- Recent US air strikes and reports of covert action by Western special forces reflect heightened concern over the regional threat from Islamic State (IS) in Libya, where the group has exploited the long-running political crisis to expand its territorial control.
- A deal to form a national unity government was reached in December 2015, but its implementation will continue to be undermined by disagreements between the rival factions over the make-up of the new cabinet.
- Without a representative government in place, Western powers will be reluctant to establish a more formal security partnership with Libya to counter IS, and thus will continue to rely on more limited military options such as air strikes and special forces operations.
- These measures alone, however, are unlikely to dislodge IS from its current strongholds, providing the group with the opportunity to further expand its influence within Libya.
The political situation in Libya remains precarious despite a UN-backed deal reached in December 2015 to unify the country’s two rival parliaments and create a single, provisional administration known as the Government of National Accord (GNA). The Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) was announced after months of difficult talks and represents progress towards resolving the political vacuum in Libya. The country has been in a persistent state of civil war since the Libyan Dawn militia seized Tripoli in August 2014, forcing the recognised parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk where it remains. After taking Tripoli, Libya Dawn and its allies reconstituted the defunct General National Congress (GNC) and declared it the country’s sole legitimate authority, precipitating persistent clashes between the rival factions and their allies.
Despite external pressure, implementation of the LPA has been delayed by continued disagreement among Libya’s rival factions. The nine-member Presidency Council, a UN-backed executive body established to preside over the transitional period, has faced internal divisions over the appointment of the GNA’s cabinet. Council members Ali Gatrani and Omar al-Aswad have opposed the nomination as defence minister of Mahdi Al-Barghathian, who is an opponent of Khalifa Haftar, the powerful but controversial head of Libya’s military. Haftar retains strong support among many members of the Tobruk-based parliament and other eastern groups, but is strongly opposed by the GNC in Tripoli.
The two dissenting Council members have also opposed a measure that would see the Presidency Council assume command over the armed forces, a move that would further undermine Haftar’s position. On 28 January, HoR lawmakers voted to back the LPA in principle, but voted against a clause that would transfer power over the armed forces to the Presidency Council in a bid to maintain Haftar’s influence over the military. Other supporters of Haftar have, meanwhile, called for the Presidency Council to be reduced to just three members, a measure that would require a renegotiation of the LPA and thus could lead to its collapse.
Regional support for the GNA in doubt
Although there is evidence of strong support for the unity government among HoR lawmakers, there are still significant factions opposed to the GNA in Tobruk. On 23 February a vote on the cabinet was forcibly prevented by around 10 members of the Cyrenaica federalist bloc, a group within the HoR that is opposed to the unity government. Even were the cabinet to be approved by the recognised parliament, the inclusion of former Gaddafi-era officials as ministers, along with uncertainty over the future role of Khalifa Haftar, may provoke opposition from the rival GNC and its supporters, which includes Islamist factions and militias.
Under the LPA, the GNC is set to assume a new role as the State Council and act as a second consultative legislative chamber. The GNC is not required to vote on the unity government for it to assume office but the extent of support among allies of the Tripoli regime for the peace process remains unclear, raising the possibility of future challenges to the new administration should it be approved. In January, GNC head Nouri Abusahmain resumed his criticism of the agreement, underscoring the challenge in unifying Libya’s divided political factions. Moreover while the LPA calls for the unity government to be based in Tripoli, some local militias there have threatened to use force to prevent such a move.
Opposition to the LPA exists in other influential communities, including Tebu and Tuareg tribal groups who cite insufficient protection of minority rights. As such, the prospects for the UN-backed political process, which is viewed suspiciously by many Libyans given the deep involvement of foreign actors in its creation, remains uncertain and vulnerable to domestic political rivalries. Therefore, despite pressure from the UN and Western powers, and a continued deterioration of domestic economic and security conditions, Libya’s political crisis is likely to persist as competition between opposing factions continues.
Political agreement key to prospects for Western intervention
In reaction to growing alarm over the strength of IS in Libya, particularly in the oil-rich Sirte basin since 2015, Western powers have begun to step up direct and indirect action against the group. Western action includes US air strikes on an IS base in Sabratha on 19 February, and, on 24 February, French newspaper Le Monde reported that US, French and British special forces had carried out covert operations against IS militants in Libya. Both the air strike and special forces campaign have, however, been limited in scale, scope and duration, and thus are unlikely to seriously challenge the group’s presence in the country.
Western powers have said they are prepared to offer more direct assistance to Libya, but such measures are contingent on the emergence of a legitimate authority for foreign powers to partner with. Although no formal plan or commitments have been announced, multiple media outlets have reported that an Italian-led stabilisation force comprising soldiers, police and special forces could be deployed to Libya in a non-combat role. The force, which would include a few thousand Western soldiers, would help to train and assist the Libyan military, but only once a new government was established. Formation of a unity government is therefore not only critical to resolving Libya’s domestic political crisis, but also to unlocking greater external assistance, especially with regards to security. As concern grows in the West over the jihadist threat and the flow of migrants via Libya, Western powers will continue to consider options for greater intervention.
Absent political solution, intervention to remain limited
Weak governance and insecurity have provided a favourable environment for IS, which the Pentagon estimates now has up to 6,000 local fighters in the country, to mobilise support and consolidate its control over territory. IS has faced setbacks in its Libya campaign, including the loss of Ajdabiya in February and Derna in June 2015, developments which demonstrate the group can be defeated. However IS has not faced a credible challenge to its control over a nearly 200-km strip of land extending east from Sirte, its key stronghold in Libya, and a territory that IS leadership has identified as the group’s most important foothold outside of Iraq and Syria.
Several offensives against IS’s Sirte stronghold have been announced by militias loyal to the Tripoli-based administration, but these operations have failed to progress, with militia leaders citing insufficient manpower and weapons to credibly confront militants. An offensive launched by IS on 24 February in Sabratha, 70 km west of Tripoli, further demonstrates IS’s ability to carry out operations well beyond its stronghold in Sirte, as well as the absence of a sufficiently well-armed and well-organised force capable of challenging the group’s freedom of movement.
Without a political solution, Libya’s divided factions will struggle to mobilise a coordinated offensive that could dislodge the group from Sirte. In the interim, Western powers will continue to step up their covert action against IS, relying heavily on air strikes or covert special forces missions, though these are unlikely to reach the same levels seen in Iraq or Syria. Efforts to establish closer links between foreign powers and local forces could bring potential military gains, but also risk provoking a backlash given local antipathy to unilateral foreign intervention. These sorts of foreign interventions will also do little to address the flow of foreign fighters that has swelled the local ranks of IS, or prevent the group from extracting revenues from the populations under its control, and thus are unlikely to be successful in rolling back IS’s influence in Libya.