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How Much of Libya Does the Islamic State Control?
How Much of Libya Does the Islamic State Control?
What Prospects for a Ceasefire in Libya?
What Prospects for a Ceasefire in Libya?

How Much of Libya Does the Islamic State Control?

Originally published in Foreign Policy

The world is waking up to the threat posed by the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya over the past year. The renewed Western focus on combating the group is related to the Nov. 13 Paris attacks — although they had nothing to do with Libya — and the increasing recognition that the U.N.-brokered Libyan Political Agreement signed on Dec. 17 is, for the moment at least, unimplementable. Therefore, a national unity government able to take on the Islamic State will not be in place any time soon. But the urge to act, or to be seen acting, against the Islamic State should not be a reason to embark on a new large-scale military adventure in Libya — one that would have unpredictable results and likely worsen the situation on the ground by making the Libyan conflict harder to resolve.

The first step to a more nuanced approach is to accurately assess the challenge the Islamic State poses in Libya. Only after understanding its spread, size, and tactics can the international community develop a proper strategy for rolling back its recent gains.

The group dominates a 120-mile stretch of territory extending east along the coast from the town of Sirte, seized almost entirely during 2015. This is its most significant achievement, because this territory provides it with a relatively safe base from which to attract new recruits and plan attacks elsewhere.

The Islamic State also has a presence, but does not control significant territory, in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. It has been conducting guerrilla warfare in some neighborhoods there and has reportedly absorbed other armed groups, most notably elements of Ansar al-Sharia, a radical Islamist group that was part of the loose alliance of rebels that rose against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. It also has a proven ability to carry out hit-and-run operations in western Libya, most probably through a network of cells, including in the capital of Tripoli. It has thus been able to carry out spectacular attacks outside of its own territory, including the deadliest suicide bombing in Libyan history at a police training facility in the western town of Zliten, which killed at least 60 people on Jan. 7.

How much support does the Islamic State have in Libya?

Estimates of the Islamic State’s military strength differ wildly. The United Nations estimates that the group commands 2,000 to 3,000 fighters there, U.S. intelligence sources peg its fighting strength at 5,000 to 6,000 men, and French sources claim that it commands over 10,000 fighters.

The lower end of that scale appears more realistic, if only because there is a tendency toward number inflation, not least by the Islamic State itself. After all, the group has made its expansion in Libya an important part of its propaganda since October 2015, conjuring the specter of using the country as a jump-off point to Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and the rest of the Maghreb. That ambition has sometimes been reflected in the alarming prognostics of some Western analysts — notably in military circles — that warn of the emergence of an unbroken “axis” of jihad running from Nigeria through Libya to Syria and Iraq and on to Afghanistan. In the Libyan context, what is most alarming is the Islamic State’s rate of growth, as the group probably had fewer than 1,000 followers 18 months ago — even if more mainstream armed groups are larger and better-equipped.

Perhaps most fundamental to understanding the Islamic State’s relative success in Libya is the question of how it grew. Initially, its success appeared chiefly driven by its victories in Syria and Iraq, most notably the capture of the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul. This allowed the Islamic State’s fledgling Libyan affiliate to attract new followers from the many other armed groups, Islamist or not, that existed in the country. It was most successful in drawing members of Ansar al-Sharia, in part because it assassinated leaders of the group who refused to give their allegiance.

More recently, Libya has been an attractive destination as the group has suffered setbacks and bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State propaganda has, for instance, encouraged new recruits to head to Libya rather than the Levant, in part because it is easier to reach — but also because the group’s leadership sees Libya as the opening of a new front with opportunities for expansion elsewhere in Africa. There is also evidence that senior commanders from the Iraq/Syria front moved to Libya over 2015, bringing greater organizational and military expertise to the local franchise.

What is the Islamic State’s strategy in Libya?

The jihadi group has expanded by exploiting the chaotic political and military landscape that followed former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall. It’s biggest success to date, the control of Sirte and surrounding towns, comes in an area dominated by tribes mostly still loyal to the former regime (Sirte was Qaddafi’s birthplace). The region was neglected by the post–2011 authorities despite extensive destruction during the uprising. Apart from Ansar al-Sharia, which secured a dominant presence in Sirte when it fell to rebel forces in 2011, no significant rival local militias established a strong presence there.

The Islamic State was able to seize Sirte in February 2015 not because it was strong, but because it faced no real resistance. Its capture of the city allowed it to secure small neighboring towns such as Harawa, which avoided a bloody struggle with IS by surrendering in an agreement brokered by town elders. IS-affiliated militias were thus able to capture several nearby towns with only a few hundred men. It was only later, when it grew in size and more experienced fighters and administrators joined from Syria, that it began to impose the draconian order for which the group is infamous, enforced with public beheadings, stoning of adulterers, and amputations.

