By Hayder al-Khoei & Ellie Geranmayeh & Mattia Toaldo

This analysis was titled ‘After ISIS: How to Win the Peace in Iraq and Libya‘. However, we decided to only publish the sections related to the situation in Libya in two parts.



  • ISIS has suffered significant setbacks in Libya with the battles for Sirte representing potential turning-points.

  • Without a clear political strategy to guide post-ISIS efforts, these military gains could quickly be lost. Libya could again become breeding grounds for conflict and extremism, exacerbating European security and migration challenges.

  • The new US administration is likely to invest less energy than its predecessors in strengthening political orders which provide stability. European states must step up their own efforts.

  • In Libya, Europeans should focus on broadening the local and international coalition supporting the UN-backed political agreement, in part through economic tools. They should also focus increased economic recovery efforts on the reconstruction of Sirte and Benghazi.


  • Strengthen the political coalition behind Tripoli’s government: the EU and its member states, through bilateral and multilateral mediation and engagement with Libyan political actors, could work to expand the coalition-backing unity efforts. 

  • Help Libyans build a decentralised state: the EU should help to (1) unlock funds from the central government for municipalities; (2) encourage coordination and provide advice and recommendations on best practice; (3) promote capacity-building through ‘on the job training’ in Europe for Libyan civil servants.

  • Support deep reconciliation efforts: EU member states should provide logistical support or ‘adopt’ tracks of dialogue similar to those pursued in the past by countries undergoing democratic transition, like Spain or Bulgaria.

  • Pursue military de-escalation: the EU and its member states should support efforts to reach a military deal between different actors in western and southern Libya.

  • Conclude an economic deal to keep the country united: the EU and its member states must give concrete support to a deal that saves the country from economic collapse while addressing the legitimate concerns of eastern Libya about marginalisation within a unified Libya. 

  • Do not forget Sirte (and Benghazi): de-mining, humanitarian relief, and building the conditions for the safe return of IDPs are priorities not just for Sirte’s residents but also for the stability of the rest of western Libya.

  • Deal with regional powers and Russia through the UNSC, and set up an EU member state ‘contact group’: its main policy should be to preserve the ‘architecture’ of resolutions and agreements negotiated by the UN and approved by the UNSC over the past two years with the support of the US, Egypt and Russia.


2016 was not a good year for the Islamic State group (ISIS). Under a military onslaught from the United States-led Global Coalition against ISIS and its local allies, ISIS lost vast territory and thousands of fighters in Iraq, Libya and Syria. This is welcome news, but, as ISIS’s grip on territory loosens, the perhaps more difficult task of establishing a new political order begins. In recent years we have learned to our cost that counter-terrorism without stabilisation simply does not work. Without a sustained international effort to address the political and economic grievances that gave rise to ISIS a new wave of extremism and conflict will surely follow.

This problem presents itself most immediately in Iraq and Libya, both of which may soon be free of all ISIS territorial control. The potential for renewed conflict in these countries is increased by power rivalries between competing armed political and militia factions. Many of these factions find support from regional powers, which, having fought hard to counter ISIS, now want to retain a degree of influence in the liberated areas.

In such circumstances, it is simply not enough to establish a new government, call it ‘inclusive’, hold some elections and then leave the country to stew in economic, political, sectarian and security problems. Greater instability in Iraq and Libya is possible if the post-ISIS transition does not deal with the core drivers of extremist forces, or if regional rivalries provoke further conflict among the forces that defeated ISIS.

The incoming administration of Donald Trump in the United States has evinced little interest in investing in the political stabilisation that the region and – by extension – Europe needs. In that case, the need for a strong European role and intensified political engagement will become more urgent and critical. While the US has the luxury of distance, European countries cannot ignore such a toxic mix of geopolitical rivalry, extremism, and human suffering on their borders. Some European Union member states recognise the importance and urgency of committing to a stabilisation effort; others are still too complacent.

In Iraq, neither the EU nor any of its member states will be the leading external players. There are, nevertheless, openings to bolster Iraqi security forces and provide willing political actors with expertise on capacity-building and on decentralising power. Member states that have supported the anti-ISIS coalition can now shift their efforts into immediate and longer-term stabilisation efforts.

In Libya, there is more space for Europe to play a lead role by using existing United Nations Security Council resolutions and UN-backed agreements. Economic stabilisation and mediation, two issues on which the EU has some leverage in Libya, could play a key role in avoiding a new escalation between the forces that support the government in Tripoli and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

As crucial military operations against ISIS in Mosul and Sirte near their end, this paper looks at where the EU and its member states can play a meaningful role in dealing with the coming challenges. In the case of both Iraq and Libya, the paper proposes recommendations for how the EU and its member states can develop an effective stabilisation policy. It concludes with four over-arching principles for European actors to follow throughout the post-ISIS space in the Middle East and North Africa, including in Syria.

