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Analysis: Libya Intervention Urgent but Risky

  • Heather Murdock

A Libyan Army commander leads a parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Libyan Army in Martyrs Square, Tripoli, Aug 13, 2015.

A Libyan Army commander leads a parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Libyan Army in Martyrs Square, Tripoli, Aug 13, 2015.

After the Arab League again called for a new strategy to fight the Islamic State in Libya, the need for action has never been more urgent, according to security analysts and some regional leaders.

United Nations peace efforts have become “irrelevant” and militant groups based in Libya are threatening the entire region, the head of the Berlin-based security firm MOSECON, Yan St-Pierre, said. The Arab League has been pondering this idea since it was introduced by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in March.

“The Arab League needs to act on this,” St-Pierre said. “They need to build some type of coalition that will actually get something done and bring about a certain level of stability in Libya because this conflict is making them unstable.”

On Wednesday, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Dairi said Arab League members unanimously agreed on the need to form an Arab fighting force, spearheaded by Egypt, which has one of the region’s strongest militaries and arguably the most to lose from the chaos in Libya.

“We are looking forward for next week’s meeting on August 27 when we will officially form and establish the joint-Arab force,” al-Dairi said at a press conference in Cairo Wednesday. “We all seek to protect and preserve the Arab nations’ security.”

On Tuesday, al-Dairi called on the Arab League for air-support and weapons to fight self-declared Islamic State militants increasingly operating in Libya. Libya has only two war planes, he said, and not enough weaponry to fight back IS and other extremist groups now holding territories in Libya. “Libyan hearts are bleeding,” he said. And “the threat of terrorism in Libya is a hazard to Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Chad, Nigeria, Sudan and all others in the region and Europe.”

Militant attacks have been terrorizing the country since 2012, after the 2011 ouster and later killing of former leader Moammar Gadhafi. Last weekend, IS militants reportedly crushed an uprising in Sirte, a coastal city now under militant control, by killing dozens of people, desecrating bodies and forcing residents to publicly declare their allegiance.

In Cairo, Al-Dairi also called for the lifting of a United Nations arms embargo to allow the Libyan army to buy weapons and ammunition. Supporting one Libyan government could fuel the civil war between the country's two competing parallel governments, according to some analysts. But Egyptian and Libyan officials on Wednesday said the Arab forces would not be taking sides in that conflict, because it is being solved through U.N.-led peace talks.

“Any government that will be formed will be a government of national unity,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

However, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby on Tuesday was clear in his support for the internationally recognized government, based in the country's east, as opposed to the Islamist-allied government holding Libya’s traditional capital, Tripoli. The Tripoli government’s affiliation with Islamism is not known to extend to extremist groups, which the United Nations says are banned from peace talks.

“The need to empower Libya, represented by the legitimate parliament and the internationally-recognized government, to spread its authority across the whole country demands urgent action,” said Elaraby.

Western diplomats have called for a quick resolution to political conflict, saying a single government is necessary to wrest back territories from militant groups. But U.N. negotiations have so far had little success, according to Ziad Akl a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

In fact, he said, negotiations have made the situation worse.

“I believe that the negotiation processes that took place over the past year and a half did further create divisions within blocks that were solid and cohesive,” he said.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq has also drawn criticism, with Egypt's Arab League representative Tarek Adel calling the coalition’s inaction in Libya a “double standard.”

“The international community threatens ISIS militants and is zealously battling them in Syria and Iraq,” said Adel, “while ignoring the activities of the same group in Libya.”

To be successful, an Arab League coalition in Libya would needs to contain its mission to fighting militant groups and containing the conflict, according to MOSECON’s St-Pierre, and Arab League nations would have to avoid competing for influence or wealth in Libya.

“If it’s about exercising a type of influence or sharing the spoils of war, then they’ll have problems,” he said.