Representatives of the internationally recognized government in Tobruk deny involvement of French Special Forces in military operations against ISIS in Libya. Previously, this information was made public by the French media. Libyan military sources told them that French soldiers would conduct “joint operations” against ISIS in Benghazi with troops of General Khalifa Haftar, former C.I.A. agent and commander of the armed forces loyal to the internationally recognized government. French forces, according to these sources, are currently stationed somewhere inside the Benina air base east of Benghazi, citing one Libyan security source, who could not provide specifics about the size or strength of the unit. The French authorities have not confirmed or denied this information.
According to a report published by the newspaper Le Monde, the French state is waging a secret war in Libya. It involves occasional targeted airstrikes against ISIS leaders preceded by discreet ground operations.
Time to invade?
The “exposé” of the French secret war in Libya coincided with leading news agencies drawing attention to the subject of the threat of terrorism emanating from Libya. It was reported that the “Islamic State”, which controls the oil-rich coast near the city of Sirte, plans to shift the focus of its activity in Libya and use the proceeds from the Libyan oil smuggling operation to fund terrorist activities around the world.
Thus, the media works to provide implicit justification for any action that is carried out in Libya by Western countries, not only France, but also the US and the UK. As often happens, the terrorist threat comes from the oil-bearing regions, and efforts to eliminate them include not only airstrikes and the use of drones, but also Special Operations units who occupy oil fields strategically important to all three countries.
It is significant that the fight against ISIS in Libya, as well as in Syria, became a convenient pretext for more intensive involvement of Western countries in inter-Arab troubles. The main task is not only to defeat ISIS, but also to seize the oil fields. At the same time western countries have competitors; the area controlled by ISIS is situated between the regions under the control of the pro-Western internationally recognized government in Tobruk and the territory of Islamist government in Tripoli, supported by Qatar and Turkey.
Therefore we observe the “invisible war” in Libya, where the countries of the West, the Gulf monarchies, Egypt and Turkey are all engaged.
The geopolitical division of Libya
The government in Tobruk controls Cyrenaica, the northeastern part of the country that neighbors Egypt. In antiquity, this was the location of Greek colonies. This region was traditionally orientated towards Egypt. When the Arab Spring started and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, Cyrenaica, with its capital Benghazi, became the stronghold of the anti-Gaddafi Islamist opposition. After the military coup in Egypt, Cyrenaica fell under the control of the more secularist and internationally recognized Government of Libya, in Tobruk, with general Khalifa Haftar as the main military leader. However local jihadists occupy some parts of the Cyrenaica region; the most important Islamist organization is the Mujahedeen Councils of Derna, Benghazi and Ajdabiya, which controls some parts of the region.
The Tripoli government controls most of Tripolitania, in the Northeast of the country. It was named after the three ancient colonies of Phoenicians that were situated here. In the ancient world it was a part of the Carthaginian Empire and was traditionally more included in the geopolitical processes of the Western Mediterranean. Today this part of the country is controlled by the Islamist orientated New General National Congress. The Islamic State controls the eastern part of the Tripolitanian coast, halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi, with the city of Sirte.
The third major part of Libya is Fezzan; it is in the southwestern part of the country, populated by settlers of the Berber, Arab, Tebu and Tuareg tribes. The region is divided between forces of Tripoli, Tobruk and independent Tuareg and Tebu tribes. Both major forces try to use the inter-tribal tensions for their own interests.
The hidden hands of Turkey and Qatar
There is already, on the territory of Libya, a proxy war between Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other. At the same time the West is inclined to support the latter group.
At the outbreak of a new civil war in 2014 between governments in Tripoli and Tobruk, Qatar, Turkey and Sudan supported the government in Tripoli, where structures associated with the “Muslim Brotherhood” took power. European countries, the US, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia supported the secular government in Tobruk. Rival militias are fighting for control of the country’s oil, estimated at 46.4 billion barrels of proven reserves, the largest in Africa.
Upon the removal of Muammar Gaddafi’s government, Qatar received significant benefits from the new government. Qatari Special Forces were actively involved in the coup in Libya and the ousting of the government of Muammar Gaddafi.
They were reported to have provided infantry training to Libyan fighters in the western Nafusa mountains and in eastern Libya, and were seen on the frontline. In 2011, the newly emerged opposition leadership of Libya signed an agreement with Qatar to allow them exclusive rights in the production of oil. Qatar supported the group Ansar al-Sharia, a brutal jihadist movement suspected of killing America’s then ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and of trying to murder his British counterpart, Sir Dominic Asquith.
The military mutiny of General Haftar in 2014 was directed against, in particular, the influence of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and Qatar. Therefore his government was immediately recognized by the West as the legitimate one. As a result, Qatar and Turkey strengthened their military cooperation with Islamists in Tripoli and began to supply them with weapons as a matter of urgency.
