Egypt entered officially – and in real terms – the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) through the Libyan gateway this week, after Jordan stepped up its military operations against ISIS last week through the Syrian path. Iraq has pledged to crush ISIS on its territory, which has seen intensive airstrikes conducted by the U.S.-led international coalition.
The Iraqi territory is also the scene of a de facto partnership with Iran in this multilateral war. The mobilization of the Arab states in this war coincided with increasing talk in the United States about the need for the Arabs to lead the war effort before the United States decides on stepping up military action beyond airstrikes, including by deploying ground troops that would support the Arab forces.
What is intriguing here is that ISIS appears as though moving in step with these plans that will lead to its demise by perpetrating barbaric crimes, or perhaps ISIS is drawing with its brutal crimes the path for the partners in the war against it to lure them and implicate them further.
Magnet for attention
What is clear is that ISIS, which has made itself a magnet for attention, has practically given cover to the enemy it claimed was its priority, namely the regime in Damascus and its allies Iran and Hezbollah. ISIS has fancied itself and marketed itself as a formidable enemy that no borders can hinder and no army can defeat, because it infiltrated deep into minds and psyches, using horrific atrocities as a weapon and a global media instrument that keeps it alive even if it were to be eliminated militarily.
Military people say that if there was a serious will to crush ISIS, the military machine of the international coalition would be able to finish the job within weeks and months rather than yearsRaghida Dergham
Military people say that if there was a serious will to crush ISIS, the military machine of the international coalition would be able to finish the job within weeks and months rather than years. They also say that Egypt’s involvement in the war on ISIS in Libya is major development, regardless of whether Egypt’s participation will come through a U.N. Security Council umbrella or through another alliance that would comprise Egypt and Russia.
Indeed, Egypt is able to defeat ISIS militarily in Libya. However, there could be retaliation and the possibility of Egypt becoming implicated in a wider confrontation is significant. Furthermore, what about Libya after ISIS is defeated there? Will it slide into international neglect again, or will there be a comprehensive strategy that does not focus solely on ISIS and the European concerns of the influx of migrants and terrorists? ISIS might go down in history as an epidemic that ultimately ended. But Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen remain countries that were torn by local and international tyrants in a game of action and inaction, for the sake of interests and furthering authoritarian aims.
Any strategy in Libya must take into account the fact that the international community is responsible in part for what happened in this country. President Barack Obama previously held Europe primarily responsible - without exempting the United States - for the mistake of abandoning Libya and leaving it to face alone the difficulties of a transitional phase it was not prepared for in any way. Everyone rushed to the exit door after celebrating the ouster of the tyrant in Tripoli with the help of NATO, which intervened militarily in Libya on the authorization of the U.N. Security Council, a measure that Russia, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa challenged later.
Islamist extremist forces must be laughing now at the statements made by the Americans and Europeans who had said what happened in Libya proved the failure of al-Qaeda and similar groups and the success of Western strategy to intervene against the tyrants and al-Qaeda simultaneously. What Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam cautioned against and explained at length has happened to the letter.
Libya has thus become the third theater of the war on ISIS - after Iraq and Syria - but with remarkable reluctance by the same countries that were celebrating three years ago their “achievement” in Libya in their capitals and at the U.N. Security Council hall.
Today, the climate in that hall is completely different. The Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and the Libyan Foreign Minister Muhammad al-Dairy went there assuming that the brutality of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts at a beach in Libya will prompt the Security Council to issue a resolution granting military authorization to crush ISIS in Libya.
Italy was very enthusiastic in the beginning for a military operation with international cover, but backed down at the Security Council when it convened at the request of Jordan, the only Arab member, at the behest of Egypt and Libya. France was ready at the level of the presidency to submit a joint request with Egypt for the session, before it climbed down and reneged on both that and the draft resolution.
While Egypt and Libya rushed to implement what Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi declared, namely to ask for international authorization to intervene militarily in Libya, the United States, Britain, Italy, France, Germany, and Spain deliberately issued a statement to coincide with the Egyptian-Libyan move, stressing the political solution exclusively and on giving the international envoy Bernardino Leon a chance to get the Libyan parties to engage in dialogue with a view to form a coalition government.
The Security Council, chaired by China, deliberately made sure for Leon to participate in the public meeting through satellites, to emphasize the European point of view and the U.N. point of view that this is not a good time for military authorization for a variety of reasons.
Egyptian and Libyan diplomacy quickly adjusted course, after they rushed to speak publicly about seeking authorization for military intervention on the grounds of fighting ISIS in Libya. They realized that the Security Council would not grant authorization and that many Arab countries are hesitant about supporting this request, including Libya’s important neighbor Algeria. Abdelkader Messahel, deputy foreign minister of Algeria, told the Security Council it was important to make the distinction between stability and security in Libya, and fighting terrorism represented by ISIS and other groups.
