Shattering the glass ceiling above ISIS in Libya
ISIS is growing in its stronghold, the coastal city of Sirte, and spreading southward to Nufaliya and Hawara and westward seizing Sabratha
This past weekend's Rome Conference which gathered together the world’s top diplomats to agree on what to do about Libya’s ISIS growth signals a new chapter in the country’s plight. With no Libyan representatives present at the high-level diplomatic meeting, a door is opening for a kinetic scenario that is long overdue.
ISIS is growing in its stronghold, the coastal city of Sirte, and spreading southward to Nufaliya and Hawara and westward seizing Sabratha, a UNESCO world heritage site. As Operation Inherent Resolve, un-intentionally augmented by Russian airpower airstrikes and sea-launched cruise missiles from both the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas, ISIS fighters are relocating to Libya to boost operations from North Africa. With a potential link-up with Boko Haram, who has declared allegiance to ISIS, the potential for a true African arc of instability is now here.
Over 3,000 fighters form the base of this “caliphate appendage” according to a U.N. report last month with thousands more fighters on their way. The U.N. report noted that the Sirte militant hub has the “closest connection to the center of all ISIS’s almost 40 affiliates globally.” It’s a nightmare scenario for Italy come true, with the danger being 600 km from Sicily.
The Rome Conference, pushed by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, intended to give a “decisive push” for a Libyan national unity government that alluded the U.N. and other Western powers. Italy feels that it is being singled out for its perceived little action against ISIS. Gentiloni seems to think that’s not true, especially given the amount of times ISIS has referenced the Christian Nation, read Italy, in its gory videos “signed in blood” earlier this year.
Libya is not Syria
But the Rome Conference, with all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—China, France, Russia, the UK and the U.S.—and their counterparts from Egypt, Turkey and the UAE-- was modelled on the Vienna talks on Syria. Thus, the Rome Conference was a non-starter because Syria is not Libya, and Libya is not Syria. Days before the Rome Conference, Gentiloni argued that “we will bring critical mass from a diplomatic point of view but the agreement must be forged by Libyans themselves.” The ultimate irony: No Libyans attended the Rome Conference.
ISIS is growing in its stronghold, the coastal city of Sirte, and spreading southward to Nufaliya and Hawara and westward seizing SabrathaTheodore Karasik
Applying similar diplomatic models to two different states -- each with distinct attributes -- is not a winning solution. Although Russia should be commended for its ability to use diplomacy to find a solution to the Syrian mess, the same formula needs a tweak for Libya. Look at what happened at the Riyadh Conference regarding the Syrian opposition that includes violent extremists in any future Syrian state; this plan is no plan. It doesn’t take a geopolitical analyst to see this dramatic point.
The new, emerging alliance between France and Russia is raising Italian eyebrows. Paris and Moscow want to hit ISIS hard wherever the terrorist state exists. For France, in the wake of the multiple attacks in Paris and Mali over the course of 2015, the Parisian outlook is increasingly aggressive to stamp out ISIS wherever the abomination exists.
For Moscow, not only is Russia taking a very strict kinetic hammer to pound away at ISIS and the extremist problem but it is captivating the Kremlin’s Arab allies and European partners with Putin’s no-nonsense approach.
France and Italy’s movement to reconcile with Russia over the EU sanctions against the Kremlin in exchange for Moscow’s help in any future airstrikes on Libya seems to be likely now. Information from Moscow suggests that Russian naval craft may visit Tobruk port as Tobruk’s House of Representative (HoR) officials visit Moscow. Paris appears to be on board after French Prime Minister François Hollande met with Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks ago.
In addition, coordination behind the scenes on possible airstrikes on Libya’s ISIS is in the works. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Cairo last week is setting up the Kremlin’s plans to attack ISIS in Libya in the coming weeks.
Clearly, if there is a new push by Moscow, LIbyan General Khalifa Haftar, who has visited Moscow many times before, and armed with Russian weapons via Egypt, will make his forces available for ground action during French and Russian airstrikes with Italian blessing.
The failure of the Rome diplomatic track, combined with the previous fiascos of the five U.N. negotiating rounds in Morocco, plus the latest rival “agreement non-agreement” last week between the Libyan belligerents in Tunis, the prospect of striking Libya’s ISIS hard becomes more real.
Hitting ISIS in Libya from above is not a new idea. Egypt and other Arab allies have flown combat sorties to hit ISIS throughout the past year. In November, a U.S. airstrike killed ISIS leader Abu Nabil Al-Anbari in Libya for the first time. In other words, the glass ceiling above Libya’s ISIS has already been broken. Why not go all the way as diplomacy dithers and ISIS expands in Libya? This thinking is a no-brainer.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.
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