Whilst Qatar is stuck in the Syrian campaign and a joint invasion of Gulf countries in Yemen, it cannot afford a full-scale military operation in Libya, but some support for militants continues to be provided. Even more interesting is that ISIS is also supported by Qatari private funds.
In 2014, it was revealed that Qatar’s ambassador to Libya mediated the sending of 1,800 fighters from Libya to Iraq, where they had to fight on the side of ISIS. Turkey was also involved in this operation.
The document bears the signature of the Acting Qatari Embassy in Libya, Nayef Abdullah Al Emadi, in which he wrote that “the volunteers completed military and combat training with heavy weapons, especially in the camps Zintan, Benghazi, Zawiya and Misrata in Libya” suggesting to send these fighters in three batches over the Libyan ports to Turkey, and then to enter northern Iraq through Kurdistan.
ISIS in Libya resulted from the desire of Qatar directly or indirectly to take control of most of the oil-bearing coast. Currently there are clashes between Tripoli Islamists and ISIS in Libya, but both sides are somehow connected with Qatar and Turkey.
Western military presence in Libya
On February 19th the US Air Force bombed the positions of ISIS militants in Libya. The US hit a training camp near Sabratha, Libya. It likely killed the ISIS operative Noureddine Chouchane. According to statements by the US authorities, Libyan ISIS terrorists pose a great threat to the superpower.
US and British Special Forces were deployed in Libya at the end of last year, along with drone strikes and intense surveillance by American, British and French warplanes. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed that as many as 1,000 soldiers were being readied for deployment to Libya to deal with the proliferation of ISIS.
Earlier, Western interests in Libya were guarded mostly by private military companies. The most numerous were British companies that operated in this market: Trango Special Projects, Control Risks, Olive Group, AKE, Blue Mountain, SNE Special Projects, SicuroGroup, GardaWorld and British-OAE Whispering Bell. Also participating were US PCMC’s: Blackwater (today Academi), Team Crucible LLC, G4S and French mercenaries from: Secopex, Galea etc. Only the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office declared that it contracted two PMSCs – Control Risks and GardaWorld – in Libya for “mobile and static guarding” for a total of £8.5million in 2011-2012.
Even last year, the Western media reported the planned ground operation against “Islamic state” in Libya. The reports covered the deployment of a 6000 ground contingent in Libya, in which the lead role was to be played by Italy; officially Italy now denies large-scale plans to invade Libya. “There are no plans for the large-scale deployment of Western troops in Libya”, Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said last Thursday, amid reports that special forces are already on the ground to fight radical Islamists. At the same time, it became known recently that Italy has provided its territory for launching American intelligence and combat drones operating over the territory of Libya.
According to the independent Israeli intelligence agency Debka, a group of US, Russian, French and Italian Special Forces quietly landed at a point south of Tobruk near the Libyan-Egyptian frontier at the end of January. Some 1,000 British SAS troops were standing by after preparing the ground. The Israelis considered landing area was located some 144 kilometers from Darnah, controlled by pro-Qatar Ansar al Sharia.
Plans of invasion
While Russian presence is very questionable and is not proven with any evidence, the plans of the joint American-British-French-Italian operation were discussed long before. As Debka revealed, the Western countries prepared plan for a large-scale invasion in Libya against ISIS, Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sharia and other radical Islamist organizations as well as against the Tripoli government.
The operation may involves cruise missile strikes launched from US, British, French and Italian warships on the Mediterranean and landing operations on Libyan shores. According to this scenario, one group will be dropped ashore from the Gulf of Sidra to seize Sirte, the ISIS capital in Libya.
Then this group will then split up into two task forces. One will retake Tripoli, Misrata, Zliten and Khoms.
Another group will capture Benghazi, seizing Ras Lanuf in the process. Meanwhile a second Marine unit may land in eastern Libya to capture the radical Islamist stronghold of Darnah. Thus, western countries will gain control of Libya’s oil and gas fields.
Although this plan was never realized, the probability of such a scenario holds true. At least it can act as a means of blackmailing the Qatari-Turkish groups. In fact, the Western involvement today is limited to the supply of arms to General Haftar, airstrikes, training and joint raids of Western Special Forces along with troops of the Tobruk government.
Lack of national unity
The EU today opposes the idea of a large-scale military operation in Libya because of the lack of a national unity government, which can justify such an action. Despite the UN brokered deal being signed last December, Tobruk Parliament opposed this plan; it was also received with great suspicion in Tripoli.
One of the main reasons why the government has not yet been created is the different foreign policy orientation of the rival groups, as well as the high role of autonomous actors: the ethno-tribal factions, religious fundamentalists, and local warlords. Creating such a government would inevitably lead to a new split within the two existing coalitions and will only exacerbate the fragmentation of Libya.
In the context of permanent civil war the only opportunity for the West to seize and hold Libyan oil could be some form of intervention – direct control over key points of oil production and transition. They do not need a single Libyan state, but need some control over most of the actors and their own military presence.