On February 19, US warplanes struck multiple targets in Libya including an Islamic State (IS) training camp near Sabratha not far from the Tunisian border, and a senior extremist leader.
The airstrike was conducted by a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, with two US F-15s from Lakenheath in England. Dozens of people were killed in the bombing raid, according to local officials and activists. Warplanes struck a house 6 miles outside the city center, Sabratha's municipal administration said.
A senior US official told NBC News the airstrike likely killed Tunisian IS operative Noureddine Chouchane.
The raid came after President Barack Obama warned that Washington was prepared to strike inside Libya. «We will continue to take actions where there is a clear target in mind», he said at the ASEAN summit on February 16.
The Obama administration has vowed to strike key targets when opportunities arise. The strike did not appear to mark the beginning of a sustained US campaign in Libya but a Pentagon spokesman said, «it may not be the last».
The spokesman, Peter Cook, said the US is determined to stop the Islamic State from «gaining traction» in Libya. Cook said the training camp was «relatively new», and that the US has identified similar Islamic State training camps elsewhere in Libya, suggesting potential future strikes in defense of regional and US national security interests.
The Pentagon said in January that US Special Forces were in Libya seeking to «partner» local militias to tackle the Islamic State.
British, French and Italian special forces also have been there helping with aerial surveillance, mapping and intelligence gathering in several cities, including Benghazi in the east and Zintan in the west, according to two Libyan military officials.
Last week UK foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood revealed RAF warplanes are now flying missions over Libya.
It makes spring to mind the statement made on January 22, by Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The US top military official made the plans of US government crystal clear by saying, «It’s fair to say that we’re looking to take decisive military action against Islamic State in conjunction with the political process [in Libya]… The president has made clear that we have the authority to use military force».
Administration officials say, the campaign in Libya could begin in a matter of weeks. They anticipate it would be conducted with the help of a handful of European allies, including Britain, France and Italy.
On February 18, the Al-Khaleej daily newspaper published the following piece by Kamal Belhadi, «All the signs indicate that the military preparations are now in their final phases and that the political coordination is at its highest levels especially following the latest Rome meeting between the foreign ministers of the anti-IS alliance. However, the Arab positions seem unclear, and the structure of the Maghreb Union has been paralyzed for years…»
«Many views indicate that the intervention in Libya will take place in March and the blows that are currently taking place aim at preparing the ground for the general attack. Spring is the season where most of the military interventions take place (Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011). Thus, there seems to be very little time to prepare for a highly dangerous situation especially since the social situation is no less explosive and dangerous than the regional situation», the author added.
So far, the US-led coalition has backed United Nations efforts to mediate an end to Libya’s civil war in the hope that a unity government can persuade the country’s fractious militias to turn their guns on the militants. But the UN’s unity government plan was rejected by the Tobruk parliament on January 25. It gives rise to fear that delaying action against Isis will see it capture and destroy Libya’s strategically vital oil ports.
Libya’s proximity to Europe is a special security concern for Western countries, particularly Mediterranean ones. Not only would Libya be ideally suited as a launching pad for terrorist attacks, greater conflict could produce even more refugees, the problem Europe has struggled so hard to manage. Moreover, Western countries are concerned that the Islamic State could further destabilize nearby countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Italy and Spain are particularly concerned about how Libyan insecurity would affect their oil and natural gas interests if the IS group starts to advance westward. For these reasons, it appears increasingly likely that a military intervention is in the offing. Geographically, Libya's flat, open terrain lends itself more easily to troop movement and precision airstrikes than the mountainous areas of Syria.
As the Obama administration draws up plans to open a third front in the war against the Islamic State, there is no meaningful debate in Congress about the wisdom of launching a military operation. A new military intervention in Libya would represent a significant progression of a war that could easily spread to other countries. It will take place at the time when the US is getting increasingly involved in Syria and Iraq. Even if the Pentagon and its allies were to strike Islamic State targets successfully, it remains uncertain that they would have a reliable ground force to operate on the ground and hold the terrain. Legally the operation will be predicated on the 2001 law (the Authorization for Use of Military Force – AUMF) passed to take action after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist acts. It authorized the United States Armed Forces to carry out attacks against those responsible for the tragedy. The issue has not been revisited by US lawmakers since then making it possible to sidestep Congress on an important war vote. «We believe that this was carried out under international law and, specifically, that this operation was consistent with domestic and international law», Cook said, while not explicitly referring to any particular legislation. He added that the operation was conducted «with the knowledge of Libyan authorities».
Mark C Toner, State Department Deputy Spokesperson, also failed to give a definite answer. When asked to specify what «Libyan authorities» he referred to, Toner seemed to be at a loss, saying that «there is some governmental structure present [there]».
«The new – well, I mean, there’s obviously Libyan authorities on the ground», he replied to a question about Libya’s recently announced unity government. «It’s not – we’re still working to stand up the Government of National Accord. We want to see it returned and establish itself in Tripoli».
Both spokesmen representing two US departments have failed to give an answer regarding the legal aspect of the military actions in Libya! The answer is very simple – as yet, there is no government in Libya with the authority to approve such operations. There is also no international law to go upon as there has been no UN Security Council’s resolution.
The action is illegal and fraught with grave consequences. Without broad international support the US and allies will get bogged down unable to do anything to stop internal frays. For instance, Turkey is supporting Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, a group that can hardly be viewed as a US ally there.
The International Contact Group for Libya (ICG-L) incorporates 26 organizations and individual countries, including Russia, the US and China. On January 26, the group held its meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In the Conclusions of the meeting participants «underscored the importance of coordinated international action and continuous consultations and information sharing».
The Conclusions says nothing about unilateral actions. To the contrary, the document emphasized the importance of a collective effort. The US signed the document. Now it has started to act on its own to deliver air strikes in open violation of international law with the lessons of Iraq obviously forgotten.