The Illusion of Suddenness

Watching media coverage of the situation in Libya this week, one gets the sense that suddenly, the revolution that ousted Gaddafi in 2011 is failing to live up to its potential.  Since yesterday, when the Egyptian Air Force opened a new front against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with a bombing raid in the Libyan town of Derna, European pundits have been competing to send the gravest messages of concern about the deteriorating situation there.  Pronouncements from Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6; the Italian Minister of Defense, Roberta Pinotti; the French President, François Hollande; and a host of others emphasize the need for Europe to consider strong measures to contain the troubles in Libya. While it seems clear the 2011 notion that European air power could serve as a catalyst for future stability in the tribally-stratified north African state has truly gone out of style in 2015; the media hype surrounding the flatly delivered warnings has the feel of a focus group session where carefully nuanced versions of “boots on the ground” are measured for their effectiveness on the audience.  

For those of us paying attention however, the illusion of suddenness is little more than a tired refrain that should have lost its luster after the fall of Saddam demonstrated the need for “post intervention planning”.  Wolfgang Pusztai, a notable expert on the Libyan situation, has been discussing “Plan B” for some time, warning us in September of the “Lebanonization” of the country and suggesting that an intervention force may be the only solution.  Displaying remarkable prescience, he mentioned the possibility that such an intervention may actually come from Egypt…Until now however, Mr. Pusztai has been a rare voice in the wind which is striking given that Europe claimed to know better.  In fact, the mixed performance of massive nation building efforts by the United States in Iraq, criticized so bitterly in Paris, Brussels, and Rome in 2003, led indirectly to the situation in Libya; bringing us to the threads that tie all this together.

Algerian soldiers stand near the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas
Algerian soldiers stand near the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas

The 2011 fall of the Gaddafi regime unleashed a wave of weaponry and unfettered rebellious enthusiasm across the region.  Armed with Libyan weapons and a sense that something had changed, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took it as a sign that the time was right to execute war plans from Timbuktu in Mali, to in-Amenas in Algeria, to Homs in Syria where the war was still just another Arab Spring protest.  It took the French and Chadian Armies 30 days to roll back the situation in Mali, and the Algerians only three to flatten in-Amenas, but years later, the fires continue to grow in Syria where the Assad regime is proving much more resilient than Gaddafi or Mubarak.  Continuous combat in Syria has hardened both sides to a pinnacle of ruthless efficiency and the cancer is spreading.  Constrained by geography and sensing an opportunity across the border in Iraq, ISIL destroyed the better part of three Iraqi Army divisions, nearly exterminated the Yezidi, seized the upper parts of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and threatened to shatter Iraqi Kurdistan into four exiled communities.  The sum total of the massive American nation-building project there was thus reduced to ashes, setting the stage for ISIL to expand to Libya.  

Oddly, a semantic but resonant point is beginning to move the minds of European (and Egyptian) leaders in the direction of intervention in Libya; specifically that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is now a threat in areas that are neither in Iraq or in the Levant.  Coupled with ISIL-connected terrorism in Paris, Brussels, and Copenhagen, it is increasingly clear that Europe has a problem.  Though we can expect intensifying public debate about Libya’s future, don’t expect that debate to feature the obvious point that the path to the present came from a poorly considered European intervention in Libya’s recent past.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

Misrata’s Next Steps: Narrowing the Window to Save Libya

Originally published in September 2014 by the Navisio Global Publishing Unit

After several weeks of bloody fighting during what they termed “Operation Libya Dawn”, on 23 August militias from the town of Misrata finally conquered Tripoli International Airport from their adversaries, the Zintani. The capture of the airport and expulsion of the Zintani marks the achievement of the Misrata’s military objectives after losing recent elections for Libya’s interim parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR). Fearing political marginalization in Tripoli in the face of the more established Zintani, the militarily superior Misrata saw this as their only remaining alternative. With Tripoli finally under their control, the struggle for Libya’s capital appears to be decided, at least for the time being, but as the Misrata prepare their next steps, the international community faces a narrowing window of opportunity to achieve a stable solution in Libya.

The Misrata = “Islamists”?

Though quite frequently branded “Islamists”, many of Misrata’s citizens argue (rightly) this is not true. But while a radical Islamic state of Libya with a strict application of the Sharia is probably not in the business interest of the harbor town of Misrata, behind the scenes there is already a struggle for influence between the radical and the moderate Islamists, and the others in the town. As it looks now, the Islamist influence will increase over time for two reasons:

  • the city is a stronghold of the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood
  • several militias of the Misrata coalition are led by (radical) Islamists; some of whom are former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization that produced several prominent Al Qaeda leaders like Abu Yahya al-Libi who was Al Qaeda’s number two when he was killed by an American drone strike in 2012.

