TSG IntelBrief: Libya and the Perils of Intervention
February 4, 2016

Libya and the Perils of Intervention

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• At a meeting of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition in Rome on February 2, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned of the group’s expansion in Libya

• While France and Italy ruled out military intervention against the Islamic State in Libya, the U.S. and U.K. left the option on the table

• The lack of a central unified Libyan government will severely hamper the effectiveness of any international military intervention

• International intervention could exacerbate the political tensions in Libya, and the resulting instability could resonate for decades. 

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Amid growing international concern over the spread of the so-called Islamic State, the 23 members of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition met in Rome on February 2. During the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned of the spread of the Islamic State in Libya, and placed particular emphasis on preventing the group from gaining control over Libya’s lucrative oil and gas resources. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, a Western coalition consisting of the U.S., the U.K., France, and Italy had all given strong indications that an intervention was imminent, and U.S. defense officials had stated that a decision on kinetic action in Libya would be made in a matter of weeks. 

While French and Italian officials walked back their intervention rhetoric following the Rome meeting, American and British officials did not. Regardless of this apparent hesitation from within the coalition, the wheels of foreign military intervention are spinning. According to the Algerian newspaper El Khabar, the U.S., U.K., and France have all informed Algerian government officials that preparations for airstrikes in Libya are under way. American and British Special Forces have reportedly been working in Libya for months, attempting to identify possible partners and making sense of the tangled web of allegiances. In mid-December, several photos of armed American Special Operators even appeared on the Facebook page of the Libyan National Army (LNA). 

As preparations for intervention appear to accelerate, there remain significant obstacles to any military intervention in Libya. Law and order has eroded in many parts of the country, and the black market economy—for everything from drugs to weapons to migrants—has exploded. As the Islamic State has expanded its territory, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have also taken advantage of the power vacuum to increase their presence.

The political landscape in Libya remains divided between two rival governments—the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli—both of which face severe internal divisions. UN-brokered negotiation efforts have so far failed to unite the disparate parties, despite much hopeful rhetoric from international mediators. The absence of a unified Libyan state is the most serious obstacle to intervention, as it means that any international military coalition will likely be forced to choose sides between the two rival governments. The strongest force in Libya is the HoR-aligned LNA led by General Khalifa Haftar, a staunch anti-Islamist who has led a 10-month campaign to rid the country of ‘terrorist’ elements. This definition includes most elements of the Libya Dawn militia alliance that supports the GNC in Tripoli, as well as the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood that dominates the GNC itself. 

As in Syria and Iraq, any international military intervention in Libya would come up against regional power politics. General Haftar is supported by the Egyptian government, which shares his broad definition of ‘terrorist,’ as well as his animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood. The LNA and the HoR also receive support from Saudi Arabia, which has also designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. However, the Islamist government in Tripoli is not without its powerful allies. Regional supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have quietly provided backing to the GNC, and would likely balk at the prospect of an international coalition aligning itself with the forces of General Haftar. 

Within this complicated environment, an international military intervention in Libya—particularly one led by Western forces—faces a daunting task. While the growth of the Islamic State in Libya certainly poses a real threat to regional and international security, the lack of reliable partners on the ground raises questions about the possible consequences of an intervention. As exemplified by the experience in Syria and Iraq, air power alone is insufficient to effectively liberate territory from Islamic State control. Ultimately, ground forces will be necessary, and the international coalition will be forced to actively coordinate with one government or the other. 

That choice will undoubtedly sow deep resentments within Libya, and harm the prospects for the formation of a unity government in the near future. Further fragmentation of the Libyan state could see the country descend into a protracted civil war like those seen in Iraq and Syria, with grave repercussions for the region. Fragile states like TunisiaMaliNiger, and Egypt can ill afford to have a failed state on their doorsteps. While the Islamic State represents a short-term threat, the collapse of the Libyan state could have repercussions for decades.

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