Mainstream Libyan political and security forces, meanwhile, ignored the problem. Although they made much noise about liberating Sirte over the course of 2015, in reality the city was abandoned to its fate: No one had both the capacity and willingness to retake it.

As the Islamic State becomes more aggressive toward its neighbors and threatens Libya’s petroleum infrastructure, however, its rivals’ calculus may change. In January 2016, IS conducted attacks such as the Zliten bombing — targeted at the military power of the nearby city of Misrata, from which western Libya’s most powerful militias hail — and began to move eastwards toward the oil port of Sidra and refinery of Ras Lanuf. It also advanced on oil production sites in the southern desert, challenging militias in charge of protecting an area known as the “oil crescent.” In doing so, it is threatening both its chief military rivals and the economic lifeline upon which Libya depend.

For now, however, the West’s hope for a united Libyan response to IS remains far off. This is in part because mainstream Libyan militias, for all their braggadocio, tend to avoid outright confrontation, especially if there is a risk of a tribal escalation of violence. They are chiefly interested in controlling their own territory and hesitate to stray too far from their home region. They also fear that tangling with IS will weaken their defense against more conventional enemies. Finally, even if Libya’s rival factions have come to recognize that IS represents a serious long-term threat, the dialogue and coordination that would be necessary among security actors to mount a joint response is practically non-existent.

What’s the blueprint for defeating the Islamic State in Libya?

The international community’s hope that a unity government could take the lead in fighting IS has remained just that: a hope. It is not likely to be fulfilled anytime soon if the world’s focus remains on securing a top-down political deal. The implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement is already stalling, just as the talks that preceded it stalled until Western and regional powers imposed it on largely recalcitrant Libyan stakeholders. This situation was predictable as long as diplomatic efforts continued to focus on Libyan political actors who are unable to bring along most of their supporters.

Current efforts to create a unity government are not likely to bear fruit without far more significant efforts to resolve the most contentious issue of all: How will rival armed groups operate under a unity government, and who will be in charge?

To begin to resolve this issue, the country’s security stakeholders — the militia leaders, army commanders, and local strongmen — should start a dialogue on the issues of importance to them. This needs to be a bottom-up process; the politicians who act as their proxies cannot do it in their name. A security track to the peace process, aimed at creating channels for dialogue and local-level conflict resolution, would not supplant the political track, but rather complement it. It could create goodwill that might foster local-level breakthroughs and offer opportunities to break the current national deadlock. It could address issues that have been sidestepped by diplomacy thus far, from the future of controversial personalities such as the fiercely anti-Islamist Gen. Khalifa Haftar to security arrangements in Tripoli that would allow any future unity government to function there.

Outsiders could provide guidelines for negotiations, and work to bring regional actors that have a stake in the conflict into agreement. These regional actors — most notably Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Qatar, and Turkey — should also be pressured to cease providing financial and military support to their proxies, and particularly to respect the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. An economic track, tasked with stemming the alarming decline of Libya’s finances and a growing humanitarian crisis, would be a third leg of such an approach. In short, Libya needs progress on several fronts, requiring a multi-level peace process grounded in the acknowledgement that a quick resolution of the conflict is an illusion.

Those who were hoping that the December agreement would allow for the rapid formation of an internationally recognized unity government are misguided. The temptation to simply recognize a government — even if it cannot set foot in Libya, and especially the capital — and get it to make an official request for foreign assistance is foolish. It would be instantly discredited among many Libyans, probably causing more new problems than it would resolve.

An effective ground military strategy against IS, particularly in the Sirte area, requires collaboration between militias that are currently rivals. A bottom-up approach addressing how this collaboration would work — establishing communication channels and eventually agreement on a chain of command, or at least a division of labor — could produce genuine results that contribute to both combating IS and supporting an overall political agreement.

Conversely, a top-down approach, in which a token national unity government invites outside help without addressing how Libya’s rival security forces would work together, is likely to heighten divisions and encourage each side to compete to be seen as the West’s best partner against IS. A likely outcome of such a strategy would thus be some setbacks for IS, but also new opportunities for its expansion in an increasingly chaotic and divided Libya.

What options are left to check the Islamic State’s progress in Libya? Since the prospect of large-scale intervention has always been fanciful, the remaining options include covert operations of the kind that have taken place in Libya since 2011, and coordinating a military operation with militias closest to IS’s stronghold in Sirte. Taking caution that such efforts remain as discreet and targeted as possible, while redoubling the resources given to a multi-tiered diplomatic initiative designed to restore order to the country, is the most reasonable course of action.

