Libya, not Syria, is now the frontline in the war against Isis

As the number of Isis fighters in Libya grows, the priority for Western leaders is to prevent Islamist terrorist networks using the country as base to attack Europe

Andrew Hammond
Friday 05 August 2016 13:15 BST
Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government fire weapons during a battle with Isis fighters in Sirte, Libya, on 21 July
Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government fire weapons during a battle with Isis fighters in Sirte, Libya, on 21 July (Reuters)

On Wednesday, Italy agreed to “positively consider” any US request to use Italian airspace and airbases for bombing missions against Isis in Libya. The move follows a series of US air strikes against Isis militants in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte on Monday. That action – which President Barack Obama declared as in the “vital national interests” of the US – is anticipated to be the first move in a sustained international offensive against Isis outside of Iraq and Syria.

The US strikes were conducted after a request from the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). While the attack is not the first time that US warplanes have bombed Isis in Libya (a training camp in Sabratha was attacked in February), Monday’s move could prove more significant because it signifies a deepening of Western commitment to the Libyan administration – militarily, politically and economically.

At a time when the GNA is trying to restore order in the country, there are growing concerns that Isis may be establishing a stronghold in Libya. US intelligence, for instance, estimates indicate the number of Isis fighters in the country has doubled to between 4,000 and 6,000 in the last 12-18 months, with growing evidence that a significant number of these terrorists are travelling from Iraq and Syria where – because of offensive operations from the 66 member coalition forces – Isis fighters are now believed to be at the lowest levels for at least two years.

The security situation in Libya was one of the key agenda items at a summit in April between US President Barack Obama, the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Some five and a half years after the death of Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, there may now be a potential “window of opportunity”, it was agreed, to try to bring greater order to the country.

After the failure to plan for the aftermath of the Gaddafi regime, which Obama called the “worst mistake” of his presidency, Libya has since been controlled by rival militias, governments and parliaments. In this context, Obama has said that a full range of tools will now be used to roll back Isis in Libya, including financial, intelligence, military and logistical support.

Following recent terrorist attacks in Europe, Western leaders are also intent on eliminating the prospect of Isis developing a base of operations in Libya. British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, for instance, has said that “everything possible” must be done to stabilise the country, including potentially sending UK troops to train forces under the command of the GNA, stressing that Isis in Libya “is a direct threat to Britain as well as the rest of Western Europe and we have every interest in securing the security of a stable Libya”.

Beyond military actions, the G5 has also discussed a broader plan to stabilise the country, including restoration of oil production to shore up the economy, and stemming migration flows from the country. On the oil front, as UN statistics underline, the country has long relied almost entirely on oil and gas extraction, which accounts for 95 per cent of export earnings and 99 per cent of government income.

Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa and among the top 10 globally with production of some 1.65 million barrels per day in 2010 prior to Gaddafi’s ousting. However, production today stands at around 360,000 barrels a day, which reflects Libya’s plunge into chaos since then, including Isis attacks on oil infrastructure. Rejuvenating Libya’s oil production is not just critical to restoring the fortunes of the economy, but also to the GNA’s survival, and alleviating migration flows from the country.

One of the signals that progress is being made came on 31 July when Libya’s state oil company, the National Oil Corporation (NOC), announced welcomed the “unconditional” reopening of blockaded oil ports in ports including Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and Zueitina, which have the collective capacity to potentially export over 600,000 bpd following a deal between GNA and the Petroleum Facilities Guard. The latter is a militia that had blocked the ports for 18 months, asserting that they had not been paid by the Libyan government.

Should the deal hold, the NOC hopes to increase production by some 150,000 barrels per day within two weeks with the ambition of boosting output to around 900,000 by January. Such enhanced production will, however, only add to the current global over-supply of oil which has seen prices enter a bear market dropping by more than half since mid-2014.

Syrian women burn burkas to celebrate liberation from Isis

On the migrant front, much attention has recently been put on the deal earlier this year between the EU, Turkey and Greece under which new irregular migrants crossing to Greece return to Turkey, with Brussels footing the bill. In return, the EU admits vetted Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, one for each Syrian asylum seeker Ankara took back from Greece. However, migration from Libya to Italy is a pressing issue too, driven by instability post-the Gaddafi regime’s fall, and it is estimated that around 8,000 migrants have been rescued off the coast of Libya in the last week alone, according to the Italian coastguard.

A key reason for urgency is not just the numbers of migrants, but also the fact that the death rate in 2015 on this sea route, based on data from the International Organisation for Migration, was around 1 in 20, compared to approximately 1 in 1,000 between Greece and Turkey.

Monday’s military strikes demonstrate that efforts to shore up the GNA in Libya are being intensified, with the ultimate aim of tackling the Isis menace. For the West, the strategic priority is not Libya’s internal security, but preventing the Islamist terrorist network using Libya as base of operations to attack Europe, while also mitigating migration flows from the country to the continent.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS, the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics

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