Libya: Some opportunities, many challenges

The establishment of an ISIS ‘emirate’ in the central Libyan city of Sirte, stretching for 200km along the country’s Mediterranean coast, was a major reason for concern in Europe and the US from early 2015. Just 250km from the EU, Libya is important for Europe mostly as a conduit for migrants and as a potential safe haven for terrorists.[43]

The battle to liberate Sirte from ISIS started in May 2016. On 7 December 2016 the Libyan Presidential Council declared that Sirte had been liberated. But, as in Iraq, the end of ISIS territorial control is only the beginning. European policymakers need to maintain a strong focus on stabilisation or risk recreating the conditions that allowed ISIS to emerge in Libya in the first place. At stake is the future balance of power in the country, the continued existence of the Presidential Council in Tripoli, and the possibility of the emergence of new jihadist organisations; in short, the very survival of a political order which can provide stability.

The roots of ISIS’s defeat (and of its possible comeback)

ISIS in Libya was never able to extend its territorial control beyond Sirte and the city’s mostly uninhabited surroundings. It was perceived as a foreign occupying force, as many of its fighters came either from ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria or were foreign fighters from other parts of North Africa. It did not win hearts and minds and therefore lacked both the fighters and the functionaries (to build and run a state) to expand beyond Sirte. Gaddafi loyalists, unlike Baathists in Iraq, did not side en masse with ISIS.  But this only adds to the current challenge, as the integration of former Gaddafi loyalists into Libya’s politics and security is even more important in order to ensure they do not change their minds about the course they chose to take.

From a counter-terrorism perspective, the most important challenge in Libya now is twofold. First, containing the ripple effects in Libya and in the region caused by the ‘dispersion’ of ISIS fighters. In response to losses in Sirte, many of them have travelled in different directions within and beyond Libya: some of them south towards Sebha; some towards Sudan and south-eastern Libya; a third component towards Sabratha and the border with Tunisia. While Tunisia and Algeria are coordinating to deal with this threat, there is no equivalent with Libya’s other neighbours, particularly Egypt, Chad and Niger. This will require Western and regional intelligence and security cooperation for which the EU and its member states most involved in the Sahel (France, Spain, Germany) should push. 

Second, the collapse of ISIS is unlikely to mark the end of jihadism in Libya, which has existed for decades.[44] Different groups may try to take advantage of ISIS’s difficulties, and the organisation itself could try to mount a comeback as a purely terrorist group or an insurgency. The shortage of fighters and funding could change if Libya’s legal economy collapses during 2017. This would mean a ‘free for all’ for the services of the many militiamen currently paid by the government. Such a situation would lead to a steep rise in the informal sector, usually a fertile breeding ground for jihadism in North Africa and in the Sahel where the line between jihadism, smuggling and organised crime is ever more blurred.


The rival forces which fought ISIS

Another threat for Libya and Europe is the possible clash between the forces that fought ISIS in Sirte and those that fought it in Benghazi. The former nominally side with the UN-backed Presidential Council headed by Faiez Serraj while the latter fight under the banner of the LNA of anti-Islamist, Egypt-backed Haftar and the rival institutions based in the eastern cities of Beyda and Tobruk. Both governments, in Tripoli and in the east of Libya, used the battle against ISIS to build up their credentials with the outside world: Serraj has received US, UK and Italian backing while Haftar has backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and, increasingly, from Russia. 

This Egyptian-UAE-Russian support for Haftar has strengthened his military position and also diminished the incentive for him to join a power-sharing agreement. Haftar, who from the start never accepted the Libyan Political Agreement, now enjoys such a position of relative strength in eastern and central Libya that he can one day consider attempting to conquer Tripoli without needing to strike an agreement with the forces that back Serraj. External support for his endeavours was never conditioned on his acceptance of the Libyan Political Agreement. This ultimately undermined the agreement.[45]

The battle in Sirte was fought under the umbrella of the Bunyan al-Marsous (BAM) operation, which is composed mostly of militias and fighters from the city of Misrata along with other groups. In the initial stages the Petroleum Facilities Guards conducted the offensive from the east; some Salafists joined BAM, although they never merged into its command structure; small groups from militias of other western Libyan cities also participated in the operation.[46]

BAM received substantial support from Western countries: the US conducted more than 300 air strikes supporting it since August last year; British special forces were reported to be advising Misratan forces; and Italy established a field hospital in October 2016 for Misratan fighters, protected by a hundred Italian paratroopers.

The goal of these external supporters of the BAM operation was not just to fight ISIS but also to respond to specific requests coming either from Serraj, the prime minister, or directly from the city of Misrata. Yet, while the intention of these supporters was to strengthen the government created by the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement, the operations in Sirte showed how little this government was actually able to deliver to the forces on the ground in terms of weapons, money or political support – all things the Serraj administration is severely short of. In the end, armed groups from Misrata did most of the heavy-lifting, with some help from foreign forces.