It is not morally, politically, nor strategically advisable to do nothing; this would amount to criminal neglect. But it would be even more foolhardy to overreact and sacrifice the painstaking work of a comprehensive peace process in Libya to the altar of the global fight against the Islamic State — and reap an even more powerful IS that would emerge in the ensuing chaos.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) speak as they attend an inauguration ceremony of a new gas pipeline "TurkStream" on 8 January 2020 in Istanbul. AFP/Ozan KOSE

What Prospects for a Ceasefire in Libya?

On 19 January, Berlin will convene the main parties in Libya’s conflict. This comes in the wake of the Moscow meeting between Libya’s two main rival leaders that failed to produce a ceasefire. Libya expert Claudia Gazzini discusses where the peace process may go next.

What happened in Moscow? 

On Monday, Russian government officials hosted Libya’s two rival leaders, whose respective military forces have been at war for nine months, in a bid to usher them toward a ceasefire agreement. One is Faiez Serraj, who heads the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli; the other is Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who leads a coalition called the Arab Libyan Armed Forces (ALAF), previously known as the Libyan National Army (LNA). Haftar’s coalition does not recognise the Serraj government, and in April launched an offensive to take control of the Libyan capital. Fighting has killed over 2,000 people, put Tripoli under siege by Haftar’s forces and sucked in several foreign powers.

The Russian initiative came on the heels of a sudden joint Turkish-Russian call for a ceasefire that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, issued on the margins of their 8 January meeting in Istanbul. The two leaders invited Libyan factions to stop military operations starting on 12 January and return to political negotiations. They made the call without first consulting with the factions they respectively support – Ankara backs Serraj, and Moscow, Haftar – but in subsequent days, both the ALAF and the Tripoli-based authorities publicly expressed support. When next they appeared to respect the de facto ceasefire, this raised hopes that they would also agree to formalise a ceasefire agreement in Moscow. 

Events did not go as planned. On the government side, Serraj, as well as his political ally Khaled Mishri, head of the Tripoli-based High Council of State, signed the seven-point ceasefire agreement Turkish and Russian officials had prepared. But Haftar and his political ally, Aghila Saleh, who heads the Tobruk-based parliament that backs Haftar’s military campaign, refused. The Libyan delegations left Moscow Monday evening without meeting each other, and so the attempt to reach a ceasefire agreement fell apart. Yet the tenuous ceasefire in Tripoli appears mostly to be holding. Both sides have refrained from aerial strikes and have only exchanged minor artillery fire.

Did the Moscow meeting come as a surprise?

It is unclear what prompted this sudden move. Moscow and Ankara may have struck a mutually advantageous deal, sparing them (and their proxies) the need to fight, and potentially putting them in the driver’s seat to resolve a conflict from which Europe and the U.S. increasingly are absent. The surprise invitation came after two major developments in early January that, far from signalling opportunities for peace, suggested further escalation. The first was Turkey’s announcement it would send forces to Libya, and the second, Haftar’s takeover of Sirte, a coastal city in the centre of the country. 

On 2 January, Turkey’s parliament authorised the deployment of troops and naval assets to prevent the collapse of the beleaguered Serraj government at the hands of Haftar-led forces. The latter had made gradual advances in Tripoli’s periphery in previous months, in large part thanks to Russian armed private contractors and aerial support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). To date, Turkey reportedly has sent a few hundred allied Syrian fighters to Libya, as well as several dozen military experts from its own armed forces, and numbers are expected to increase. Turkish officials stated these deployments aimed to create conditions for a ceasefire by rebalancing power on the ground. Many feared, however, that direct Turkish involvement would trigger further escalation. Indeed, several pro-GNA officials suggested Turkish support would allow them to launch a counter-offensive and even strike Haftar’s forces in their rear bases in eastern Libya. On the opposite side, several Arab tribes across Libya called for a jihad against what they termed Turkey’s “colonial ambitions”. 

Turkey reportedly has sent a few hundred allied Syrian fighters to Libya as well as several dozen military experts from its own armed forces

Notably, Ankara’s decision to intervene on Serraj’s behalf was preceded by, and to a large degree conditioned on, the Tripoli government’s agreement to sign a controversial maritime deal that Turkey has long sought. Ankara views the deal as key to blocking the development of an eastern Mediterranean gas hub from which it is excluded. The “delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas” agreement, which Erdoğan and Serraj signed in late November and the Turkish parliament ratified on 5 December, establishes an 18.6 nautical mile (35 kilometre) line between Turkey and Libya that would form the outer boundary of an Exclusive Economic Zone. By transecting an area claimed by Greece and Cyprus, this line could jeopardise plans to build a gas pipeline from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. Governments other than Ankara and Tripoli dispute the deal’s legality. The EU opposes it, and it has angered Tripoli’s opponents, not least Egypt, heightening geopolitical competition in the region.

