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Libya’s Hollow Victory Over the Islamic State
Libyans are about to win a long-awaited victory over the Islamic State. So why does no one feel like celebrating?
Little noticed by the outside world, Libyans have almost succeeded in achieving a long-awaited victory over the Islamic State. For months, bolstered by air strikes from their international allies, local militias have been tightening a ring around IS forces in the coastal city of Sirte. The jihadis have been corralled into an area of less than one square kilometer. The battle is all but won.
You’d think that Libyans and their friends in the international community would be thrilled. Actually, though, there’s little sense of triumph to be detected anywhere.
The reason is simple: Victory in Sirte, however welcome, will have little positive effect on the country’s power vacuum. When the Islamic State first conquered the city in June 2015, many observers hoped that the threat would serve as a rallying point for Libya’s myriad warring factions. The need to strike a resounding blow against the Islamic State, it was thought, would finally provide the catalyst for unity.
It didn’t work out that way. Instead, Libya’s competing power centers — from Field-Marshall Haftar and his government in the East to its rival internationally-backed government in Tripoli to the country’s extremist Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gheriani — have tried to exploit the threat of the Islamic State to advance their own agendas. Each group knew full well that merely appearing to engage the Islamic State would garner international support and strengthen its claims to legitimacy. So far, none have proved willing to redeploy serious resources and manpower to combat a threat they perceive as secondary to their domestic opponents.
Meanwhile, Western powers were so keen to engage the target that they neglected to consider their own-long term interests in Libya as embodied by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), a special initiative established by the UN Security Council. The aim of UNSMIL was to integrate various Western interests into a cohesive policy to fight terrorism and human trafficking while persuading Libyan politicians to back the restoration of a truly national government. Paradoxically, though, some of the countries that originally backed UNSMIL — such as France and the United States — ended up creating obstacles to its work. Either in response to the UN’s lack of results or from a sense that it hasn’t done enough to protect their interests, they have teamed up with individual Libyan armed groups to pursue isolated counter-terrorism goals such as assassinating terrorist leaders. By forming brief alliances of convenience with people like Haftar and others, they empower them to continue operating outside of the UN’s attempts at stabilization and unification, seriously undermining its work by removing a major incentive to cooperate.
Given these circumstances, it’s a miracle that Sirte’s liberation is at hand. The Western powers and their Libyan allies would be much better off had they achieved this goal as the result of a comprehensive, multilateral, carefully thought-out policy. Instead the operation has been an entirely ad-hoc affair. It was launched earlier this year by an alliance of militias who felt threatened by Islamic State’s gradual encroachments on their territory. Their strategy of encircling the city and gradually tightening the noose around the Islamic State positions was initially successful, but quickly racked up heavy casualties and ground to a halt. It took months before the government could organize the U.S. air-strikes, Italian medical and humanitarian assistance, and British front-line support which have made victory possible.
Moreover, though the operation now appears to be on the brink of success, it’s still too early to celebrate. While the anti-Islamic State forces may have breached the jihadis’ bastion, the environment that spawned the threat in the first place persists. The state is powerless, the economy is dysfunctional, and the country is plagued by violence and instability, making Libya a breeding ground for numerous other threats to itself, its neighbors, and the surrounding region.
The loss of its Sirte headquarters won’t even mean the eradication of the Islamic State from Libya. The jihadis maintain a number of cells across the country, and have attempted to smuggle fighters out of Sirte throughout the battle so that they can return to fight another day. If the Islamic State does indeed lose Sirte, it is likely to return to a more traditional style of terrorism by targeting population centers, police academies, and militia bases with suicide attacks. The chaos will allow the Islamic State to sow discord and seek alliances with local or regional jihadist groups until it once again regains the ability to capture territory.
But it’s not just terrorists who benefit from the general anarchy. So, too, do those who make a living in Libya’s shadow economy. The country has a long-established smuggling industry, which until recently was focused on exporting heavily subsidized domestic goods, such as gasoline and sugar, to neighboring countries. But since the traditional economy remains paralyzed, human trafficking and arms trading have expanded dramatically. Tribes, militias, and criminal groups are herding hundreds of thousands of refugees through the Libyan Desert, launching them on dangerous trips across the Mediterranean to Europe. Meanwhile, weapons from the Qaddafi regime’s arms depots have made their way across North Africa, cropping up in conflicts from Mali to Syria.
A civil war like Libya’s, where no side can gain a decisive advantage, should eventually grind to a halt as the supply of money, armaments, and young men willing to fight dries up. In Libya, however, external powers such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey continue to fund and arm their favored factions, thus artificially prolonging the turmoil. The countries of the West are the only external forces still capable of exerting a positive influence. But they are squandering their leverage as they continue to approach Libya policy in a unilateral and piecemeal fashion, as dramatized by their handling of the conflict around Sirte.
Sirte’s liberation, and the emancipation of its 80,000 inhabitants from Islamic State rule, is undoubtedly a welcome development in a land where positive news is in short supply. But we should guard against premature euphoria. Even as the battle has raged on in Sirte, Libya’s factions have been preparing for what they see as the truly decisive battle in the war to claim control over the country. In the near future, we may see an evolution of the civil war from a constellation of local conflicts to an all-out war for control between two alliances that have heavy artillery and airpower at their disposal.
To contain this threat, the international community must rally around the UNSMIL and work toward a genuine power-sharing agreement. On a domestic level this means credible engagement with community and tribal leaders, militia commanders, faction leaders, and key institutions such as the Central Bank and the National Oil Company. On an international level, this means enforcing the arms blockade and ensuring that the UN is the sole channel for international diplomacy with Libya. This requires the political will to reconcile the competing interests of Russia, individual EU states, the U.S., and regional powers such as Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey. Unless the international community can create and maintain a comprehensive policy for returning stability to Libya, the liberation of Sirte risks becoming little more than a blip in the country’s descent into endless civil war.
In the photo, a GNA fighter fires a rocket-propelled grenade launcher towards Islamic State positions in Sirte on August 16.
Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images