Since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi, Libya has been in a state of deepening chaos. The country is divided between two rival governments, a UN recognised administration in Tobruk and an Islamist in the capital Tripoli. Recently, this chaos has grown more pronounced with the arrival of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) or Daesh . The militants have established a stronghold in Libya and are working to expand their control. The country has also seen the growth of large scale smuggling of refugees to Europe. (Note on terminology: The people moving from Libya to Europe come from a variety of countries, and many will not technically qualify for asylum seeker status as refugees, however in keeping with al Jazeera and other media outlets, I will refer to all those making the journey from Libya to Europe as refugees.)
In 2011, NATO forces intervened with airstrikes to assist rebel forces fighting against the Qadhafi regime. NATO airstrikes tipped the balance for the rebels, and contributed to the destruction of Qadhafi’s armed forces and regime (see below). After the overthrow of Qadhafi, various militias and armed groups struggled for power, leading to the divided government we see today. In the absence of a central government, armed groups including ISIS have flourished, along with people smuggling gangs, contributing to the twin crises of rising militancy and Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis.
Recently, there has been increasing talk about the possibility of renewed intervention in Libya. Various media outlets and think tanks have been speculating about intervention, on the grounds of combatting the growth of ISIS, and helping to restore peace between the warring factions and militias. Another, often unspoken goal is to help reduce the flow of refugees, outlined in a separate EU plan which has apparently been shelved. These plans share an implicit assumption that military force, which devastated the Libyan state in 2011, can now be used to help rebuild the country.
Neither of the above objectives, containing or destroying ISIS and halting refugee/migrant traffic across the Mediterranean to Italy, can be achieved by military means. The first objective falls into the trap of believing that ISIS is like any other conventional military adversary, which can be targeted and destroyed methodically. As ISIS has proved in Iraq and Syria, its forces are adept at adapting their tactics to airstrikes. By dispersing its fighters and taking shelter among the civilian population, ISIS can nullify the effectiveness of airstrikes or targeted missile attacks.
This leaves Western forces with two options if they wish to defeat or even seriously degrade ISIS’s fighting capability. They can either deploy their own ground forces to fight ISIS directly, or they can try and coordinate with local Libyan forces. Deployment of Western soldiers in meaningful numbers is improbable. After the United States’ experiences in Iraq, and in the middle of an election year any American deployment would be politically toxic. With Europe mired in sluggish economic growth, constant political squabbling and budgets for defence expenditure substantially reduced any intervention in Libya is doubtful. Ground forces are thus unlikely to be forthcoming from either side.
This leaves Western powers with no other choice but to coordinate with whatever Libyan forces they can recruit to their cause. As the American experience in Iraq has shown, depending on local forces, even a national army, is costly in terms of time and resources. Despite huge investment by the American government in training and equipping the Iraqi army, not to mention embedding advisors and providing close air support, progress against ISIS has been extremely slow, with the crucial city of Mosul out of reach until next year at least.
In the case of Libya, intervening Western forces are starting from an even lower base. The Libyan National Army is effectively the personal militia of former Qadhafi general Khalifa Haftar. The UN backed government in eastern Libya and its rival in Tripoli both depend on unwieldy coalitions of militias to stay in power and maintain security. Each militia is effectively an independent force operating under its own rules and according to its own specific objectives. Western intervention that does not actively involve the rival Tripoli and Tobruk governments and their allies risks drawing the Western forces deeper into Libya’s internal conflict.
In addition to the danger of becoming a player in the civil war, Western intervention would destroy the legitimacy of the UN backed government, by making it appear to be the West’s pawn. Western airstrikes, with their inevitable civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure, would act as a massive propaganda coup for ISIS and hence an effective recruiting tool. Instead of defeating ISIS, the Western intervening forces might end up fighting against the Libyan people themselves while simultaneously making ISIS stronger, a disaster even greater than the initial 2011 intervention which helped to create the current crisis.
Intervention to try and halt the flow of refugees would also face great difficulties. The smuggling networks which facilitate the flow of refugees stretch much further than Libya, deep into North and West Africa. Talk about destroying the boats which launch refugees is also futile, as smugglers rarely go out themselves, and source their boats locally from Libyan fishermen, making tracking such boats nearly impossible. Smuggling gangs are often deeply embedded in local towns and social structures, and the lucrative nature of the trade makes it extremely attractive to locals with poor job prospects. Like all highly profitable illicit trades, migrant trafficking often involves multiple local and regional actors. In Libya, trafficking often involves the corruption of local government authority and in some cases the active involvement of local militias..
The EU cannot attempt to militarily police the entire length of the North African smuggling routes, nor can it patrol the entire length of the Libyan coast. Such an operation would be prohibitively expensive and would likely encounter armed resistance from local militias and smuggling gangs, not to mention the rival Libyan government in Tripoli who would see such an intervention as a violation of Libyan sovereignty. As with intervention against ISIS, such a move would likely inflame anti-EU and anti-Western sentiments and destroy the legitimacy of the eastern, UN backed government.
Military intervention in Libya, whether through air power, advisors or even boots on the ground, is likely to exacerbate the problems currently facing Libya, and by extension the West. ISIS has proven in Iraq and Syria that it can survive and thrive in the face of sustained Western pressure. It is thus highly un-likely that such tactics would achieve a different outcome in Libya without the support of ground forces, Libyan or otherwise. In addition, Western bombing can become a powerful recruitment tool for ISIS, meaning such an intervention might actually make the situation worse.
The same rationale applies to migrant trafficking. The lucrative nature of trafficking combined with Libya’s abysmal economic situation means that it will always remain an attractive option. Outright prohibition is impossible, and attempts to pursue smuggling networks will only inflame Libyan opposition while failing to address the problem itself. The EU and US need to rethink their strategy towards Libya and towards the Middle East in general. Until the default response to any crisis, from ISIS to migration stops being airstrikes, Western powers will find themselves stuck in a never ending cycle of policy failure.
Workable policy solutions will be hard to find. The ongoing UN peace process and attempts to form a unity government need to be continued and broadened, while diplomatically removing divisive figures like Haftar to ease tensions. The immediate focus must be on isolating ISIS and creating a broad based coalition of Libyan groups to confront the militants, while also providing non-military aid and financial support to local groups like the “Masked Men” of Zuwara who are working to curtail people smuggling. Supporting home grown Libyan efforts like the Masked Men and the emerging anti-ISIS forces while avoiding military intervention remains the only viable way to defeat militancy and people smuggling, and to restore peace to Libya.
Niall McGlynn is a graduate in history and science from Trinity College Dublin. He is currently studying for a Masters in International Relations at Leiden University. He has written articles on Irish and global affairs for Trinity News and thejournal.ie, and blogged about both subjects with his brothers at http://lazyhermes.blogspot.ie/. Niall tweets at @NiallMcGlynn1.
Cover image ‘Libya crisis 2012, 30 May‘ by European Commission DG ECHO