Current Situation and Background

After their military success the Misrata are widely unchallenged in the capital where they are busy consolidating their positions and solidifying their control of the city. This includes acts of revenge against members and property of the Zintani coalition that remained in Tripoli, and against the Tawergha, who were dispersed from their own city by the Misrata in 2011 because of their support for Gaddafi during the revolution. The Zintani brigades have withdrawn to their strongholds in the Jabal Nafusah mountains, scene of their May 2011 victory over Gaddafi’s mighty army. There they are reorganizing their troops while trying to resupply. Though it is very unlikely that Libya Dawn forces will be able to mount a successful attack on the Zintani stronghold, a successful Zintani counterattack from there can also be ruled out for the near future. Thus, the former military stalemate in Tripoli is replaced with a stalemate in northern Tripolitania.

The Misrata wasted no time shifting their efforts to the political side. On 25 August, they unexpectedly resurrected the former General National Congress (GNC) – an embarrassment to many people that voted for the HoR. Replaced by the HoR in the recent elections, the original 200 member GNC was elected in 2012 as the first interim parliament of Libya. Though the strongest single party in the GNC was the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance of the first interim Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, a block of various Islamists widely dominated the original GNC. Though the estimated number of parliamentarians that showed up to vote varied from a few dozen to as many as 94 (the former minimum requirement for quorum), the GNC nevertheless designated the Islamist Omar al-Hassi the country’s new, but hardly legitimate, prime minister.  [Of the 200 seats in the GNC only 80 were allocated to political parties. Of these Jibril´s NFA got 39, the JCP (close to the Muslim Brotherhood) got 17. The remaining 120 seats were for independent candidates. The Islamists managed to drag many of these “independents” on to their side and formed an “Islamist block” in the GNC. -WP]. Meanwhile, the interim government of the legitimate Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thani, resigned on 28 August to make way for formation of a new government. Within days however, al-Thani was asked to again form a government with the HoR leaving Libya with two competing legislatures and divided both militarily and politically.

Misrata’s Intent

The next objectives of the triumphant Misrata will be to safeguard their achievements by military, political, and economic means. Militarily they must protect the western flank of their positions in Tripoli and keep open the vital coastal road to Tunisia. This will take them and their local allies, the “Knights of Janzour” and “Libya Shield West”, deeper into the tribal areas of the Wrishfana (confederates of the Zintani) where the first clashes have already begun.

Politically the Misrata are attempting to overcome their recent electoral defeat by simultaneously offering incentives and applying increased pressure. While Libya Dawn forces invited the HoR to move to Tripoli and guaranteed the security of its members, it may be that by initiating the designation of a new prime minister, the Misrata want to force the HoR to select a compromise candidate as a head of the future government. This would be even easier for them if the legitimate interim parliament were located in Tripoli as their militias (like several others) are already well experienced in blackmailing parliamentary assemblies. The fact that the HoR again asked Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani to form a cabinet despite his repeated insistence that he does not intend to continue serving, could be an indication that the HoR wants to keep open the door for negotiations with the Misrata. It remains to be seen how long they intend to stick to the old assembly and its weak, compliant president Nuri Abu Sahmain. Whatever the case, the very dangerous idea of reviving the GNC could eventually contribute significantly to the split of the country.

Political maneuvers and military campaigns will have little sustained impact however if the economics aren’t there to sustain the effort. For this, the Misrata know they must gain control of at least part of Libya’s hydrocarbon wealth.  Though the coastal strip from Sabratha to Tripoli and further on to Misrata and Sirte is now, with some exceptions, under control of the Misrata and their allies, this does not include a significant part of the hydrocarbon infrastructure (other than the refinery in Zawia) or water sources of the Great Man-Made river.

Misrata's Next Steps
The Situation in Libya, September 2014

These resources are decisive for any Libyan government and therefore it can be expected that the Misrata will try to gain influence by political or military means over the oil fields in the Sirte basin and the oil terminals on the coast of Gulf of Sirte (Ras Lanuf, Brega etc.). Those facilities are currently more or less under the control of the federalist Ibrahim Jadhran, who had blocked oil exports for months.

Misrata will also try to get the oilfields in the south under control, but this is much more difficult. Several of those fields are under firm control of tribes allied with the Zintani and the pipelines to the coast run through or close to Zintan controlled territory where it would be easy for Misrata’s opponents to interrupt the vulnerable tubes and attack the pumping stations.

What Can be Done?

The situation in Libya looks dire. There are four likely scenarios in the midterm (in order of decreasing likelihood): sustained multilateral civil war or “Lebanonization” of the country; an international intervention in the form of a peace-support operation; a political solution; or a decisive Islamist victory. It is also quite realistic that there will be a combination of the first two scenarios. For example, a peace-support operation limited to the critical area in and around the capital may not prevent civil war from raging in several other parts of the country. While mention of peace-support conjures images of European armies patrolling tense neighborhoods, we must also consider the possibility of an Egyptian intervention in the form of establishment of a “Ground Safety Zone” on the Libyan side of the border. After all, Europe is not the only place for which instability in Libya presents a security problem.

