ISIS threat: Is Libya the next Syria?

Libya points to how the West is struggling to prevent fractured states from failing in the post-Arab Spring world. The presence of the Islamic State raises the stakes.

Andrew Medichini/AP
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini talks to US Secretary of State John Kerry during a 23-nation conference in Rome Tuesday. Nations fighting the Islamic State are discussing how to prevent the group from gaining in Libya.

A meeting of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State Tuesday in Rome came to one categorical conclusion: Libya cannot be permitted to become a new base for the terrorist organization.

What should be done to prevent the oil-rich nation a short boat ride from Europe from becoming the next Syria, however, was less clear. At the end of the day, members pledged simply to “closely monitor” events in Libya.

The decision did not necessarily represent a lack of will or urgency, but a lack of good options.

In the post-Arab Spring world, where the West can no longer count on stable but often authoritarian regimes as levers of foreign policy, Libya points to a broader problem seen across the Middle East. The traditional avenues for the international community to intervene and shape the region are vanishing, leaving the West searching for a new model.

With no one government in charge in Libya and warring factions battling over political clout and resources, those new avenues are not yet obvious.           

“I don’t think ‘monitoring’ is a great way to fight terrorism, but at the same time the options for action in Libya are not that easy and not that obvious,” says Katherine Zimmerman, a terrorism expert at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. “Without a responsible government or a state to work with, any intervention by the international community risks playing into the ISIS narrative and strengthening them.”

The international community has few, if any, examples of how to successfully intervene in a Muslim country with a mushrooming Islamist extremist presence. But one of the cardinal rules, particularly for the West, is to take action in support of a national government.

The problem is that Libya has no government, but rather two warring factions that according to a United Nations Security Council resolution approved in December are supposed to have formed a national unity government by now. That government has been created but has not replaced the two principal factions – meaning that at the moment Libya has three “governments” jockeying for power, Ms. Zimmerman says.

The Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS, is taking advantage of Libya’s power vacuum to extend control beyond its stronghold of Sirte on Libya’s Mediterranean coast. Islamic State militants this week seized another city on the main road between Sirte and Misrata, Zimmerman says, and in past weeks have set their sights on oil installations.

These steady gains have led to a rising sense of “here we go again” in capitals from Cairo to Paris and renewed demands for preemptive action before the Islamic State takes deeper root and becomes much more difficult to dislodge.

“I don’t think we can afford at this time to put off action,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters Tuesday. “If we’re not careful and proactive, you could see an Islamic State in Libya … an area that is effectively governed by ISIS in Libya, and Libya’s proximity to serve as a gateway into southern Europe.”

The California congressman says he is mindful of the preference to act alongside a national government, but he adds that delay only helps the Islamic State.

His recommendation: follow “both tracks” – diplomatic pressure on Libya’s leadership and military action against the Islamic State in Libya.

The United States has already taken some action against the Islamic State in Libya. A November air raid killed a senior commander in the city of Derna, the Pentagon said in December. And last week, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said “there have been US forces on the ground in Libya, trying to establish contact with forces on the ground.”

The point, Mr. Cook said, was to try to determine which forces might be “worthy of US support” in an eventual fight with the Islamic State in Libya.

Despite US involvement, however, Libya is seen as a much greater worry to Europe. Any major coalition action would likely come as a European initiative, says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official who is now a defense policy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Further Islamic State gains “might prompt the Europeans to do something,” says Dr. Korb, noting that the French and British led the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya against strongman Muammar Qaddafi. 

British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond on Tuesday denied reports that Britain is preparing to send 1,000 troops to Libya. But he said Britain was prepared to provide weapons and other support once a unity government is formed.

But Western intervention in Libya could play into the Islamic State’s hands, say both Korb and Zimmerman.

“If you go in there are you going to make the civil war in Libya worse,” Korb asks, “and does that do more to strengthen ISIS than to disrupt it?”

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