The Egyptian and Libyan diplomacy reduced their demands and sought instead a draft resolution lifting the arms embargo on the Libyan army to allow it to fight ISIS. But even that request was met with resistance from the United States and Europe, on the grounds that experience had proven the Libyan government and army are extremely weak and fragile and that it would be difficult to guarantee the weapons would remain in their possession. Second, these countries were opposed to designating all those who were not on the side of the government and parliament loyal to it as terrorists.
Qatar expressed reservations on Egyptian and Libyan proposals, on the grounds of clinging to the political solution. Others explained Qatar’s position as being part of rejecting the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya as a terrorist group.
For its part, Turkey, which is known for its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, was clearer in firmly rejecting any military intervention in Libya and any attempt by the Libyan government to communicate with Ankara, as the Libyan foreign minister said in an interview with Al-Hayat published today.
Need to fight
The Egyptian and Libyan diplomatic efforts, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, stressed the need to fight ISIS whether by U.N. Security Council authorization of military action, Arab authorization, or even no authorization from others. To be sure, ISIS is an existential threat to the two countries. Egypt is thus determined to continue its strikes and expand its military intervention at the request of the Libyan government and according to its right to defend itself under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, as the Egyptian foreign minister told Al-Hayat yesterday.
In the lengthy interview, Minister Shukri said that countries in the international anti-ISIS coalition have double standards, in that they have no problem about carrying out strikes and intervening militarily in Syria and Iraq, while opposing Egyptian military intervention even though it was respected by the legitimate government of Libya.
The Egyptian and Libyan ministers were clear inside the Security Council hall and outside, in warning against international reluctance and its practical implications for Europe and not only Africa, where groups like Boko Haram boast of their ability to engage in terrorism in parallel with decreasing international preparedness to confront them seriously. However, these warnings did not lead to a radical change in European positions.
The Western powers have rushed to say that what they oppose is not the intensification of the war on ISIS or the creation of a new alliance against ISIS in Libya. What they oppose is pushing towards the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups on the pretext of fighting terrorism. The Western powers also say their commitment to the political process makes them oppose granting authorization to military intervention.
What is interesting is that Russia and China, as the Libyan foreign minister confirmed, were more open to the Libyan-Egyptian proposal than the United States, Britain, and France. Is this the Russian-Chinese response to what the two nations see as Western exploitation of the U.N. Security Council resolution mentioning measures in Libya represented by military operations by NATO that they did not agree to? Or Russia and China gleefully laughing at what the NATO intervention in Libya has led to, creating a failed state and an arena open to the terrorism of ISIS and others?
An even more important question is this: Why are the United States and Britain stalling when it comes to tackling the Libyan and Yemeni issues, to the extent that both countries have become arenas for open-ended civil wars?
It might be said that the reluctance to act in Yemen has to do in part with the importance of Iran in U.S., British, German, and French calculations in this crucial stage in the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, not to mention those of Russia and China.
These states deliberately turned a blind eye to the Iranian support of the Houthis in Yemen. Russia even blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution holding the Houthis responsible for what happened in Yemen where they turned against the legitimate government.
Yemen is already a fertile ground for al-Qaeda to grow, with the radical group being a strong force in the balance of power with the Houthis. Nevertheless, Yemen is not a priority for the five permanent members of the Security Council responsible for upholding international peace and security. Attrition has become an acceptable policy in the Arab killing fields from Syria to Iraq, and from Yemen to Libya, with local, regional, and international consent.
Libya is a candidate for becoming a failed state in every sense of the word, ruled by a minority of terrorists who can impose their authority because the international community had decided to ignore Libya’s need for help to build state institutions.
Egypt alone is not able to mend things in Libya sufficiently to allow it to avoid collapsing into a failed state. That task is too big, costly, difficult, and complex. Egypt might be able to crush ISIS militarily in Libya, but the problem is that Egypt needs to focus its efforts at home at this crucial stage in its history. Otherwise, Egypt could become implicated in Libya in a way that exceeds its abilities.
Why is ISIS seeking to lure Egypt and get it involved and weaken it? Will Egypt be alert to the repercussions of its involvement in Libya or will follow a path carefully drawn for it by ISIS and international specters?
It is very important for Egypt not to rush and to allow its skillful diplomacy to restore its reputation. Egypt is important not only for its people but also because it is a crucial part of the Arab counterweight in the regional and international balance of power. At this critical period of time, Egypt must lead.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Feb. 20, 2015.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham