Last month’s terrorist attack on Tunisia’s national museum highlighted the threat posed by the rise of the Islamic State in Libya. There is a sense of urgency in the West that something must be done before violence by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and its affiliates spreads even further and reaches Europe. Last week, the United Nations Security Council voted to extend the fight against the Islamic State to Libya, but it is unclear how this will be implemented.
Bernardino Leon, the United Nations special envoy for Libya, has been trying for months to broker a deal between the major Libyan factions with two goals: a cease-fire and a national unity government. This would bring together the internationally recognized House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk, which is dominated by anti-Islamists, and Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamists, militias from the western city of Misrata and armed groups close to the Berber minority.
Talks are moving slowly and the fighting is escalating quickly. The Tobruk government, with help from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is waging war in the name of the fight against the Islamic State and Islamic terrorism in general. Libya Dawn’s stated aim is to fight the return of elements of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s old regime.
The United Nations-sponsored talks won’t succeed as long as the fighting continues. And there can’t be an effective dialogue as long as the warring factions remain happier with the status quo.
The goals of ending Libya’s civil war and weakening the Islamic State are interwoven. For all the announcements of a forthcoming “liberation” of Benghazi or Tripoli, the armed groups headed by Gen. Khalifa Hifter that are loyal to the Tobruk government have so far failed to make any significant military inroads.
Europe and America need a new strategy. They cannot achieve their goals in Libya if they are in direct opposition to Egypt and the U.A.E., two important regional allies. But acquiescing and allowing the Egyptians and Emiratis to take the lead will not produce a quick fix. The solution is to combine politics and limited military force and to use formal and informal agreements to pressure all sides to seek a political solution.
The heart of this new strategy would be to convince Libyan factions to fight the Islamic State instead of each other.
This would address Egypt’s concerns about the rise of radicalism in Libya, while also tackling two crucial threats to Europe: the rise of human smuggling through the Mediterranean and the creation of yet another hub for radicalization of Western youth.
The United States and Europe should make clear that international military assistance will be withheld, and the arms embargo will not be lifted, until all Libyan factions demonstrate that they have united against Islamic State instead of bombing one another’s cities and airports. This would be a significant departure from the usual pattern, seen in both Iraq or Afghanistan, where international intervention led to thousands of Western casualties before an eventual decision was made to shift the burden of fighting to locals.
One may wonder why the warring factions should care about fighting the Islamic State at all. They care because the Islamic State poses an existential threat to both sides: Its fighters have attacked both the anti-Islamists loyal to Tobruk as well as the most extremist Islamists within Libya Dawn, labeling them as “apostates.”
This existential threat is what has brought them together for talks in the past month. In addition, the Security Council last week approved two resolutions that formally extended the fight against the Islamic State from Syria and Iraq to Libya and referred requests for further arm shipments to the Tobruk government to the United Nations’ sanctions committee.
The solution is to make external military and political support conditional on fighting the Islamic State and forming a national unity government. The Tobruk government and its allies have repeatedly asked for international support (either in the form of a United Nations mandate or authorization for arms purchases) because, as things stand, they don’t have a military edge. Their campaign has been stuck for months now on all major fronts: Tripoli, Benghazi and the oil-producing region of the country.
A nonaggression pact between factions opposed to the Islamic State would provide a more conducive environment for a political deal, after which a second phase of international involvement could begin.
After a national unity deal is reached, and upon request of the new government, the international community could then deploy a United Nations-mandated force in certain parts of Libya. Terrorism and instability can be better fought with a national guard, strengthened investigative capacities and a working judiciary. Building a national army can wait. Libya doesn’t face foreign aggression and demilitarizing the country must take priority.
If Europe and America do not change their approach soon, the West could unwittingly end up siding with the Tobruk government in the Libyan civil war. Doing so would lead to the usual vicious circle of Western intervention, radicalization and regional destabilization. Such an outcome would pose an even greater long-term threat.
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Mattia Toaldo is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.