The raging ISIS storm in Libya — torn along tribal lines and beset with political chaos — has heightened the fear that it would further extend the arc of instability that has been rattling the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 Arab Spring revolutions and ineffective international response to the upheaval.
Intelligence estimates say the ISIS, also known as ISIL and Daesh or IS, has around 6,500 fighters running amok over several ungoverned Libyan areas, as the militant group evades international pressure in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds and gains foothold elsewhere.
Libya, where political unity has been elusive since the international community left the country to fend for itself after 2011 NATO military intervention, is too fragile to put up a combined front against a mix of foreign militants including those from Sudan and Syrian and Iraqi conflict theaters. Libyans interviewed in a latest BBC programme say Sirte, the hometown of former ruler Moammar Gaddafi, who was toppled and killed during the Libyan civil war in 2011, is effectively under control of foreigners.
Libyan political turmoil spun out of control in 2014 and since then uncertainty has persisted with two rival governments and parliaments, one operating from the capital Tripoli and the other from the eastern city of Tobruk – a stronghold of ISIS terrorists.
Implications of an ISIS stranglehold on Libya — the Maghreb country with the 10th largest oil reserves — are frightening. Italy, just 300 miles away, will face a spectre of insecurity, and with it rest of the Europe that is already a divided house in dealing with the Syrian refugees crisis.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolutions and the only success story of democratic emancipation, lies in the west of Libya, and two terror attacks that hit the country last year were traced to Libya-based militants. Tunis has just completed a 125-mile long barrier to stop any inflow of Libya-based militants and plans electronic monitoring of the frontier. But Tunisia risks sliding into uncertainty from spillover of Libyan militancy wars, if there is no effective government in Tripoli. Already thousands of Tunisians have traveled to Syria as ISIS fighters.
Another key neighbor to Libya’s east is Egypt, which is the largest Arab country with a population of 80 million people and has tremendous strategic relevance to Israeli-Palestinian equation. Cairo carried out air strikes last year after execution of Coptic Christians in Libya and analysts believe its policy to curb militancy on Libyan border syncs with the Egyptian military government’s containment of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Similarly, Algeria, long a hotbed of militancy in the past, faces new challenges and last month it canceled flights to Tripoli after hundred of Moroccans tried to travel to Libya. The crisscrossing of fighters in the region including those from Sudan means militants could have a field day all over Libya – with fears of a domino effect spiraling from the Middle East to the Mediterranean, North Africa, African insurgencies and Europe.
For its part, the United States has asked the Pentagon to look at the military options but the Obama Administration has ruled out a large-scale American ground troops’ intervention to arrest the Libyan descent. Defense Secretary Ash Carton has also discounted the possibility of US going it alone. However, President Barack Obama in recent days tasked his national security advisors with exploring ways that may step up counterterrorism efforts. Analysts and media reports suggest the US options may range from targeted strikes to CIA paramilitary missions to Special Forces operations to stem the ISIS expansion. Meanwhile, the European countries including Britain and Italy are also reportedly planning military action in Libya.
Washington recently dispatched a team of security experts to Libya to assess the precariousness of the evolving situation that may help ascertain if local groups could help combat the ballooning Daesh threat.
Simultaneously, Washington has stepped up efforts to forge a common front by uniting the local stakeholders in Libya. The rival parliaments and tribal groups have been fighting for control of Tripoli with the result that militant groups have exploited the power vacuum and formation of a government of national unity remains a tall order despite UN efforts. In fact, due to tribal nature of the Libyan population and long periods of repression, the country has never had a semblance of stability since the overthrow and killing of former dictator Gaddafi in 2011. In September 2012, militants killed U.S. Ambassador J Christopher Stevens, and three others in an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, a issue with divisive ramifications in American politics to this day.
Secondly, cobbling together an international coalition to rescue Libya would also be a challenge. The question facing any coalition military action is stark: What happens the day after. The 2011 NATO campaign failed to stabilise Libya, as the international community could not address political instability through a comprehensive engagement that domestic Libyan fractures and fault lines demanded.
Then the steep Iraqi collapse following the 2011 withdrawal of all US and international forces with ISIS as an offshoot also questions the rationale of international strategy that initially depends on military dimension but ends up without any long-term multifaceted engagement with a conflict-hit country.
On the other hand, if a country is left to conflicting forces within, as happened in Syria, the repercussions could be as horrible and wide-ranging.
Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post, the United States aims at enlisting individual countries, primarily in Europe, to work with the US in taking action in Libya. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter will discuss options to fight ISIS in a meeting with his counterparts at the NATO Headquarters Brussels next week.
Back in the United States, President Obama faces another stiff decision between two difficult choices in the last year of his presidency — American military involvement in another Muslim country with controversies surrounding Afghan and Iraq wars still looming or avoid any direct American intervention as had been the case for years with Syria, whose civil war implosion is now continuously challenging the international system. Some analysts suggest proceeding in a balancing act manner in a coalition of Western and regional Middle Eastern countries may be the best available course.
Adding to the urgency is Russia’s comeback as a military player in the region. In Syria, Moscow is pursuing its clear-cut goal of saving Bashar al-Assad regime by removing any opposition with military actions. In recent weeks, Vladimir Putin has increased its contacts and consultations with regional countries on the Libyan predicament.
Obama’s decision will not only be a factor in determining his legacy in terms of US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa but also test the new White House leader emerging from 2016 presidential election.