What will the West do in Libya?

This boat was rescued off the Spanish coast in November having made the crossing from Libya. Photo: Spanish Ministry of Defence
  • By defencematters

Is the West inching towards a broader military operation in Libya?

Andrej Matisak

The situation in Libya is culminating and headlines such as 'NATO ‘three months’ from Libyan coast mission' and 'British ground troops could go to Libya'  have been making waves to say the least. Going on the media frenzy around Libya the question that remains to be asked is if the West is inching towards a broader military operation in Libya and if so would this be of any help at all?

We asked some experts and they gave us their opinion:


Patrick Bury, Military and security AnalystAuthor of  Book Callsign Hades

Yes, NATO will probably try to get involved  – there are  at least 400,000 illegal immigrants waiting in Libya to cross to Europe and the EU mission needs more boats so US help could be on the way. Also needed to stop ISIL launching boat attacks on tourist beaches in S Europe. The UK plan – its part of the wider Italian-led plan to secure Tripoli and government ministries and official buildings therein, and train and assist some Libyan militias, in the UK case esp some of the Misratan militias. So West increasingly involved as political fallout and long term security threats mounting due to ISIL and immigration problems associated with Libya.

But this is also becoming major regional proxy. Look at UAE allegedly helping eastern govt export oil, and Haftar ready to push out ISIL from Sirte with equipment from Egypt,  Saudi, Russia, UAE etc. Russia calling for EU patience  – this is designed to buy Haftar time to advance. If he does so it will have major repercussions for West’s GNA solution, and also its long-term goals in region. Dodgy times indeed…

Lorenzo NannettiInternational Affairs Analyst

Italy has got US approval for the change of mission of Operation Active Endeavour in exchange for its role elsewhere (Iraq, near the Mosul Dam). This would go in concert with an increased cooperation with the al-Serraj government over the re-establishment of the Berlusconi-Gaddafi agreements on returning migrants at sea to Libya. It’s not necessarily a sign of any broad operation in Libya.

However, the al-Serraj government is asking for help to train its troops and protect installations (especially oil ones) – for UE, that won’t see any real major operation in Libya like Iraq or Afghanistan, but sending trainers and support and guarding some assets is a real possibility that is discussed even now (for Italy, something between 200 and 900 troops to be potentially employed are reported by media.

Regarding British troops, the issue is twofold: 1) British special forces are already on the ground and already operating, so it would be adding troops as Italy above. These of course would have to be ready to fight if needed and this would require approval,
2) there’s the issue of General Haftar and the Tobruk government, backed by UAE and Egypt. They won’t accept al-Serraj any soon and are trying to tilt the balance of power in the East (Cyrenaica) to their favor in order to pose as a strong center of power that can rival Serraj. Under these premises, a de facto division in 2-3 parts of the country looks likely, even if focus on fighting terrorists (ISIS, Ansar al-Sharia and others) is still missing. Showing UE is ready to send troops is also a message to Haftar and Egypt and UAE that UE countries won’t back from supporting Serraj. Unfortunately, this would also require stopping shipments of weapons and equipment to Haftar, something which is already forbidden due to the existing embargo, but which UAE and Egypt don’t seem to care about.

Would a West intervention be useful? It depends on its scope. Helping to train and secure the new government could work, if agreements between tribes exist that would support it and reduce potential friction with foreigners. But it would also serve as a catalyst ISIS can use against the West-backed government. It depends, if, concurrently, we can take away support from ISIS from groups that now feel disregarded by main parties like the Qaddafa tribe. It’s like in Iraq. Whoever feels left out will continue looking to extremism as a way out to survive and retake power.

Likely West support would help stabilization if it isn’t done “clumsily” as elsewhere in the past, then stabilization can help tackle migration flows – but just closing the sea routes will keep the whole pressure inside Libya, without a way out. This means trouble for the future if no other policies are implemented.

Ryan Evans, Editor-in-Chief War on the Rocks

There is an assumption in Washington and some capitals of Europe that various civil conflicts in the world only go on because of the lack of Western military might. Advocates of this view believe that application of Western force in sufficient amounts will solve these wars. This assumption is gleefully unburdened by any real sense of history, especially that of the last 15 years, and of politics, which lie of course at the root of all war. The connection between force and politics is set to be ignored again. Once more into the breach…

James FearonProfessor of Political Science, Senior Fellow, Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University

I would be surprised if the US and other NATO powers were to sign off on a mission whose primary or sole purpose was to send refugees back to Libya, which appears to be how the quoted Italians are thinking about it. I could imagine some level of peace keeping operation being authorized by the UNSC, provided invitations come from a sufficiently authoritative, defensible Libyan governmental structure, but it is very difficult to imagine that such PKO would be involved solely in peacekeeping as opposed to peace-making (fighting). There is very little peace to keep. One would think this would significantly reduce the enthusiasm of the P5 for such an operation.


Photo: Spanish Ministry of Defence; this boat was rescued off the Spanish coast in November 2015 having made the crossing from Libya.