February 18, 2015
Egyptian airstrikes in Libya have opened the door for similar intervention by other countries in the region and could doom a United Nations-brokered effort to build a national unity government in the North African nation, according to Atlantic Council analyst Karim Mezran.

Egyptian jets conducted airstrikes on Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in the coastal cities of Derna and Sirte in Libya this week. The attacks were in retaliation for the beheading of twenty-one Egyptian Christians by ISIS depicted in a new ISIS video.

Egypt has conducted airstrikes in Libya before, but the bombings on February 16 were the first time it has claimed responsibility for such operations.

“Egypt is in total breach of the UN arms embargo. It has supported one faction of the Libyan spectrum since the beginning of the summer of last year. What they are doing now is simply an escalation of their support,” Mezran, Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said in an interview.

“They have found a pretext. The video of the beheading of Egyptian Christian Copts is gruesome and horrendous, but it is a good pretext for [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] Sisi to legitimize, not legalize, what Egypt has been doing on behalf of the faction in Tobruk since the beginning of the summer of last year,” he added.

Sisi has called for a United Nations resolution mandating an international coalition to act in Libya.

Libya has two governments and two parliaments, both backed by powerful militias.

The internationally recognized Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, was forced to move his government from Tripoli to the eastern port city of Tobruk after Libya Dawn, an armed militia, seized the capital last summer. While the House of Representatives is now based in Tobruk, a rival General National Congress has been set up in Tripoli. The two sides have been fighting over control of territory, oil revenue, and oil terminals.

Meanwhile, a United Nations-led effort to reconcile the two groups has failed to produce results.

The governments of the US, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain this week said that the slaughter of the Egyptian Copts “underscores the urgent need for a political resolution to the conflict in Libya, the continuation of which only benefits terrorist groups, including [ISIS].”

Mezran said the various Libyan factions are unlikely to unite in the face of the threat posed by ISIS in part because the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, backed by the government in Tobruk, are now openly receiving support from Egypt, which might strengthen their resolve to find a military solution.

“At this point Tobruk is saying, ‘We are going to win militarily. There is no need for dialogue,’” said Mezran.

Mezran spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: There were reports last year that ISIS had put down roots in Derna. In January, an ISIS affiliate attacked the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli. Now we have the video of the beheading of Egyptian Copts. How serious and how widespread is the ISIS threat in Libya?

Mezran: It is serious because even though it does not go beyond a few hundred individuals, the fact that they are so extreme, so violent, and so organized creates a big problem for both the political factions, even the one in Tripoli, which is close to the Islamists.

What ISIS is trying to do is to radicalize the Islamist field even more, thus creating a problem for the coalition in Tripoli.

Until a few months ago, all the Islamist jihadists were Libyan jihadists—people who had an interest in the state, an interest in the population. The presence of ISIS changes these dynamics. Their purpose is the caliphate and transnational Islam. It bypasses any possibility of dialogue in the Libyan context. To me, this creates a problem as it creates more instability for the country. The real danger of ISIS is that it creates an actor that is not oriented toward establishing a Libyan state albeit under Shariah, but a transnational Islamic caliphate.

Q: Where does ISIS get its support from in Libya?

Mezran: I don’t see a big international network behind it. These are local jihadists who came in contact with jihadists in Syria and Iraq. They came back to Tripoli and decided to adopt a brand. It’s a rebranding to gain a wider reputation and instill more fear in their adversaries because of their ruthlessness. That doesn’t mean they do not have people coming from outside. I am sure a few dozen fighters came from Syria and Iraq and have been retraining jihadis, but it is still a very local and contained phenomenon.

I am saying this in February 2015. Six months from now if nothing is done ISIS probably could monopolize the whole radical Islamist space and then they could become an insolvable problem.

Q: Egypt responded to the beheadings of the Copts by conducting airstrikes in Libya. Can ISIS be defeated by such kneejerk operations instead of a comprehensive strategy?

Mezran: I don’t think so. It takes much more than aerial strikes against ISIS to solve the situation in Libya.

I see the Egyptian situation in other light. Egypt is in total breach of the UN arms embargo. It has supported one faction of the Libyan spectrum since the beginning of the summer of last year. What they are doing now is simply an escalation of their support. They have found a pretext. The video of the beheading of Egyptian Christian Copts is gruesome and horrendous, but it is a good pretext for Sisi to legitimize, not legalize, what Egypt has been doing on behalf of the faction in Tobruk since the beginning of the summer of last year.

Egypt’s actions are nothing new. What they have so far done in hiding has just come into the open.

You could think the Egyptians have reacted for good reasons, which is their national security. Or you could think their actions are motivated by a strategy to control Cyrenaica [the eastern coastal region of Libya] with all its oil resources.

Q: Is Egyptian support likely to tip the scales in the ongoing power struggle in Libya toward Khalifa Haftar?

Mezran: Yes, very much so. It has done so already. Haftar was defeated at the end of July. His troops were being kicked out of Benghazi. The massive Egyptian intervention is what tilted the balance in his favor and allowed him to reconquer parts of Benghazi.

A full-fledged military intervention by the Egyptians will definitely tip the balance in the favor of Haftar, but it also will create the premise for the continuation of the civil war and long years of terrorism.

Q: Does the ISIS threat open the door for more intervention by Libya’s neighbors?

Mezran: Anything could happen. The Qataris or the Turks may support the faction in Tripoli more. The Algerians could decide to offset the Egyptian presence in the east. At this point, once the door is open anything can happen in Libya.

Q: How concerned should Italy be about the instability in Libya?

Mezran: They should be very, very, very worried about the situation in Libya. I am surprised that they didn’t think about a military intervention a year ago. I am surprised they didn’t think about sending a police force to support the legitimate government in Tripoli a year ago. I am surprised that the United Nations did not intervene strongly when Khalifa Haftar started campaigning in Benghazi.

A year ago the situation could have been solved easily. Now it is much more difficult. A year from now it will be impossible.

The question is can the international community afford a Somalia-kind of situation in Libya? The answer is no. Therefore sooner or later they will have to intervene. The only question is whether the intervention will come in a well-planned way in cooperation with the Libyans, or will it be done in retaliation for a terrorist attack?  So I see the inevitability of a military intervention in Libya. How that will come is the key question.

Q: Is ISIS likely to provide an incentive for rival sides in Libya to set aside their differences and unite against this threat?

Mezran: It could, but it will not because of the fact that the Tobruk side is receiving massive support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. At this point Tobruk is saying, ‘We are going to win militarily. There is no need for dialogue.’ They are actually accusing the Tripoli side of supporting ISIS and company. They are asking the international community to give them the green light to resolve this situation. I don’t see how this presence of ISIS could be an incentive for dialogue.

Q: Given that, do you feel this UN-brokered dialogue in Geneva is doomed?

Mezran: The analyst in me says it is doomed. The patriot in me says lets hope that it succeeds in creating a national unity government that could be supported by the international community and lead to the beginning of the resolution of the crisis.

Q: Do any of the factions in Libya stand to gain from the emergence of ISIS?

Mezran: The only faction gaining by the presence of ISIS is in Tobruk, because it can claim that the faction they are fighting against is the one that supports ISIS and therefore it should not be talked with, but dealt with militarily.

Q: Is there any evidence that the Tripoli faction is supporting ISIS?

Mezran: The Tripoli faction does not recognize the presence of ISIS and is not condemning it as forcefully as it should. That does not mean they are supporting it, but the problem is they don’t know how to deal with it.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.

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