It is time to take action against Islamic State in Libya
Feb 6th 2016 Economist
Barack Obama is far from achieving his declared aim to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State (IS), the self-styled caliphate that straddles parts of Iraq and Syria. But at least it is being rolled back in some places. Ramadi in Iraq was retaken in December. Oil installations controlled by IS have been bombed, sapping the economic and the fighting power of the jihadists. In Libya, though, the picture is more alarming: the caliphate is building a sprawling new “province” on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, just a few hundred miles from Europe. This is the new front in the war against jihadism.
Unchallenged by Western forces, and exploiting the absence of a functioning state as rival national governments in Tripoli and Tobruk bicker and skirmish, IS has taken control of the city of Sirte and controls roughly 180 miles (290km) of coastline. It already counts 5,000 or so fighters, threatens not just Libya’s duelling governments but also neighbours such as Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. It has attacked Libyan oil terminals and ports, and raided towns ever closer to Tripoli. The expansion of IS could prompt another flood of refugees from Libya to Europe, with the obvious potential of terrorist infiltration. Libya has burned through most of its foreign reserves—perversely, oil exports are paying gunmen from both the Tripoli and Tobruk alliances—and one-sixth of its 6m people are suffering from malnutrition. This year Libya is predicted to have the world’s fastest-shrinking economy.
It makes little sense to squeeze IS in one battlefield only to let it grow somewhere else. Belatedly, Italy, France and Britain—and, crucially, America, too—are drawing up plans for military action. If there is one lesson from the interventions of the past, it is the importance of securing a degree of political legitimacy and working with competent forces on the ground who can seize back territory from extremists and hold it. Western forces would, ideally, be invited in by a new unity government. But UN-led talks have dragged on for months, stymied by the refusal of the Islamist-influenced government in Tripoli to accept that it lost an election in June 2014 and to make peace with the winners of that poll, who fled to Tobruk. More recently they are being held up by the refusal of both parliaments to accept the UN’s latest proposal for a unity government.
More intensive diplomacy is needed to push the two sides into a deal, using whatever leverage is available. As part of that process, the West will have to support the new Libya generously with money, as well as military backing, humanitarian relief and investment to get the oil flowing again. America, which has been negligently absent from Libya since the killing of its ambassador and three others in attacks in Benghazi in 2012, needs to apply its muscle, too.
Many in the West still prefer to wait for a political deal. But there are growing dangers in allowing IS to expand. The jihadists must be contained, lest they gain control of Libya’s oil facilities, or destroy them to hasten the break-up of the country by denying it its main source of revenue.
The West could first help train and stiffen the mostly ineffective 27,000-strong Petroleum Facilities Guard. Second, it could declare no-drive zones around key facilities, and bomb IS units from the air if they get too close. Third, Western air forces could go after IS arms dumps and command-and-control centres, as they have done in Syria. This need not involve large numbers of Western troops, and it might even be possible to gain UN support. None of this will defeat IS but it would buy more time to reach a political deal. Ultimately, that still offers the best chance of shutting down the caliphate’s third front.