The second event, Haftar’s sudden takeover of Sirte on 7 January – his first significant military advance in months – suggests he may want to use the town’s airbase to launch an offensive against Misrata, a key city whose fighters form the backbone of Serraj’s military coalition.

Overall, the fact that Moscow and Ankara took this initiative underscores what has been evident for months – that peace in Libya hinges as much on foreign actors’ willingness to exert leverage on their Libyan allies as on Libyan factions’ actual support for a political alternative to war. That Haftar so far has refused to sign a ceasefire agreement that one of his principal foreign backers put on the table moreover suggests he does not feel dependent on Russia alone, and that his other backers – the UAE most prominently – give him room for manoeuvre.

What were the terms of the ceasefire agreement and why did Haftar refuse to sign it?

The agreement contained seven points, most importantly the need for the two sides to “determine a line of battle contact to ensure a sustainable ceasefire”, appoint five representatives each to a military ceasefire monitoring commission, and appoint representatives to future economic, military and political negotiations under UN aegis. These last two points already form the backbone of a roadmap that foreign states agreed to support in the UN-backed Berlin process late last year, and will endorse again at the conference Germany will host this weekend. In other words, while the choreography of the Moscow meeting suggested Russia and Turkey were trying to carve out a deal bypassing or even undermining ongoing UN and German-led efforts, what Moscow and Ankara put on the table ultimately seems a tacit endorsement of these ongoing diplomatic initiatives. 

Haftar may have refused to sign because the ceasefire terms were too vague, and could have been interpreted as requiring him to withdraw his forces from Tripoli and environs at a moment when he feels the balance of power is in his favour. This vagueness possibly suited Serraj: even though the ceasefire agreement did not make explicit the government’s request for a withdrawal of Haftar’s forces to their pre-April 2019 positions (i.e. a full retreat from western Libya), it gave him enough flexibility to persuade his home supporters that the withdrawal was still on the cards. Serraj also supported the other two key points – the joint ceasefire monitoring commission and the launch of UN-backed economic, political and military talks. Indeed, his government designated its representatives to the commission weeks ago. 

In contrast, it would have been a u-turn for Haftar to accept these terms, which fly in the face of his perception that his forces have made significant gains and his insistence that the ALAF is Libya’s sole legitimate military force. He has been telling foreign leaders for some time that he refuses to appoint five representatives to the joint military commission because he does not consider the Serraj government, which depends on militia support, as a legitimate negotiating partner. Moreover, Haftar opposed the notion – implicit in the agreement – that Turkish forces would be allowed to remain in Tripoli, and that Turkish officers could join Russian colleagues in forming an international ceasefire monitoring team. 

Haftar reportedly demanded that the agreement include explicit mention of the need for the Serraj government to disarm militias and hand over their weapons to the ALAF, and for elections to follow the formation of a unity government. Haftar’s emissaries had frequently raised these with diplomats. 

The fact that Russia and Turkey agreed to work together suggests Libya’s conflict can no longer be seen strictly through a binary pro-Haftar or pro-Tripoli lens.

In light of this failed Russia-Turkey attempt to mediate, what does the map of international alignments in Libya now look like?

The fact that Russia and Turkey agreed to work together suggests Libya’s conflict can no longer be seen strictly through a binary pro-Haftar or pro-Tripoli lens. Indeed, whereas Ankara firmly backs Serraj’s side militarily, strategically and ideologically, Moscow does not. Instead, it has provided Haftar’s camp with weapons and reportedly – despite Moscow’s denials – private military contractors, even as it has maintained relations with the Serraj government. 

What exactly drives this new, apparent convergence between the two countries is still unclear. It could reflect their multiple overlapping geostrategic interests over which they value continued cooperation, despite being on opposite sides of the war. Both may be looking to model their dealings in Libya on their existing cooperation in Syria, where their positions are also misaligned. Moscow and Ankara also have congruent energy interests, with high hopes for the TurkStream gas pipeline that carries Russian gas to Turkey and neighbouring countries. Both may therefore want to limit development of any eastern Mediterranean gas hub, of which neither Ankara nor Moscow would be a part. To date, their growing partnership has manifested in military cooperation, most notably Ankara’s recent acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system, a move that seriously damaged Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. 

