Militias Must Unite Against ISIS in Libya
08 Oct 2015
ISIS continues to expand in Libya as rivals jostle for power and the UN looks to build a unity government. To defeat the group, rivals must rally against a common enemy, write Jason Pack and Andrea Brody-Barre.
Reaching a peace accord to end Libya's 15 month-old civil war is proving harder than trying to save a marriage after the divorce lawyers have divided the assets and made the infidelities public. With Libyan factions unwilling to bury the hatchet themselves, on 9 October Bernardino Leon, the UN negotiator, adopted the unconventional tactic of announcing the members of a new 'unity' government as a 'take it or leave it' proposition for the various parties to either accept or reject. This is the type of political environment in which the Libyan branch of ISIS wishes to operate - perpetual political manoeuvring with no actor, or coalition of actors, strong enough to encroach on its territory or check the expansion of its smuggling, recruitment, and terrorist networks.
With UN-facilitated negotiations to end Libya's political impasse constantly teetering on the brink of collapse and key political factions refusing to take ownership over the process, it seems difficult for the situation to look any worse. Two weeks ago, international hopes that a signed deal would be presented to the UN General Assembly were dashed. These setbacks culminated in the new approach of Bernardino Leon simply finalising the text of agreement and declaring the unity government unilaterally. Unsurprisingly, the General National Congress – the Tripoli based and Islamically inclined faction – have balked. Even if by some miracle, both they and their rivals, the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR), vote to approve a deal, this is likely to cause an armed rebellion by myriad spoilers.
ISIS is attempting to derail UN-facilitated peace negotiations.
Despite these political twists and turns, no coherent plan to tackle the ISIS threat in Sirte has materialised, even from the political factions that still back the UN process. ISIS breeds on this insecurity, and in turn, aids Islamist spoilers such as the Steadfast Front, all of which hope to obstruct the peace process.
In an attempt to derail the minimal progress being achieved at the negotiating table, ISIS has enlarged the geographical scope of its operations in Libya with an attack on a checkpoint at the entrance of the Sidra oil terminal, 190 km east of their home base in Sirte. Although the death toll was not high, the symbolism is significant. The incident indicates that jihadi militants are well entrenched and confident enough to launch attacks on crucial economic pressure points. This bold move east into Cyrenaica is a significant development in ISIS strategy.
Reports indicate that ISIS is replacing local commanders thought to be personally aligned with non-Islamist political and militia leaders with non-Libyans in order to facilitate this more ambitious and brutal strategy. The group's foray out of its home turf comes after a period of relative calm for ISIS in Sirte, during which it consolidated its forces and bolstered its policing and control throughout the city.
Although ISIS's move against the federalists and the oil ports is meant to facilitate the failure of the negotiations and provoke fragmentation of the existing blocs – in which it has succeeded – it is also causing a reorganisation of militia alliances which might lead to the creation of an anti-ISIS coalition. This positive realignment could be coaxed by sage international policies.
Within the Tobruk faction, tensions between the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) and General Haftar have approached boiling point, due in no small part to Haftar's evermore evident ambitions to take a portion of the country by force and sideline the HoR, which appointed him to the position of commander-in-chief. When ISIS militants assaulted the al-Fataiah area of Derna, members of the (formerly Haftar-aligned) al-Gotan tribe and the Ali Hassan al-Jabar Brigade appeared to be fighting alongside their erstwhile enemies, the Islamist Derna Mujahiddeen Shura Council (DMSC), against ISIS. More surprising news came from Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, where the usual Islamist/anti-Islamist feuding was accompanied by standoffs between federalist forces and pro-Haftar Libyan National Army (LNA) troops, which have previously worked together to support Haftar and the HoR. In short, Haftar's actions are proving divisive and destabilising, and his former partners are abandoning him in droves.
Meanwhile, in western Libya, the Haftar-aligned Warshefana forces joined with their former opponents, the Misratan militias, in a coordinated march on Tripoli. This newfound alliance might lay the foundation for an anti-extremist operation to regain control of Tripoli, should an agreement on Leon's unity government prompt Salih Badi's jihadi-aligned SteadfastFront – which opposes the negotiations – to attempt to capture Tripoli in a last-ditch attempt to salvage its credibility and wreck any chance of implementing a peace
All of these shifting alliances show that moderate Islamist and anti-Islamist brigade commanders might be considerably more willing to work together against ISIS than the bickering political echelon which appears unlikely to make the necessary sacrifices to build a broad enough consensus for the 'unity' government. Such pragmatism from the militia commanders isn't a moment too soon. If the political stalemate persists and factionalisation worsens, ISIS will only be able to inflict greater damage and gain control over larger swaths of territory. Such pragmatism from the militia commanders isn't a moment too soon.
Islamists and anti-Islamists are willing to work together against ISIS.
The only feasible path towards minimising the ISIS threat lies in the kind of cooperation that is now taking place between the Warshefana and Misratan militias and others. If key militias supporting opposing political blocs can show more vision than high-level political leadership and put aside their differences to confront the common enemy, both the security and political situations stand to benefit.
Politically, cooperation could prove to be a necessary first step towards rebuilding trust in the wake of a failed negotiations process, and perhaps even serve as a way to begin reordering Libya's unwieldy security sector. In fact, if the top-down UN attempts to forge a new government definitively fail, maybe a new round of talks could bring together sympathetic militia leaders and attempt to build a political process capitalising on their successful operational collaboration against ISIS.
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