As the political process for Libya mediated by the UN begins to flounder, signals are emerging that the international community is more seriously considering the ‘military option’. International media reports have begun to reveal the different roles played by western countries such as France, the US and the UK in supporting various power brokers in both western and eastern Libya against ISIS.
French Special Forces have reportedly been helping the LNA fight ISIS in Benghazi for two months, two Libyan military officials told AP on 24 February. The unit, said to consist of 15 French personnel, has been providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to the LNA, planning operations and providing tactical training. Although Wanis Bukhamada, head of the LNA Special Forces (Saiqa), emphatically denied the reports, some of which attributed the quote to Bukhamda himself, many local sources have corroborated the news. The report also said the French Special Forces have been co-located with the LNA in Benina base.
While international media have disagreed over the credibility of claims that French forces are helping the LNA in Benghazi, other local sources highlighted the role of the UK and the US in assisting militias in Western Libya. Recent reporting by the Telegraph on 27 February, which discussed British and American provision of tactical training for selected militias in Misrata, suggests that Western support will not be exclusively vested in the LNA. The recent leak of special military equipment shipped to Misrata also reinforces this analysis.
Indeed the West’s approach looks to be more focused on a military response to the ISIS threat. On 19 February, the U.S. carried out airstrikes against an ISIS safe house on the outskirts of the western city of Sabratha, killing dozens of fighters as well as two Serbian hostages. The Pentagon statement said that the strike targeted Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian national, who was a senior ISIS facilitator in Libya. The Pentagon also said the strike demonstrates the US will go after ISIS whenever it is necessary, using the full range of tools at its disposal.
There are also unverified reports of four airstrikes on 28 February in Sdada, an area east of Bani Walid and south west of Sirte. The US has denied any action on its part, while some analysts posit that the French may be responsible. US/EU aircraft also likely conducted Airstrikes against an ISIS weapons ship off coast Sabratha on 21 February. These events, along with the US strike on the ISIS safe house in Sabratha, suggest that the West’s actual strategy for ISIS in Libya is not to remove threat, but rather its contain it, and prevent ISIS from spreading to neighboring countries (primarily Tunisia) and to Europe.
On 24 February, AP reported that Italy agreed to allow armed American drones to operate from Sigonella base in Sicily, but only to defend U.S. forces while they target ISIS in North Africa. The article said that permission for each mission will have to be obtained from the Italian government, and will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Permission will not be granted for offensive missions under the arrangement.
Germany is the latest arrival to the Western coalition against ISIS in Libya. Last week a German delegation visited Tunisia to discuss a training program for Libyan forces. Tunisian Defense Minister Farhat Harchani told TAP state news agency that he endorsed the project, saying that Tunisian forces would also take part, but that he did not know when the training might occur.