IS is not in retreat – and Libya is just one front in this war

Ever since NATO stepped in to help terminate the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya has been in an abject state of chaos and insecurity. It has been torn apart by an array militias and coalitions vying for local power, the dispute between rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk, and a bloody campaign by Islamic State (IS), especially in the coastal city of Sirte.

This catastrophe presents the NATO powers with a range of nightmarish problems. IS is top of the list, not least because at least 5,000 paramilitaries, many from outside Libya, have greatly swollen the group’s ranks. There is a particular concern that IS is working hard to destabilise the fragile politics of neighbouring Tunisia.

On another front, the group is looking to increase its economic power by controlling oil and gas installations. That could make Libya a stepping stone to greater influence across the Sahel, particularly in Niger and Mali.

Libya’s essentially ungoverned territory has also become a major transit route for desperate people trying to get to a better life in Europe. As current paths for refugees through Turkey into Greece are being closed off, Libya is one of the only routes left to the Mediterranean. The country has also become a node point for illicit arms transfers across much of Africa.

UN officials have been trying for years to establish an effective unity government that could accept the substantial Western military assistance needed to defeat IS. Such assistance is still ruled out by an international arms embargo imposed to take some heat out of the post-Gaddafi instability. But now that an internationally recognised government has at last been established (albeit with hardly any power) the US and Italy are leading the way to support a major programme of arms transfers.

The reality, though, is that the newly agreed government will not just give NATO states the green light for arms sales, but will almost certainly have to accept much more substantial military support – most likely extending to the substantial use of air power, and quite possibly ground forces as well.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Libyan Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj. EPA/Filip Singer

Unofficially, several NATO states, including the US, UK, France and Italy, are already operating special forces in Libya. They are working hard to stop IS expanding its reach, and to help the militias that stand in its way.

And while this latest move to back the government is ostensibly an attempt to stabilise Libya, it may well have more to do with the battle to push back IS on all fronts.

Out of control

There have been repeated media reports that the “caliphate” is under severe pressure in Syria and Iraq; the argument goes that this is what has motivated IS’s expansion into Libya. This analysis is to be treated with caution.

It’s certainly true that IS has lost some territory in Iraq, not least the city of Ramadi, and that the Pentagon is claiming that the coalition’s air war has killed 28,000 IS supporters in the past 21 months. But these have been pyrrhic victories: Ramadi and other liberated towns and cities have been largely wrecked, and IS remains entrenched in Mosul and much of northern Iraq.

It has mounted a lethally effective campaign of suicide bombings in Shia population centres in Iraq, and is also benefiting from the political instability that wracks the Iraqi government. It also still controls almost all of its self-proclaimed caliphate in northern Syria.

The group has also gone transnational in a manner reminiscent of al-Qaeda in the early 2000s. It has mounted anti-Western attacks in Tunisia, Belgium, France and Turkey. Put all this together and one can appreciate the determination of many NATO states to engage forcefully in Libya.

Whether it will work is another matter. IS flourishes in the face of attacks from the West, which help it present itself as the one true guardian of Islam under attack from the “Crusader/Zionist” axis. The more it is attacked, the stronger its image. But this will not stop the extension of the West’s war against IS to Libya – and beyond.

The US has announced that it has healed its diplomatic breach with Nigeria and is going to provide counter-insurgency aircraft to support the government’s efforts to control the IS-linked Boko Haram insurgency. Even al-Qaeda, long written off as a defeated and hopelessly fragmented movement, is making a comeback, moving some of its most experienced paramilitary leaders from South Asia to support the al-Nusra Front in Syria.

Some recent media reports give the impression that Islamist paramilitary movements are in retreat, and that an end to the Western wars against them is at last in sight. Not so.