In Libya, a Rift Widens Over How to Defeat ISIS

Libya ISIS Derna
An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, who have pledged allegiance to ISIS, drive along a road in Derna, eastern Libya, on October 3, 2014. Reuters

Ibrahim Dabbashi was livid. Two weeks ago, in a closed-door meeting at the United Nations Security Council, the Libyan ambassador demanded an apology. He was so angry, he didn't point to who needed to say he was sorry. But most present at the meeting—a periodic briefing about the conflict in Libya—already knew: Mark Lyall Grant, a seasoned, well-liked diplomat from the United Kingdom.

Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the U.N., wasn't in the room that afternoon, and the row between the two men was political, not personal. It began three days earlier when Lyall Grant gave an interview to Al-Arabiya, saying the Libyan national army, which is loyal to the government that Dabbashi represents, is incapable of fighting the Islamic State. Worse still, Lyall Grant said that country's Islamist militias—the enemies of Libya's widely recognized government—are "best placed" to fight ISIS.

After the interview, British emissaries to Libya tried to contain the fallout, saying the television channel took the ambassador's words out of context. Either way, Dabbashi's outburst offers a window into a widening rift between Western governments and Arab states trying to stop ISIS.

American and European officials publicly profess to needing Arab allies to serve as boots on the ground in the war against militant jihadists, but these allies feel the West is slow to back them when they try to intervene.

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The politics of Libya are particularly complicated. In the four years since a Western coalition ousted longtime dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, the country has fallen into chaos. ISIS has taken advantage of the leadership gap, allying with local militant groups. Through the winter the jihadist organization set up camp in the coastal region around the city of Derna. In February it beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians and more recently it kidnapped nine foreign oil workers.

The U.N. and most Western countries recognize Libya's elected, secularly oriented government, which now resides in the east portion of the country, around the city of Tobruk. The government recently named a military veteran, General Khalifa Haftar, as the national army's commander in chief, and Haftar and his allies want Western weapons to help defeat ISIS.

The only problem: Another group of Libyan politicians has booted the elected government from Tripoli, setting up a parallel, Islamist government in the capital. For firepower, the Tripoli government, which the U.N. doesn't recognize, relies on militias around the western city of Misrata.

In his Al-Arabiya interview, Lyall Grant said his government would not help Haftar and Libya's national army fight ISIS until they were able to make peace with their Islamist rivals in Tripoli. "Once there is a wider coalition, and the reach of the government is wider, then we can help them fight," he said. But "the people who are actually best placed to fight [ISIS] are in fact some of the Misratan militias."

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In the interview, Lyall Grant made clear that, from Britain's point of view, a diplomatic agreement among Libya's political factions must come before the embargo is lifted. To Dabbashi it sounded like he was siding with his enemies. "How can he say such a thing," Dabbashi said to me a few days later. "The Misrata group is allied with Ansar al-Sharia," a Libyan militia that the U.N. considers a terrorist group. "Ansar al-Sharia is ISIS. How can he say that the Misrata group is fighting ISIS?"

A spokesperson for the U.K. government said that London indeed supports the Libyan National Army and others trying to beat back ISIS. "We are encouraging all Libyans to join together to fight," the spokesperson said on the condition of anonymity, which is part of the tradition of the British foreign service. "We fully support the [U.N.-led] dialogue process to agree on a national unity government."

This dialogue is being led by Bernardino Leon, the U.N. envoy to Libya, who for several months has been trying to get Libya's various factions to form a unity government. In the West and in much of the Arab world, Leon's efforts have gained a sense of urgency as ISIS has continued to make headway in the North African nation. But as of yet, his efforts have made little headway.

In the meantime, in retaliation for the beheadings of the Egyptian Coptic Christians in February, Egypt bombed Islamist bases in Libya, coordinating its air assault with the government in Tobruk. The Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al Sisi, also announced he would seek a resolution at the U.N. to remove an existing Security Council ban on weapons sales to the Haftar-led army.

Jordan initially circulated a draft of a resolution that would do just that. But the U.S., Britain and other top Security Council members resisted the proposal. Some Western diplomats don't trust Haftar, and several told me they're concerned that sending arms to Libya could lead to more infighting among the country's various tribes and militias. They also said it could harm Leon's efforts to help form a unity government.

"If we wish to overcome the crisis, we have to push a kind of agreement," said a European diplomat who once served in Libya and asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Certainly, he added, "the Security Council is not ready to lift the embargo."

With negotiations over the Egyptian initiative frozen, a Jordanian diplomat told me this week that his country is working on language for a new resolution. But this new push is unlikely to satisfy the Libyan government in Tobruk. "The arms embargo is a joke," said a diplomat from the region, who asked not to identify his country because the negotiations are ongoing. "The Qataris and the Turks are arming the Tripoli Islamist government and its affiliated militias. Why shouldn't the West arm Tobruk and Haftar, if they want them to fight against ISIS?"

In Washington, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told Congress on Thursday that the Obama administration's request to authorize the use of force in the fight against ISIS "could apply to operations in and around Libya." But in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has mostly used air power to combat the jihadist group, leaving the ground fight to local allies.

The U.S. has armed and trained some of these local allies, but the Libyans aren't the only ones in the region who say they need more help. Sisi has long complained that the U.S. is nitpicking over human rights violations as the Egyptian army fights jihadi groups in the Sinai. He says his political opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, supply the ideological basis for Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which fight in the region.

Sisi and his counterparts in Libya share a similar frustration as the makeshift caliphate continues to target Derna and other areas. As Dabbashi, the Libyan ambassador, put it: "They want us to fight the terrorists, but they won't give us the weapons."

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni

In Libya, a Rift Widens Over How to Defeat ISIS | U.S.