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Unidentified plane over Libya re-ignites talk about military intervention

Concerned about their own borders and security, Egypt and Algeria weigh the odds of possible military intervention
Libya's many militias are fighting for control of the country (AFP)

Uncertainty has gripped Tripoli as the country continues to slide into a possible civil war. In recent weeks, the country’s main airport has been completely destroyed, while a key oil refinery on the city’s outskirts has been repeatedly shelled, as rival militias continue to battle for control of the capital.

On Sunday night, however, the appearance of a mystery plane above Tripoli’s skies added a fresh layer of intrigue. 

As soon as the bombs stopped falling, the blame game started. Islamist-leaning Libyan sources pointed the finger at rogue general, Khalifa Haftar, battling the Islamist Misrata-led militias in the east, claiming that he was doing the bidding of his Western backers.

The West promptly responded with a plethora of denials, while NATO stayed tight lipped.

Haftar eventually emerged more than a day later to take responsibility.

The North Africa rumour mill has been abuzz for months about the prospect of intervention, but things really started to heat up at the start of August. For weeks, Egyptian and Algerian press has been airing news that some kind of operation to stem the Islamist tide might be looming.

Egypt’s former foreign minister, Amr Moussa, added fuel to the fire by calling on Cairo to consider an invasion, while Algeria’s ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped in to say that he was moving closer to authorising a military solution.

Now with the appearance of the mystery plane, the debate about what is likely to happen - or may already be happening - behind the scenes is being rehashed once again. 

“It is understandable why rumours of an Egyptian and Algerian military ground offensive in Libya have been widely publicised,” said Albert Arbuthnott, an analysts with the political risk consultancy Salamanca Group.

“The current situation in Libya has provided a permissive security environment where Islamist militant groups can operate. The presence and intent of these groups, as well as the capability to project attacks across borders, therefore poses a credible national security threat to Egypt and Algeria.”

Since the ousting of former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has struggled to impose law and order. The militias that fought together to depose Gaddafi in 2011, have long since turned the guns on one another, with the national army failing to ease divisions or integrate the fighters.

To the east, the country’s second-largest city, Benghazi, has become embroiled in a months-long conflict between the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar and Islamist-inspired militias headed by Ansar al-Sharia militants. In the capital Tripoli, Islamist-inspired Misrata militias continue to clash with nationalist Zintan brigades. As the conflicts have dragged on, concerns that the security vacuum could spill over to its neighbours have grown. 

“Egypt and Algeria are keeping a close eye on the security situation in Libya,” said Richard Northern, the British Ambassador to Libya in 2010-2011, and now director of RN4 Consultancy.

“For the Egyptians in particular, the border is a worry. There was recently a cross-border attack which killed 21 soldiers. Egypt also has problems with smugglers from Libya active along the border. That has caused direct problems.”

On the surface, Haftar and the Zintan brigades have similar goals to Egypt and Algeria. All four are determined to crush Islamist opponents, and seek to legitimise their rule by promising to act as a bulwark against Islamist groups, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Algeria reportedly has at least loose links to the Zintanis, while Haftar has recently been spotted in Egyptian meetings with high-ranking military officials.

Some reports claim that Haftar was soliciting help from Egypt, and was possibly laying the groundwork for an Egyptian intervention to turn the tide in his favour. But analysts suggest that it is still too early to place much significance on the meetings.

“My guess is that Haftar would like Egyptian moral, and possibly even more than moral support,” said Northern. “Haftar sees Egypt as a natural ally, but he is not asking for military intervention. Rather, he wants resources to help him gain the upper hand.”

Salamanca Risk analyst, Tom Crooke, agrees that talk about the Egyptians throwing their weight behind Haftar is premature.

The extent to which Hafter has received direct backing from Sisi is questionable. Hafter made statements to the Egyptian press, indicating he would welcome support from the Egyptian Army. However, there has been little to suggest that such support has been forthcoming,” said Crooke.

“Hafter and Sisi are perhaps natural allies, but this does not yet appear to have translated into significant amounts of hard cash or weapons.”

Algeria too, may be talking big, but is unlikely to intervene directly.

According to Jeremy Keenan, an Algeria expert and professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies, the chances of intervention are 50/50 at best.

“The [Algerian] government is clearly preparing the public and there is a lot of propaganda coming out in the media," Keenan said.

“If this goes in a big way, the gains for the regime would be considerable. Firstly, it would bring the regime closer together and help end all the infighting we have seen. It would also help bring the regime and the people a little closer together with all the propaganda we have seen.

“There would also be benefits, at least initially, to Algeria’s standing with the West, and the move would show the West that Algeria is the one true superpower in the region. But the downsides are huge and the consequences potentially catastrophic.”

