Since the start of 2016, ISIL has fought a sophisticated, multi-front battle for Libyan oil industry infrastructure from its stronghold of territory within the country. As in other places, as ISIL has grown as a security threat, American foreign policy has been inevitably redirected towards it. Yet, US high command is still struggling to define a clear strategy to combat ISIL in areas where it is particularly prevalent, such as in Syria and Libya. This has naturally allowed other actors with more cogent and realistic agendas, most notably Russia, to increase their relative political and military influence throughout the region. However, the dangerous spread of ISIL into Libyan territory has given the US another chance at implementing a winning strategy and reinforcing its long-standing goal of leadership for peace and stability in the Middle East.
In order to come up with a promising strategy to confront ISIL in Libya, it is key to first understand the hierarchy of issues facing the country. The most pressing issue in Libya is not the rise of ISIL, but rather the power vacuum that has formed due to a persisting rift in Libya’s governance since the Arab Spring-instigated ousting of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Derivative of this instability is the threat that ISIL might be first in line to take advantage of this vacuum in the oil-rich country. One of the most important tools at the US’s disposal in this situation is neither air power nor intelligence gathering, but rather the diplomatic capacity to create an ally government on the ground. By facilitating a solution to the governance problem in Libya, the US creates more resources with which to handle its own problems by freeing important Libyan powers from other preoccupation and conflict. In other words, the US might be able to combat ISIL more effectively by solving Libya’s problem first.
Libya’s political instability goes back to the end of the 42-year long dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, who was overthrown and eventually killed following Arab Spring protests and a NATO-led military campaign in 2011. In the wake of the conflict, a stopgap government was appointed and, despite violence, elections were held in 2012 to form a parliament, the General National Congress (GNC). After its mandate expired in 2014, however, the GNC refused to hold new elections until its hand was forced by rebellion. Meanwhile, the country remained highly unstable, as various militias, having resisted disarmament after Gaddafi’s ouster, competed for power.
Things came to a head when, in May 2014, former general Khalifa Haftar launched a military campaign against Islamist militia groups and the GNC. The renewed conflict has led to the emergence of two separate governments: a Tripoli-based legislature composed of a variety of anti-Gaddafi militias closely associated with Islamic extremism, and the UN-recognized Council of Deputies in the eastern city of Tobruk, which aligns itself with Khalifa Haftar as well as with the country’s old establishment.
In early 2015, a ceasefire was declared between the two sides, and after months of negotiations, in December of the same year, a peace deal calling for a national unity government was agreed on by both parties. However, UN-brokered proposals detailing the specifics of a new Libyan government have thus far been rejected, leaving the country stuck in limbo, waiting for leadership.
We must first take into account that it has been roughly a year since the ceasefire, during which time both sides have stayed relatively faithful to the treaty. In addition, both parties agreed to the general terms of the proposed unity government in December. Considering that the main cause for civil strife in Libya is representation, something more easily divisible for the purposes of negotiation than, say, diametrically opposed land rights claims, there is ample room to maneuver on details and satisfy both parties. Clearly, there is a way forward for diplomacy.
Second, it must be acknowledged that, without a political agreement that provides safety to all Libyans, the various militias remain trapped in a very real security dilemma. They are threatened, not only by ISIL, but also by opponents within their own faction and on the opposing side. Until some level of security is guaranteed under a unified Libya, the only force fighting ISIL will be the current militias that already do so. Therefore, efforts to create a mutual sense of security will make the diplomatic route easier.
What if, however, the US chooses to pursue an anti-ISIL plan with blinders on, ignores the problem of governance in Libya, and carries out a traditional mix of air missions and support for local allies that happen to oppose ISIL as well, towards which it seems to be lurching? It is likely that bombings without ground support and aid for militias that lack the incentive structure or legitimacy to act as a substitute for a national government will be less effective than a coordinated campaign supporting a unified country. Additionally, by giving preference to certain groups over others, the US risks sowing division among the various militias and change the peace process in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways.
This outlines the greatest difficulty facing the efforts to defeat ISIL in Libya: a deeply divided country, laden with an eclectic patchwork of ideologies and organizations, which lacks the necessary strength and cohesion to confront ISIL, a well-organized enemy that has doubled in strength to 5,000 men in recent months and holds several important coastal towns. If things continue as they have, the country’s enormous oil industry will risk slipping under ISIL’s control, bankrolling the organization. Furthermore, control of Libya’s ports will give ISIL easier access to the Mediterranean, which significantly increases its proximity to Europe and magnifies the capability of international terrorism to target the West.
Although the kinds of divisions that stand in the way of unity governance in Libya are not easily overcome, doing so is both possible and necessary. Only once a united Libyan government is established can proposals to combat ISIL in the region be discussed and implemented effectively.
The US does in fact have the tools to speed up the unification process. It should act as a peacekeeper to assuage the tensions that encourage militias to stay self-sufficient. Without putting boots on the ground, this might be accomplished by selecting a major city or territory to be neutral ground, where a government could form without the looming threat of one faction overpowering the other, in the same style as recent Libyan neutral-ground negotiations. An arrangement wherein both sides, and their component tribes and militias, contributed troops in equal numbers to the protection of this designated region, the UN contributed peacekeepers to the same purpose, and the US provided expertise and humanitarian resources to the cause would be ideal for a unified government to be successfully formed. While stability might be achieved without UN peacekeepers, the presence of such a legitimate, non-partisan buffer force would be highly desirable. As a member of the UN Security Council, the US should at least introduce the idea. At such a critical juncture in ensuring both the nature of Libyan governance and the defeat of ISIL, it looks like the perfect time for the UN to invest for maximum impact.
From there, it would be vital to repurpose the resources of militias quickly by incorporating explicitly anti-ISIL militias like Brigade 166 into an official Libyan Army. In addition, it would be key to use the new legitimacy and security that unification would bring to convince militias that are ambivalent about ISIL to take part in the efforts by contributing tanks, missiles, and other power projectors that aren’t needed for defense. While it may be foolhardy to believe that every militia will part with all of their defensive insurance at the first sign of unification, there is a better chance they can be convinced to part with big-ticket items and keep small arms and other resources more suitable for day-to—day security. It is important to learn from other, abortive attempts to organize antiterrorism forces and encourage a clear command structure outside of traditions and factionalism. Once a Libyan army is unified and equipped in such a manner, the US would be back in the familiar territory of providing air support, special operations, information, humanitarian resources, and training to the operation.
The US should not succumb to pressure by the pundit class to act quickly for the sake of action, nor should it stand by and do nothing while the UN process drags on. It has a role to play in orchestrating and supporting the neutral zones that can catalyze unification through security, advising and incentivizing the creation of an effective national army, and then pursuing ISIL militarily in tandem with a strong new ally. Weakening ISIL will require some work to strengthen Libya first.