The international community should not intervene against Islamic State expansion in Libya until a Libyan government is formed and requests such assistance, Egypt said Monday.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in Washington for bilateral talks with the Obama administration, said in an interview that “the Libyan people should undertake the decisions related to the fight against terrorism and how it should be conducted and what form of assistance should be provided to it. This should be a Libyan-led process defined by the Libyan people.”
Pressure has been growing for Western military intervention to stem the growth of the Islamic State in Libya, where the militants control the port city of Sirte and have attacked the oil infrastructure. U.S. intelligence has said that the Islamic State’s headquarters in Syria has increasingly directed new recruits to Libya, where it sees enhanced prospects of expanding territory it controls amid political chaos there.
Pentagon options presented to the White House include airstrikes, Special Forces operations and assistance to Libyan ground forces. Officials said no decisions were made at a National Security Council meeting late last month.
During a meeting last week in Rome on the Libya situation, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that the world must prevent the Islamic State from gaining a “stranglehold” over Libya and urged Libyan political factions to agree on a unity government.
Efforts by the United Nations get competing groups in Tripoli and Tobruk to forge such a government have missed repeated deadlines amid ongoing disagreement about how to parcel out power and ministries.
The latest controversy revolves around the defense ministry. Egypt has pressed for a powerful role for renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls a group of fighting forces in the northeastern part of the country.
“We have to recognize that [Haftar’s forces] are an important component . . . in the battle against expansion of the terrorists,” Shoukry said.
After the Islamic State executed 21 Egyptian workers in Libya last year, Egypt called for immediate military attacks against the militants. In recent weeks, however, it has tempered those calls and is instead trying to press for what it considers the most favorable composition of the new government.
Egypt occupies a unique position in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. A U.S. ally, it also has close military and economic ties with Russia. Saudi Arabia has also been instrumental in helping to boost the Egyptian economy.
As a member of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, as well as of the 17-member group of governments trying to forge a political solution to Syria’s civil war, the Egyptians have tried to straddle competing U.S. and Russian visions of Syria’s future.
“We counsel all our friends to do the right thing,” Shoukry said of divergent views among Washington, Moscow and Riyadh over the immediate future of President Bashar al-Assad in a Syrian political transition. “We have tried to insulate ourselves from this discussion,” he said.
A concentration on Assad, he said, “has not led us to any positive position over the past four years.”
Asked about Russia’s insistence that its Syrian airstrikes are targeting “terrorists” and U.S. insistence that the vast majority of Russian strikes are against the coalition-backed opposition to Assad, Shoukry straddled a middle ground. “We operate on the presumption that all parties do what they say. . . . When we present our opinions to the Untied States, we present the same position to the Russian Federation and our other partners and allies . . . a message that we have to work in unison” to promote a political settlement of the war.