Mission blowback

The key concern among analysts and policymakers is that any intervention could backfire, further destabilising Libya and weakening both Algiers and Cairo.

Both countries have strong militaries that have proven relatively effective, if brutal, at crushing Islamist dissent at home. Algeria, in particular, has been building up its military and claims to have 40,000 troops stationed on the border with Libya, although whether these troops could impose order on a country as large and volatile as Libya is highly questionable.

The two armies have “low morale because [they] kill [their] own people and are extremely corrupt at the top,” said Keenan. “And all armies that are corrupt don’t really want to fight. If you put them to the test against Islamist fighters - who are tough hardened fighters who are prepared to die – the two armies could be humiliated.”

“Libya could easily be turned into a complete cauldron and it would spill out into all across the region," he said.

Reports about mass troop deployments, he added, could be grossly exaggerated. 

“Algeria brags an awful lot. It talks about having tens of thousands of troops on the southern border, but my sources tell me that recognisance last month found that the border was totally open – with jihadists just running back and forth,” he said.

The two states could also be too vulnerable socio-economically to endure the stresses of a military escalation. Egypt has been publically ripped apart by internal protests and divisions, as the new ruling elite has striven to root out Islamist and secular opponents alike.

The country has also been gripped by chronic energy shortages and a crippling balance of payments deficit that are only being managed at present by billion-dollar loans from the Gulf.

Even Algeria, which has vast natural gas reserves, could find itself unable to cope.

Its state-driven economy has struggled to attract foreign direct investment, while high youth unemployment, and a lack of affordable housing has caused deep-seated resentment that may explode if Algeria gets dragged into a protracted and unpopular war.

“Both countries are currently engaged in their own counter insurgency campaigns which, in the case of Egypt, is taking a steady toll on the morale of the country,” said Arbuthnott. 

“Additionally, both countries are enduring significant economic instability as a result of their reliance on unsustainable subsidy programmes that require urgent reform. Subsequently, Egypt and Algeria probably lack the appetite and capability to carry out a sustained military campaign in Libya.”

Rumour mill keeps spinning

Despite the various drawbacks of intervention, the rumour mill - aided by events like the appearance of mysterious airplanes - keeps spinning.

“The main line [being fed by the Algerians] is probably referring to Qatar allegedly bringing 5,000 Islamic State fighters into Libya. There has been a lot of this ‘my enemy’s enemy’ kind of stuff and nationalist rallying stuff has been bouncing around in the papers for [about two, three weeks now],” said Keenan.

While there has so far been no concrete evidence that Islamic State has gained a serious foothold in the country, such a development could prove a game changer, especially with the international community revving up its anti-IS position in Iraq.

Regional power struggles could also prompt an escalation, and analysts suggest that Libya could become a proxy for the ongoing feud between the Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt block and the Turkish, Qatari alliance.

“Reliable sources on the ground have told me that some tribal elements have been approached by the United Arab Emirates in [the last month],” said Younis Ali Lahwej, a tutor and Libya specialist at the University of Reading.

“The UAE support Zintan, but they also want to support other Arab tribes. They are willing to arm them if they are willing to cooperate with them.

“This is information that is not available yet, but I think the information is highly credible, and could shift the balance of power,” Lahwej added, stressing that this kind of polarisation could prompt neighbouring countries to fall in line and back their various camps.

For now, most analysts agree that major intervention in the short to medium terms remains unlikely. Instead, Libya could see some kind of small-scale security service operations across the border that would work to neutralise specific threats, but avoid serious blowback.

“This kind of thing would still have to have international support. The US, Britain and France would all have to give it the go ahead privately,” said Lahwej.

Northern also suggests that “you can’t rule out some limited action on the border.”

“The Egyptians and the Algerians are discussing the situation, but they are most likely doing this in a defensive sense. They are comparing notes and seeing what they can do to encourage stability,” he said while also explaining that the divisions between Cairo and Algiers remained too high for the two to viably coordinate a dual invasion.

Keenan went even further, suggesting that the Algerians security services were already in Libya in some capacity, although he felt that they were keen to keep their involvement top secret.

The appearance of Tripoli's mystery plane may be about to change that, but for now, the incident has failed to lift the shroud on whether an intervention could be brewing. 

“In my view, there may be some grounds to believe that the attack had some kind of Egyptian backing,” said Lahwej. “If Haftar had the capacity to launch this kind of strike, why is he only doing it now over Tripoli, instead of over Benghazi where he has been fighting?”

“But that is just a theory. I’m still trying to get confirmation, and there is a lot of uncertainty about the plane.”

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