The West is crowded along the Libyan coast, increasing troops, increasing military pressure. Since Le Monde newspaper broke news of the participation of French soldiers in the fighting in Sabratha and Benghazi, Paris has dispatched its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier off the coast of Libya’s beaches.
DEBKAfile, the Israeli military information website, revealed the carrier’s movements and its intentions to begin joint training with the Egyptian navy, whose Tahya Misr frigate, equipped with an anti-aircraft missile system, is floating in the Suez Canal. Thus returns the role of Cairo, its Libyan puppet General Khalifa Haftar and consequently the unruly Tobruk parliament.
On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gave Rome his blessing to lead a coalition on a new Libyan mission. Carter said Washington “will strongly support” Italy, which “offered to take the lead” — that is, to head a coalition to intervene against the advance of the Islamic State and to secure the safety of Libyan oil fields.
On this point Carter acknowledged the oil reserves. Libyans “don’t like foreigners who come in and take their oil, foreigners who come in and try to dominate their people,” he said. But the “foreigners” he was referring to are Islamic State fighters. Carter seems to believe Libyans will accept Western foreigners with open arms: “So we fully expect that when, which we hope is soon, a government is formed in Libya, it will welcome not just the United States, but the coalition.”
Confirmation of Rome’s intervention came Tuesday from Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni: “The level of planning and coordination between the various defense systems on a possible contribution to Libya’s security is at a very advanced level that has been going on for several weeks.” Italy, he added, is ready to intervene at the request of the new Libyan government.
Official request or not, Italy is already providing support for armed intervention. For more than a month, Italy has provided the U.S. with a base in Sigonella to launch actions against ISIS. The government has stipulated these must be purely “defensive actions,” without explaining what self-defense means in the case of a jihadist group operating in another country. So the Feb. 19 raid on Sabratha came without authorization, neither international nor Libyan. In addition, General Donald Bolduc, commander of U.S. special forces in Africa, told the Wall Street Journal that a coalition command center has already been opened in Rome.
DEBKAfile paraphrased its military sources describing a campaign in progress. The Egyptian frigate Tahya Misr “was moved into the Mediterranean after President Francois Hollande and Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi moved forward on plans for a joint assault with Italy to root out ISIS positions in Libya. The three powers have agreed to launch this offensive in late April or May.”
Meanwhile, Germany is ready to deploy special units to Tunisia to train Libyan troops to fight ISIS, according to the Tunisian government. And on Tuesday, Britain sent 20 advisers to train Tunisian surveillance forces at the Libyan border to prevent the infiltration of Islamist militants to the battlefield.
The Paris-Rome-Cairo front of Western intervention would be a powerful force, coveted by many factions in the field but stalled due to the inability of competing parliaments in Tobruk and Tripoli to form a united government. Indeed, on Tuesday, for the second time in two weeks, a vote to go ahead with a proposal from Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj was scuttled due to lack of quorum. Many believe Haftar and Cairo are behind the boycott, attempting to gain more influence over the new government.
If Italy, France and Egypt move against the Islamic State in Libya, it would further bind Rome with coup leader and former general el-Sisi at the likely expense of those suffering human rights abuses in Egypt, not to mention the investigation of the brutal murder of Giulio Regeni, already hampered by Egyptian authorities.
At the international level, an intervention in Libya raises two major concerns. First, the collapse of the country’s institutions would uncover a Pandora’s box of tribal powers, paramilitaries, secessionists and Islamists. And second, it would be difficult for those who created the mess to clean it up. More likely, jihadist groups will capitalize on the post-colonial narrative and find new life among the disparate factions.