There may however be a narrow window of opportunity to prevent the country from descending into total chaos. The UN Security Council recently called for an immediate ceasefire but implementing such a measure will not be easy (see United Nations Security Council Resolution 2174). Politically, the current situation of divided government is inimical to a settlement there. Therefore it is absolutely vital that the international community force all parties to the negotiating table to accept the HoR as the only legitimate representative of the Libyans. To this end there must be focused support on moderates in Misrata and in Zintan to prevent the “hawks” from dominating. Countries like Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates must be convinced to influence their Libyan partners to keep a ceasefire and commit themselves to the democratic process.

Sanctions against individuals are a good tool although they will not have a quick impact. They must include political, military, and militia leaders as well as religious leaders from all groups unwilling to accept and support the democratic political process. Though these sanctions will make the daily business of the few remaining embassies in Tripoli even more difficult, their current situation is already forcing them to operate in a state of crisis.

Lastly, armed groups not entirely subordinated to the will of the legitimate government must be withdrawn from the capital, regardless which faction they come from. This must be achieved by international political pressure, a political compromise in Libya and, if necessary, by an accompanying international military Peace Support Operation. Such an International Stabilization Force would be a last resort to prevent a Libyan collapse (see Wolfgang Pusztai, “An International Stabilization Force for Libya?”), but as the preparations for such an operation takes months it is necessary to start the discussions and preparations now.

Wolfgang Pusztai is a freelance security and policy analyst. He was the Austrian Defense Attaché to Libya from 2007 to 2012.

The Achilles Heel of Airpower

As Jordanians come to terms with the loss of one of their favorites sons, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, policy makers in Washington are surely losing sleep over the realization that they have narrowly dodged a bullet (literally and figuratively).  The illustrious al-Kassasbeh, member of the elite flying corps of the Jordanian Air Force and nephew of a Jordanian general, was shot down on 24 December 2014 near Raqqa, Syria while flying a mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  Captured uninjured by ISIL fighters, al-Kassasbeh’s case illustrates one of the fundamental weaknesses of using airpower to fight a ground war, specifically that a downed aircraft and a captured pilot carries political implications, particularly when operating as part of a coalition of the willing.

While the horrific scenes of al-Kassasbeh’s capture and subsequent execution affect each stakeholder in different ways, the result is ultimately the same; support for the coalition is eroding at the grass roots level.  The United Arab Emirates has already halted bombing missions over Syrian territory and others are undoubtedly considering similar restrictions on their pilots.  Despite Jordan’s lethal proximity to the problem, some Jordanians argue that a deterrent posture and a raft of political and economic agreements has worked with the likes of ISIL before and will be cheaper and more effective than airpower ever was.  There is some merit in this view as expensive fighter planes and their elite pilots are an extravagant novelty often held up in small countries as a symbol of national status.  In Jordan, al-Kassasbeh’s demise is more than just a material loss, it is a national disaster they can little afford.   

And Jordan is not the only stakeholder here.  From the start, ISIL attempted to connect al-Kassasbeh to Japanese military aid to countries fighting the group.  They held a Japanese adventurer, Haruna Yukawa and his would-be rescuer, Kenji Goto for a ransom of $200 million, a symbolic sum equal to the amount recently pledged by Shinzo Abe.  Not surprisingly, this had little effect on the Japanese and ISIL changed tactics, demanding the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi female suicide bomber in a Jordanian prison since she failed to blow herself up in the Radisson Hotel Amman in 2005.  ISIL’s move was an attempt not only to win support in Iraq, but also to connect their cause directly to the memory of resistance to American occupation which al-Rishawi claimed to represent.  While ISIL’s demands fell on deaf ears in both Amman and Tokyo, the debate sparked a growing political problem for the Jordanians.   

The same pressures will influence American politicians.  Since the US policy seems to have stagnated at “something must be done”, it stands to reason that Washington will keep all options on the table, including declaring victory and leaving the situation to someone else.  The political pressure to do just that will mount during the run up to the 2016 Presidential election because many Americans view the situation in Iraq as a result of a squandering of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars spent to stabilize Iraq after the 2003 invasion.  No matter how Americans felt about the righteousness of that intervention, very few feel responsible for cleaning up the current mess, particularly since the genesis of it was in Syria and not Iraq.  

So the Pentagon has to adjust to a raft of new restrictions on its air power; restrictions that are military but derive from the nervousness of politicians.  Though the Jordanian Air Force will take up some of the slack, it is almost certainly a temporary measure until Amman can declare “revenge complete” and return to base.  After that, it’s almost certain that more American F-16s will be heading to the Middle East until election rhetoric tempts the President to declare their mission complete; a brilliant success against the degraded, but still dangerous ISIL.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.