In Dubious Battle

08/06/2015

Damn near every paragraph of this Jon Lee Anderson piece on Libya for The New Yorker is dubious:

The wars in Syria and Iraq continue to dominate international headlines,

Interesting to cast the turmoil in the region as separate “wars.” I think IS would disagree. But that’s beside the point, moving on…

These attacks [on Egyptian & Ethiopian Christians, on Bardo & Sousse] focused attention on the fact that Libya, a vast, oil-rich, underpopulated country with a long southern-Mediterranean coastline, has become part of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate.

Libya is part of the caliphate! I did not know that. I think that would surprise quite a few Libyans living in Libya. Even Anderson’s own analysis runs counter to this sensationalistic Twitter-bait.

While we’re at it: Libya is underpopulated? News to me. I’m not sure how that would be determined, but I can’t imagine a metric (excess housing units? Agricultural surplus?) that would support that conclusion. Sparsely populated, sure; most of that vast interior is desert.

Last November, battle-hardened Libyan Islamists, who had returned home from fighting in Iraq and Syria, along with Islamists from other countries, seized the eastern city of Derna and claimed it for ISIS. Emulating their comrades in Raqqa and Mosul, they stoned, shot, beheaded, and crucified people deemed guilty of espionage or “un-Islamic” behavior. Last month, a rival militia loyal to Al Qaeda waged and won a battle for control of the city. The victors are said to have marched the captured ISIS commander through the streets naked before executing him. ISIS lost Derna, but in the past few months they have taken Qaddafi’s home town of Sirte and surrounding areas in Libya’s “Oil Crescent,” and have begun attacks on the outer defenses of the city of Misrata.

So pace Anderson’s previous statement that Libya is now “part of the caliphate,” IS has really only controlled two cities in Libya, Derna and Sirte (there are more than two cities in Libya. These two aren’t even in the top five in terms of population.) And now it has lost Derna. To the casual reader, this paragraph suggests that after being expelled from Derna, IS took Sirte, in what’s becoming a familiar game of Islamist whack-a-mole (maybe they should change the name). Read carefully and you’ll realize that IS took Derna in November 2014, then expanded to Sirte (IS rolled into town in February of this year and enjoyed de facto control of the city by the next month, though that’s arguable), only to be forced out of Derna in June. That seems less like a movement that’s expanding than one in retreat.

Note the headline of this piece is “ISIS Rises in Libya.”

Unless the crisis in Libya begins to be resolved soon, the calls for an international response may grow louder and stronger.

What calls for an international response? Who is making these calls? Al Sisi called for a UNSC resolution, but he’s hardly a neutral party. Even the WaPo’s editorial board came out against him. There’s almost certainly a faction within the USG that would support sending in the troops — there always is — but as far as the gen pop is concerned, while there was wide support for air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria (though the drop-off on the latter is telling), once you start talking about ground troops the polls swing in the other direction.

Next sentence:

Egypt carried out air strikes against ISIS positions in Libya after the mass execution of its citizens, in February.

Weeeeellll, Egypt carried out air strikes. Who they hit was a matter of some debate. Setting that aside, maybe this clarifies the preceding sentence… but is it Egypt calling for that international response (in which case, see above)? Or are Egyptian air strikes themselves the “international” response? Anderson goes on to mention US drone strikes in Libya this past June and July, so maybe by “international response” he really means unilateral attacks by whoever’s in the mood. It should be pointed out that previous raids by the U.S. and Egypt have played a role in escalating tensions in Libya.

Anderson follows this with a quote from the ubiquitous “senior Administration official,” who  says the USG is “looking at who we can work with, both internally and externally, in order to confront that threat, without necessarily being completely dependent on the political process reaching a conclusion.” Which sounds like a formula for getting in on the proxy war. Then we get a quote from yet another “senior Administration official,” who sticks to what you might not know is the party line, basically contradicting the preceding source:

“You have the Americans doing things, and the French in the south, but to really leverage that against ISIS you need a national-unity government in Libya.” Such a government, he explained, would be able to request international military assistance.

Why that quote — more or less the administration’s stated policy — should be given (and reported) anonymously is beyond me. (Why a senior Administration official would refer to “the Americans” is odd.) In any event, apparently going after IS will be “dependent on the political process reaching a conclusion” after all. Depending on which source you believe, anyway.