of the world watched idly as Libya descended into chaos; now it looks less like a country inspired by the promise of democracy than a textbook example of a failed state. It is indicative of how far Libya has fallen that the forces of the Islamic State (IS) have managed, with apparent effortlessness, to gain a foothold in the country.

On Sunday, IS forces issued a gruesome video that purported to show the mass execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians captured by the group. That atrocity prompted the Egyptian government to launch airstrikes yesterday on the Libyan city of Derna, an IS stronghold. As a result, almost four years after the revolution, Libya now finds itself facing a new kind of intervention — one that takes place amid the post-revolutionary chaos and instability that have engulfed the country, forcing regional players to take unilateral action.

According to the latest reports, the Egyptian air attacks targeted the houses of IS leaders, along with administrative buildings, training sites, and storage facilities for weapons and ammunition. It was always hard to imagine that Egypt was simply going to sit by while its own national security was being compromised by the turmoil next door. Pressure to take some sort of action has been building for months, and the killings of Egyptian citizens served as the final straw. The Egyptian airstrikes have drawn mixed reactions from Libyans on social media. Some welcome the attacks, calling for continued Egyptian and international support against the Islamic State, while others express apprehension about Cairo’s motives. The skeptics worry that Egypt’s crackdown on terrorism could ultimately serve as a pretext for less welcome forms of interference in Libya’s affairs.

Libya’s internationally recognized parliament and government, based in the eastern cities of Tobruk and al-Baida, respectively, say they will cooperate fully with Egypt in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, officials from the two bodies have long called for international assistance to their armed forces, which have been fighting a bloody war for months against extremist Islamist groups in eastern and central Libya. Among other things they’ve been pleading for the lifting of an international embargo on arms shipments to the Libyan military. Meanwhile, the head of the Libyan Air Force has told interviewers that his forces are coordinating efforts with their Egyptian counterparts and will continue to do so. Despite its lack of modern fighter jets, the Libyan Air Force has helped to prevent Islamist groups from overrunning the country’s second-largest city of Benghazi and to stop attackson Libya’s main oil terminals in the east.

Yet the situation is hardly clear-cut. Is a spontaneous and virtually unplanned Egyptian air campaign against IS really a good move? The Islamic State threat in Libya has been there for many months, and those who wish to strike a decisive blow against it can only do so if their actions are based on a comprehensive strategy. The airstrikes might win applause on the streets in both Egypt and Libya for a few days, but in the medium term Cairo’s actions could prove counterproductive. An externally organized military campaign should be built on an overarching plan that includes (among other things) robust measures for securing borders in order to prevent an influx of weapons and jihadi fighters. The Islamic State’s sympathizers will almost certainly regard Egypt’s involvement as an act of aggression against their “caliphate,” thus motivating many Libyans and foreigners to join IS forces.

If planners in Egypt and elsewhere wish to avoid such mistakes, they could start by analyzing the shortcomings of NATO’s intervention in 2011, which offers a case study in the hazards of embarking on military action in political transitions without first devising a solid political strategy to deal with the aftermath. Egypt, Italy, and France are currently leading an effort to persuade the U.N. Security Council of the need for a new military intervention in Libya to bolster the internationally recognized government against IS. But embarking on such an ill-thought-out action is highly unlikely to yield favorable results, especially since the Islamic State is well positioned to exploit the current lack of unified government and strong state institutions.

It’s worth noting that this is far from the first attack staged by IS forces in Libya. Last month IS gunmen shot their way into a luxury hotel in Tripoli that houses the Islamist government that is the main rival of the government in the east. In addition, self-declared IS militants have conducted attacks on oil installations in the Libyan Desert. Terrorist groups like Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State have been around ever since the Qaddafi regime was overthrown in 2011, but the threat they posed received little attention from successive Libyan governments or the countries of the West — at least untilthe killing of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in 2012. The reluctance of the international community to play a more active role in post-Qaddafi Libya is partly to blame for the country’s descent into chaos.

In addition to securing the country’s borders, any intervention in Libya should also focus on protecting vital oil infrastructure. Rebuilding the security and defense sectors should also be a top priority — but without ill-advised efforts to appease militias or their leaders by trying to integrate them without proper vetting, training, or discipline. One British effort to train members of Libyan militias, which resulted in a string of criminal acts in a town near the U.K. training facility, offered an excellent example of the sorts of disasters that can occur. That experience should service as a valuable lesson for both Libyan and international partners seeking to train members of the security forces in the future. For their part, Libyans have to ensure that economic and governance opportunities are fairly distributed, pushing back against post-revolutionary policies that institutionalized exclusion, injustice, and lack of accountability. Only by uniting can Libyans face the challenges of the future. (The photo above shows people in Tripoli celebrating the anniversary of the revolution earlier today.)

The crisis in Libya is becoming less of a local problem and more of a regional and international one. Both Libyan leaders and the international community must acknowledge this reality. While a homegrown solution to the crisis would have been the preferred option, Libyans now lack the capacity to address their problems on their own. Their country needs the help of the outside world. It is crucial that any solution must be coordinated with trustworthy Libyan partners who can join the international community in the struggle against the rise of the Islamic State and who stand for inclusion, democracy, and the rule of law. Such Libyan voices are indispensable to any international or regional solution.

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