It wasn’t just Libyan forces at Benghazi and Sabratha. There were also French troops, Le Monde newspaper revealed on Wednesday.
Special units from France, in Libya for months, joined with troops from Libya’s internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk in a counter-offensive against ISIS. According to local sources, the French commandos were stationed at a base in Benina, east of Benghazi, where troops loyal to General Khalifa Haftar are also stationed.
On Tuesday, Sabratha, a beautiful city on the outskirts of Tripoli, where ancient Roman ruins overlook the Mediterranean coast, nearly fell into Islamist hands. An ISIS militia, bombarded just days before in a U.S. air raid, stormed a police station and beheaded 12 policemen. Their bodies were found later when Libyan forces pushed back.
At the same moment, Haftar and — according to Le Monde — French troops liberated the Benghazi neighborhood of al-Laithi from Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafi group that has sworn allegiance to the “caliphate.”
The French military activity is the latest piece in a mosaic of Western intervention in Libya, which has been developing now for months. The British Royal Air Force is flying reconnaissance missions, and the U.S. is launching air strikes and pressuring Italy to allow the use of its air bases for drone takeoffs and landings. The Italians, while continuing to reject the prospect of intervention without national unity, is growing impatient to recover lost trade since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
In the halls of world diplomacy, there is already talk of an international coalition under the leadership of Rome in Tripolitania, London in Cyrenaica and Paris in Fezzan: 5,000 soldiers to defend infrastructure and oil fields and to assist air raids. Crucial to their success would be the green light to fly drones from Italy. And if Rome demands to assess every raid case by case, then the prospect of an operation by land becomes increasingly real.
This is the new mission, a carbon copy of the one five years ago that deposed Gaddafi and government institutions. This time the monster is not the Mad Dog, but the Islamic State. In the background is Libya’s huge oil wealth, threatened by the presence of ISIS’s local arm, and the European Union’s desire to confine undesired immigration to its shores.
But such an operation, once begun, is likely to further rupture a country fragmented by competing powers, two parliaments and a constellation of armed tribal militias that don’t fully embrace a new foreign intervention. If ISIS takes advantage of a European crusade for easy propaganda, Libyans may prefer the narrative of extremist groups to that of European neo-colonialism.
The only thing curbing European and U.S. intervention at the moment is the stalemate in an agreement between the parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk, signed in December. The national unity government, from which the international community wants permission to go to war, has not yet been formed.
Two previous failures, caused by obstruction by the Tobruk government, were followed by a new delay on Tuesday, a vote postponed for lack of quorum. Was it a boycott due to the disagreement between those who accept the proposed government of Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj and those who reject it? According to half the parliamentarians, no: They were intimidated.
In a petition filed Wednesday by 100 of 176 Tobruk members of parliament, a vote was not held due to threats. Haftar may have been behind them. His desire for a ministry is no secret. Most of his power is derived from his control over an army, and he’s trying to dictate the agenda on the advice of his main sponsor, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
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