The mystery warplanes that thundered in on Islamist militias fighting for control of the Libyan capital this week are harbingers of a widening regional conflict. The Libyan chaos following the U.S.-backed ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 has opened the way to a proxy war among regional and global powers that Washington appears utterly unable to contain – even as it wades once again into the carnage of Iraq and possibly Syria.
This week U.S. officials publicly confirmed that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes against the Islamist militias in Tripoli on August 18 and 22, but said they had not given the green light for the raids.
But this does not square with what members of the recently elected Libyan House of Representatives are saying in Tobruk, where they are holed up because Tripoli is too dangerous. They say Obama officials were aware that air strikes by the U.A.E. were to be launched, even though they did not endorse them. It appears Washington also withheld approval for further planned interventions involving not only the U.A.E. and Egypt but Algeria as well.
In any case, the raids mounted by U.A.E. warplanes using Egyptian air bases proved ineffectual in stopping renegade Islamists from securing Tripoli’s mostly destroyed international airport.
The United States and its European allies fear outside interference will only exacerbate deep political divisions and will draw Libya deeper into regional disputes, turning the country into a proxy battleground for outside powers. But the Americans and the British have closed their embassies because of the growing threat to their personnel. And once again Washington, Brussels, Paris and London seem to be behind the curve figuring out what’s happening on the ground.
Advisers to Libya’s latest interim prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, accuse Western powers of “lacking realism” about the perilous situation that already exists.
In fact, Libya is now caught between warring Islamist militias in an alliance called Libyan Dawn, which is widely believed to have the support of Qatar, and their opponents, some of whom are backed by the U.A.E. and Egypt. One of the strongest of the anti-Islamists is a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, who is fighting in the east.
“The Obama administration is kidding itself about what is happening here,” Hassan Tatanaki, a Libyan philanthropist, businessman and government advisor. “This is already a proxy war. Washington is making a mistake in not embracing this as a regional problem. And U.S. officials are too accommodating of the Islamists and too ready to draw distinctions between various militants: jihadist, Islamist, they are all part of the same movement and they have a plan.”
Tatanaki dismisses the argument that the fighting in Libya is a civil war, saying it is a battle between Islamists and non-Islamists. “Look at how they have spread. These groups are integrated. There is a serious plan here. Washington needs to look at the bigger picture. Underestimating these groups is a mistake.”
But not all members of the “Tobruk” government foreign intervention against the Islamists is the right move. Six ministers in al-Thinni’s government resigned Wednesday after accusing the government of taking sides in the escalating battles between rival militias. (Further complicating the situation: Libya is set to have two governments after the outgoing Islamist-dominated parliament in Tripoli named a rival prime minister on Monday.)
Other lawmakers and government advisers embrace the involvement of regional powers such as Libya’s neighbor Egypt and the U.A.E. but warn against the West becoming involved militarily, fearing that would provoke a widespread jihad and bond Libyan Islamists with foreign jihadists. “That would be a disaster,” Tatanaki said in a phone interview. “The minute you start putting in Western forces even some Libyans who hate the militants will join forces with them.”
Divisions within al-Thinni’s government are not assisting Western powers to develop a policy to cope with the chaos in Libya. On Monday, European Union countries condemned the air strikes and called for a ceasefire and “constructive dialogue.” Some in al-Thinni’s government say the time for “dialogue” is over – hence the turn to Egypt and the Gulf for help.
“Someone has to try to take the situation in hand,” says another Libyan government adviser, who suggests U.S. diplomats were not informed in detail about the planned Emirati air strikes but were kept in the loop about discussions with the Egyptians, Emiratis and Algerians.
Libya’s collapse into all-out militia warfare and the increasing presence of jihadists is terrifying the country’s neighbors. They fear also a refugee crisis. Diplomats from Egypt, Chad, Tunisia, Algeria and Sudan have met in Cairo to discuss how to halt the violence in Libya. They have argued that further escalation will require full-scale foreign intervention and that if Libya is allowed to continue as a failed state al Qaeda and other jihadist groups will turn it into a safe haven and pose a threat just a short boat ride from the southern shores of Europe.
More than 3,000 people have fled their homes near Tripoli’s international airport, which has seen heavy clashes for weeks between Islamist militias from the town of Misrata and fighters from an alliance led by commanders from the western mountain town of Zintan who are backing renegade general Khalifa Haftar, a one-time C.I.A. asset.
Contingents from the general’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army have been engaged in fierce battles in Benghazi with Ansar al-Sharia, one of the jihadist-inspired groups blamed for the 2012 razing of the U.S. diplomatic compound where Ambassador Christopher Stevens died.
Tripoli is barely functioning: food shops are running low and fuel is hard to find. Militiamen from the western mountain town of Zintan are furious at the loss of the international airport, which they have controlled since the ouster of Gaddafi. They are vowing that the war has only just begun.