France warns of IS crossing the Med to Europe, US mulls military action in Libya

Libya Channel

US President Barack Obama has instructed key advisors to explore military action against Islamic State group in Libya, as top French defense officials warned the militants could hide amongst refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

Nearly two years after America began airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria, the White House is looking to speed up the destruction of the global terror group, ratcheting up efforts to retake Syria’s Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul but also the group’s newer strongholds in central Libya. Fearing that IS’s base in Sirte could become a “back up” caliphate on the doorstep of Europe, the Americans are drawing up plans for possible military intervention.

“[The Defense Department] stands ready to perform the full spectrum of military operations as required,” its spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza told AFP on Saturday.  That could include more airstrikes or joining a UN-backed ground force.

“We also continue to work with the international community to mitigate conflict in Libya, promote stability, and strengthen governance” Baldanza added.

Among the military measures officials are scoping out could be the formation of a coalition with European nations, like Italy, France and the UK, according to defense officials.
Obama will host the Italian head of state, President Sergio Mattarella, at the White House on February 8, while his Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet European counterparts in Rome four days beforehand. Top of the agenda is said to be the forming of a possible joint force – particularly as southern Europe is facing the most imminent threat from IS.”The idea is to have a coalition of nations,” one defense official told AFP on Saturday.

“Action in Libya is needed before Libya becomes a sanctuary for ISIL, before they become extremely hard to dislodge. We don’t want a situation like in Iraq or Syria,” another added.
On Sunday French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reiterated the calls for action, warning of IS’s proximity to the continent, in particular the Italian island of Lampedusa, an arrival point for thousands of migrants and refugees leaving Libya for the European Union.
“[IS militants] are there, nearly 300 kilometres from the coast, and they are spreading,” LE Drian told French TV in Paris.

“When good weather comes to the Mediterranean, there is the risk that (IS fighters) could make the crossing, mixing in with refugees. It’s a major risk,” he said.

The top French official acknowledged the danger of “transferring conflict” in Syria and Iraq to a new conflict in Libya and emphasized that a political solution was the “only way to eradicate” the problem.

“There must be a government of national unity. There’s a serious political process under way, supported by the UN Security Council. I think it’s urgent,” he added.

The Americans also emphasized the need for the UN-backed political solution to the 18-month civil war – maintaining that military decisions in Libya had coordinated with the Libyan authorities, who have warned against unilateral action on Libyan soil calling it akin to a declaration of war.

“The President directed his national security team to continue efforts to strengthen governance and support ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Libya, “ the White House said on Thursday after a special meeting of the National Security Council to discuss IS’s expanding empire beyond Iraq and Syria. It hinted at America providing military help to a new UN-backed unity government, which is struggling to function after failing to get the endorsement needed from the official parliament the House of Representatives.

The West had hoped the creation of the joint body – which includes representatives from Libya’s main warring factions – would end an 18-month civil war allowing all sides to focus on combating IS.

A UN-brokered peace deal – that outlined the formation of the unity government – was signed by representatives of Libya’s rival sides in December. However, last week the HoR voted against the proposed 32-ministry cabinet saying it was too big and would therefore be ineffectual.

The lawmakers also rejected one clause in the December peace deal, which would allow the government to appoint military officials, over fears it could lead to the dismissal of controversial but popular army chief Khalifa Haftar. They demanded it be removed or they would not accept the agreement.

The General National Congress – the rival parliament anchored in Tripoli that opposes Haftar – has opposed the peace deal, rebuking lawmakers who signed on to it in December.

As the Libyans have dithered over a political solution to the crisis, the Americans – fearing the dramatic rise of IS in Libya – have been increasingly banging the drums of war.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned on Thursday  that IS was establishing training sites in Libya and welcoming foreign fighters following a pattern first started by their counterparts in Iraq and Syria years ago.
“We don’t want to be on a glide slope to a situation like Syria and Iraq. That’s the reason why we’re watching it that closely. That’s the reason why we develop options for what we might do in the future,” he said.
The day before  Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook confirmed that the US  had already sent “a small number of military personnel” into Libya, though he claimed it was to “to engage in conversations with local forces to get a clearer picture of exactly what’s happening there.”
He too said that the Americans were exploring “military options”, without elaborating.
America was forced to admit to sending soldiers into Libya after photographs of around 20 Special Forces officers were taken by the Libyan Air Force on their Wattiya base in the west of the country two weeks ago.The Libyan military said that the Americans had not coordinated their visit with the authorities in a statement signed by the Abu Bakr al-Sadiq Brigade, whose fighters ushered the foreign forces onto a plane and out of the country.

The bizarre and embarrassing incident raised questions about whether the US had unilaterally sent forces to other parts of the country.

The president and his administration is also under pressure from the Republicans who – eyeing the November US presidential elections – have criticized Obama and his  one-time secretary of state Hillary Clinton for failing to prevent the rise of IS in Libya since 2011 NATO-backed revolution which toppled Muammar Gaddafi.

“Congress has been calling for a real strategy from the president to defeat ISIS,” said a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“We’ll see whether this is just more talk or if it will be backed up with the will and the resources necessary for victory.”

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