How Not to Fight Islamic State in Libya

Brutality knows no religion.

Photographer: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

A video of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by an Islamic State affiliate is sparking calls for outside military intervention in Libya. This is an imprudent response to Islamic State’s growing presence and an unrealistic solution to the country’s ongoing chaos -- and, in many ways, would make both problems worse.

Libya’s Breakdown

The unrealism first: The United Nations Security Council includes Russia and China, who were never fans of the U.S.-backed military intervention that helped topple Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 and are unlikely to favor any such involvement now. Even with the Arab world’s most powerful military, Egypt lacks the ability to intervene decisively in Libya’s vast spaces. Despite Islamic State’s unveiled threats to Rome, Italy is playing down its initial offer to send 5,000 troops to Libya. Neither the European Union nor NATO is mounting up. And the last thing U.S. President Barack Obama wants is another ground war in the Middle East.

The substantive case for intervention is even weaker. The sight of troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the shores of Tripoli would be welcomed by Islamic State as a recruiting bonanza that validates its claims to legitimacy as a defender of Islam against the “Crusaders.” More important, any such force would inevitably become embroiled in Libya’s civil war.

Too often, that conflict is depicted as a simplistic clash between Libya’s “elected government” and “Islamists.” In reality, it’s the toxic efflorescence of multiple ethnic, regional and tribal animosities that defy easy sorting into good and bad -- the uncorked legacy of 42 years of Qaddafi’s divide-and-rule tactics and suppression of civil liberties. The outbreak of a proxy war pitting Egypt and the United Arab Emirates against Sudan and Qatar hasn’t helped. Notwithstanding the split between secularists and Islamists (who are themselves divided), the real issue in Libya is how to distribute political power (and in what form) and share the bounty that comes from Africa’s largest proved oil reserves.

These are questions that Libyans must sort out for themselves, and not at the barrel of a gun. Recent U.N.-sponsored talks among the warring factions are making fragile, halting progress. They deserve encouragement and support to help build momentum for a national unity government -- the best way to stop the violence and restart the delivery of humanitarian and civil assistance. In the meantime, the European Union can help refugees with more robust and far-reaching naval patrols -- its anemic new Triton program covers waters only up to 30 miles off the Italian coast and threatens to turn the Mediterranean into what Pope Francis called a “vast cemetery.” The U.S. and Europe can also do much more to help Libya’s neighbors protect their borders and blunt Islamic State’s expansion, providing them with intelligence, training and weapons.

One glimmer of good news is that the brutality and ambition of Islamic State in Libya are causing some Islamist militias and factions to turn against it. Whether in Libya, Syria or Iraq, Islamic State thrives in the fissures of civil war. Over the long run, healing such divisions offers the best hope of stanching its spread.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.