Libya civil war: Egyptian air strikes on Isis will only impede UN's work to bring about a peaceful resolution

The beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts has refocus the West's attention on the anarchy taking place in the North African nation

The chaos in Libya has grown steadily since the dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown (with the significant help of Nato) more than three years ago. But it has taken yet another atrocity by Isis – this time the apparent beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts – to refocus the West’s attention on the anarchy in a country 300 miles south of Sicily.

Right now, a civil war is unfolding in Libya between two coalitions of militias, tribes and factions. One is a moderate alliance named Operation Dignity, including some vestiges of the Gaddafi regime, which “protects” the figurehead internationally recognised government that has fled to the eastern port city of Tobruk. The capital Tripoli, however, is in the hands of a “provisional government” set up by the rival Libya Dawn, a grouping of Islamist elements.

This significant geographical expansion of the group that already controls swathes of Syria and Iraq was brought home to the world by the barbarity perpetrated on a Mediterranean beach. The leading Western powers have issued an appeal for the two factions to form a united front against Isis, while the UN Security Council was due to meet today in emergency session, presumably to endorse a similar mediation effort.

Such diplomatic efforts are essential, and no solution would be better than for the two warring coalitions to make common cause. Indeed, on paper that is not inconceivable: Libya Dawn contains radical Islamic elements but also moderates who have no love for Isis. But the realistic prospect of such an alliance is slim – especially after Libya Dawn announced this week it had carried out its first air strikes against its opponents, only intensifying the conflict.

The arc of turmoil in the Middle East, stretching from Syria and Iraq through Yemen and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula back to Libya (and throw in a detour to Boko Haram and northern Nigeria as well), presents a monstrous problem for Western policymakers. A significant extremist presence in Libya could threaten other north African countries, like Egypt and Algeria, as well as Tunisia, where the last candle of the Arab Spring still glows.

Swift action is essential to prevent Libya becoming another “failed state”, in the vein of Somalia. But a response must also be coordinated and carefully thought through. The bombing strikes against Isis targets carried out by Egypt were perhaps understandable: domestic public opinion demanded a stern response. But the addition of the Egyptian military to an already kaleidoscopic mix of arms and ideologies is only likely to impede the UN’s work to bring warring parties to the table.

And, paradoxically, the strikes may only serve to boost Isis’ standing. In Libya, the organisation has put down roots by co-opting and making alliances with other radical groups, rather than by fighting them as it did in Syria. And, from a tactical viewpoint, it is an attractive ally. To draw a unilateral military response from Egypt – and an unplanned one on the part of President Sisi – gives the group an aura of power. The task of the US, its allies and the Arab members of the anti-Isis coalition is to make it look like a loser. Only when it is on the back foot, and seen by potential partners as a liability rather than an asset, will its influence wane.

The West has made clear its readiness to help, but insists that the only long-term solution lies with the Arab countries themselves and their peoples. This remains truer than ever, in Libya as in Iraq and Syria. But new short-term measures are needed – and, ever more likely, these may have to include Nato boots on the ground.

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