Their interests may also implicitly converge with regards to Libya: despite flexing its muscles, Moscow likely does not want to be dragged into the conflict too deeply, hoping Ankara can prevail on Serraj to soften his stance toward Haftar, in return for Haftar respecting Turkey’s claims on eastern Mediterranean gas. Should that be the case, however, it would be a tall order: Haftar and his Arab allies adamantly oppose both Turkey’s claims on the Mediterranean and Ankara’s military involvement in Libya. 

For their part, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia continue to support Haftar, although each state has a different level of involvement and exposure. Egypt, as a neighbouring country, is more concerned about potential fallout from the Libyan crisis and also directly affected by the maritime deal by virtue of being a key member of the eastern Mediterranean gas hub; it also is viscerally opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, which it accuses Serraj (and Turkey) of favouring. This last factor is the main driving force behind the UAE’s and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia’s stance. While officially recognising the Tripoli government, all three countries deal with it only infrequently and have repeatedly opened their doors to Haftar and Aghila Saleh, allowing them to use the high-level platforms their capitals provide to lash out against Serraj. 

Qatar, while allied with Turkey and Serraj, has adopted a relatively low profile in Libya since its Gulf neighbours imposed a land, sea and air blockade in 2017. It has said it would seek to help the Serraj government and Turkey were Haftar to threaten to take over Tripoli, but its support is financial rather than military.

Libya’s western neighbours Tunisia and Algeria largely stand behind Tripoli. They fear the prospect of a Haftar victory, which they view as a vehicle for increased Egyptian influence along their border with Libya. That said, they are not in a position to markedly alter the course of the war, if only because of their fragile domestic situations.

The EU and members states form another group that takes the middle ground, maintaining contact with both Libyan factions and strongly supporting UN efforts for a political solution. Their ability to influence the course of events in Libya declined as others stepped in with significant military assistance to the warring sides. Still, they enjoy leverage over some of the Libyan factions’ outside backers. Germany has proved most willing to deal with them: Chancellor Angela Merkel reached out to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to ensure he supported the Berlin process, and to President Putin to ensure that the draft ceasefire agreement reflected steps discussed in Berlin. 

Although belonging to this European group, France remains something of an outlier. Its relatively more pro-Haftar stance stems from its belief that the political process must better reflect the current balance of power, which favours Haftar (in part, of course, thanks to French support over the years). France’s approach also is informed by its close security ties with the UAE and Egypt, a Sahel policy strongly centred on supporting Chad (whose president is a Haftar ally), and its hostility to Turkey’s attempts to encroach on the eastern Mediterranean gas plans. Greece is also emerging as an EU outlier. While previously not a key player in the crisis, it became one almost overnight once Ankara and Tripoli signed their maritime deal. In early January, Greece responded by signing a deal with Israel and Cyprus to build an eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline, which Turkey said it would block. It also received Haftar on the eve of the Berlin conference, signalling it would support him in any EU deliberations.  

In the wake of the failed Moscow meeting, what are the prospects for the Berlin Conference? 

To an extent, the failure of Moscow does not necessarily affect the Berlin conference (scheduled for this Sunday), since its success does not hinge on a pre-existing ceasefire. Its final conclusions have already been drafted and revised during five preparatory meetings over the past months. Although last minute edits might still come (partly due to the late addition of new participants), if all goes according to plan, representatives of the U.S., EU, UK, France, Russia, China, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, Algeria and Congo-Brazzaville, as well as the UN, Arab League and African Union, will sign a 55-point declaration. Key items include support for a ceasefire, a commitment not to violate the UN arms embargo on Libya, and a pledge to support a UN “operational” plan for political, security and economic consultations aimed at unifying the country. On the eve of the conference, diplomats inserted wording calling for “credible steps” toward dismantling armed groups and militias following the demand Haftar made to this effect in Moscow.

If the conference only included high-level representatives of foreign states, as originally planned, its outcome would have been predictable. Even those backing opposing Libyan factions almost certainly would have signed the conference’s pre-drafted final declaration.  But the last-minute invitation of Serraj and Haftar – while understandable insofar as it gives the meeting more Libyan buy-in – adds a new level of unpredictability and, potentially, drama to the event. Furthermore, the alleged shipment of additional weapons to both Tripoli and Benghazi in recent days, and renewed calls among pro-Haftar tribesmen to close oil export terminals in their areas, make the situation inside Libya particularly tense. This, in turn, makes the conference’s outcome more uncertain. 

In a best-case scenario, the Berlin conference could be a modest step forward in efforts to end the war and stabilise the country. Yet the risk remains that some participants will merely pay lip service to the diplomatic initiative, even as they continue to fuel a war from which they benefit.