Profiting from a vacuum of power in Libya, the Islamic State (IS) group has strengthened its grip on Sirte. The terrorists have established checkpoints that expand their influence on approximately 120 miles of Libyan coastline.
There has also been an increase in the number of foreign jihadists, with emirs in the group diverting volunteers to set up on its shores, rather than travelling to Syria and Iraq – the countries where the IS formations are losing ground, especially as the operation to recapture Mosul has been launched in Iraq and Raqqa, the terrorists «capital» located in Syria, has become a target for the upcoming anti-Islamic State (IS) offensive to be launched soon.
As the United Nations is leading negotiations to bring rival parliaments and militias in Libya together under a government of national accord, the Obama administration is mulling taking much more sustained military action against the group in Libya.
The US Department of Defense has presented the White House with the detailed set of military options yet for military intervention in Libya, including 30 to 40 targets in four areas of the country to strike the Islamic State affiliate and open the way for Western-backed Libyan militias to launch a ground operation. Airstrikes would be carried out to support the militias on the ground. A New York Times article published on March 8 says, the military option was described by five American officials who have been briefed on the plans and spoke about them on the condition of anonymity because of their confidential nature.
The article reports that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter outlined this option to President Obama’s top national security advisers at a so-called principals meeting on Feb. 22.
Bob Corker, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a hearing on Libya, US military forces were «contemplating a pretty massive air assault» in the country. Speaking to The Telegraph he expanded the suggestion of military action, saying something «large in scale» was being considered, but declined to add detail.
Donald Bolduc, Commander of US special-operations forces in Africa, announced that the US could intervene in the African country even if the Libyans manage to reach an agreement and form a government.
Britain, America, Italy and France have all deployed special operations forces (SOF) in the country to re-establish links with militia groups who are fighting IS already.
Italy in particular is playing a crucial role in preparing for the opening of renewed military operations in its former colony. A joint military operations center has been established in Rome, and an agreement was reached in February to allow the United States to carry out airstrikes in defense of SOF deployed in Libya, using manned aircraft and drones stationed at Sigonella airbase in Sicily. Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni announced his country’s readiness to lead military operations to install security and stability in Libya upon the request of the Government of National Accord (GNA) as soon as one is formed.
On March 1, he told Italian newspapers that planning and coordination between the various defense systems on the potential contribution to the security of Libya reached very advanced levels, stressing that it is continuous since several weeks, in which he discussed regional crises, the fight against extremism, developments in Libya and migration.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on February 29 that America would support Italy if it leads an operation in Libya.
On March 4, an article published by Italian Repubblica wrote that preparations are on the way for the largest landing operation since the allied operations in Africa during WWII.
Gianluca Di Feo, the author of the piece (published only in Italian), writes that the countdown to the start of military operations in the Mediterranean Sea has begun. According to estimates, the contingent may be 7 thousand troops strong. At least 5 thousand servicemen will be needed to ensure the safety of the infrastructure – ports, airports, oil rigs. Two-thirds will be supplied by Italy. The first troops could advance within 10 days to take control of the airport. In any case, the implementation of operation in the initial phase will be fully entrusted to the Italian troops. Some countries are actively involved in the plans, for example the UK. Germany and Spain are weighing the options. Smaller countries have offered assistance in specialized areas. The US will provide ships, airplanes and SOF. The allied forces will use the territory of Tunisia. The British had already received permission to deploy forces in Tunisia Fourth Brigade, the famous "Desert Rat" Marshal Montgomery, while Germany may send its troops – the first military presence in Africa since the Second World War.
The EU is to be part of the planned campaign. A recent document released by WikiLeaks has put the spotlight on the EU’s plans for military action against refugee boats coming from Libya, with the ultimate goal of entering Libyan waters and possibly even operating inside the country. «From a military perspective, we are ready to move to phase 2B (Territorial Waters) where we can make a more significant impact on the smuggler and traffickers' business model», states the report.
It makes remember the strategy paper for the EU’s anti-smuggling campaign that was obtained by the Guardian last year, which stated: «A presence ashore might be envisaged if agreement was reached with relevant authorities».
The leaked strategy paper makes clear, the phases could eventually involve a variety of operations. «The operation would require a broad range of air, maritime and land capabilities», the paper states. «These could include: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units». It also states that land operations could involve «action along the coast, in harbor or at anchor [against] smugglers’ assets and vessels before their use». So, the document actually states it clear – European forces are likely to have frequent run-ins with terrorists if operating on Libyan soil and waters. An attack on EU forces could easily drag countries into the fight against Libyan terrorists.
In 2011 the supposedly humanitarian operation conducted by NATO resulted in the de facto partition of Libya between multiple competing factions.
While the official position of the US and its European allies is that they will wait to launch military operations until the formation of a national unity government in Libya, they appear to be losing patience giving the operation a slow start with SOF already operating on the ground and aircraft from the US, France and Great Britain flying reconnaissance flights over the country. Gianluca Di Feo nailed it when he wrote that the countdown has started.
The reason is obvious – an expanded military operation in Libya will be an element of much broader effort to block hundreds of thousands of refugees who continue to flee to safety in Europe from their home countries in the Middle East and North Africa, areas which have been devastated as a result of West-supported «Arab Spring» and the following disastrous events.
The broader effort is on the way. For instance, in recent days the European Union and NATO have ramped up military operations in the Aegean Sea, seeking to push back those refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking to reach Greece by boat from Turkey.
Patience is running thin and there is speculation that if a national government in Libya is not agreed upon soon, Italy may push a plan to split Libya into three mini-states.
If foreign intervention takes place in Libya, it has to be approved by the UN Security Council, invited by Libyan authorities, done in coordination with Libyan forces, and conducted under international supervision. Looks like it it’s not the only option under consideration as time is running out.
The intervention in Libya may take place in March. Spring is the season when most of the military interventions take place (Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011). Thus, we may see another war pretty soon.
Many experts believe that the «secret» military operations of the US, France and Great Britain against IS in Libya may instigate armed conflicts in other countries of the continent as the militants will move to other countries, like Tunisia, Algiers or Chad, for instance.
Military strikes conducted in such a way in a foreign territory may cause a backlash within the population. Foreign intervention that is not invited by the recognized Libyan government and is not coordinated with Libyan forces on the ground may unleash anti-Western sentiments like it has happened so many times before.
It should be realized that the Islamic State group is not the problem but rather a symptom of the crisis. Striking IS formations is like cutting the head off a hydra, it will regenerate. The evil cannot be defeated until a solution is found to the conditions that led to its foothold in Libya: the destabilization of the country resulting from the NATO’s intervention of 2011. To rout the group, one has to solve the crisis of the Libyan state and bring back order and stability.
One could only hope this time the West would learn the lessons of the past and respect international law.