The battle in Benghazi was a different story. ISIS emerged out of a messy local and national civil war that originated with targeted assassinations in 2013 and then evolved into open fighting with the beginning of Haftar’s Operation Dignity in mid-May 2014. The rogue general, who in the meantime had been appointed head of the armed forces of the government sitting in Tobruk, received increasing support from the UAE and Egypt. In January 2016 this was supplemented by the strategic assistance of a limited number of French special forces which helped the LNA to push back its opponents (including ISIS) from many of Benghazi’s neighbourhoods. More recently, Russia has built up its political support for Haftar through several official meetings while its military support is still unofficial.[47]

While the UN-backed political agreement was meant to merge Haftar’s Tobruk government into the Presidential Council in Tripoli, one of the reasons this never happened was because Haftar resisted attempts to establish any civilian oversight over his activities. External support, especially from France, may have been intended as a purely counter-terrorism element against ISIS.[48] But its political consequences included strengthening Haftar’s hand with both his ‘domestic’ opponents and rivals in eastern Libya and vis-à-vis the government in Tripoli. (See ECFR’s ‘Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players for more on the situation in Libya[49]).

In the summer of 2016, Haftar studiously avoided any direct confrontation with ISIS in Sirte while building up his forces around the oil terminals east of the city. He eventually managed to take them over, mostly through tribal alliances and without extensive fighting, handing their management over to the National Oil Company in Tripoli in September. Meanwhile, Misratan forces were exhausted by the anti-ISIS fight in Sirte and had little appetite for a direct confrontation with him. This gave many Libyans the impression that military and political momentum was on the side of the general, although Haftar probably never had the military strength to conquer western Libya

The potential for a new escalation

ISIS’s demise in Libya will likely bring the situation back to where it was before its rise in 2014 – namely, a struggle between forces in the west of Libya gathering around the militias from Misrata (now backing the government in Tripoli) and the mostly eastern forces fighting under the LNA. The latter have gained momentum since September while the former are exhausted by the fight against ISIS in Sirte. This lack of balance in forces and momentum could lead Haftar to move westwards, clashing with both Islamist and less Islamist forces that view him as an existential threat.

Recent clashes between the LNA and Misrata’s 3rd force around Sebha further demonstrate the dangers of escalation in Libya’s south. Eastern Libya could also be a potential flashpoint as different forces in Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Derna react against Haftar’s hegemony: the Benghazi Defence Brigade, the Benghazi Shura Council, its equivalent in Ajdabiya, the Mujahedin Shura Council in Derna to name but the most important ones.

But Haftar’s strategy is not purely military. He is using a replica of the strategy that brought him victory in the oil fields: local political alliances that allow him to avoid direct armed confrontations. Tripoli is part of Haftar’s plans, too. The capital is unlikely to be the subject of significant fighting but would more likely “collapse from within” because of increasing divisions between militias siding with Haftar and diehard anti-Haftar groups.[50]  

This would leave the LNA in a position to seize the mantle of being the only reliable institution left in Libya. Any attempt by it to claim to be truly ‘national’ is questioned by many both inside and outside of the country, including members of the military in the west and south of Libya who are not supportive of Haftar. Ultimately, Haftar’s strongman approach and the reaction it might create both in western and eastern Libya could contribute to a military escalation, rising anarchy or both.

The threat to Europe from this ‘escalation and/or anarchy’ scenario is obvious: with violence rising in the capital and in western Libya, it would become impossible to establish embassies and any presence on the ground, while the UN-backed Presidential Council would become an increasingly unreliable partner. Ultimately, this government would still be an interlocutor for the EU, but its capacity would exist solely on paper, especially on migration management.

Should this scenario materialise, it would likely represent an environment conducive to the rise of jihadist groups, whether ISIS or another group.


Hayder al-Khoei is a visiting fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations where he focuses on post-ISIS political and security challenges in Iraq. He is also Research Director of the Centre for Shia Studies in London.

Ellie Geranmayeh is a policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). She focuses on European foreign policy in relation to Iran, particularly on the nuclear and regional dossiers in addition to Iran’s domestic politics.

Mattia Toaldo is a policy fellow for ECFR’s Middle East & North Africa programme where he focuses on Libya, Israel/Palestine and migration issues. He is a member of the Council of the Society for Libyan Studies and of the scientific board of Limes, the Italian review of Geopolitics.



[43] This section, though reflecting entirely and solely the opinions of the author, is the result of the author’s confidential interviews and meetings with Libyan officials and experts and with Western and Middle Eastern diplomats in Tunis, Rome and Milan between 31 October and 24 November 2016.

[44] For more on this, see Mary Fitzgerald, “Finding their place – Libya’s Islamists during and after the 2011 uprising”, in Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn (eds), The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath (Hurst Publishers, 2015).    

[45] More on this point in Mattia Toaldo, “Is the sky falling on Libya?”, ECFR, 23 September 2016, available at

[46] On the role of Salafists in Sirte, Tripoli and Benghazi, see Fred Wehrey, “Quiet no more”, 13 October 2016, Diwan, Carnegie Endowment, available at

[47] On Russia’s increasing involvement in Libya, see Tarek Megerisi and Mattia Toaldo, “Russia in Libya: a driver for escalation?”, Sada Journal, 8 December 2016, available at

[48] French special forces have been present in Benghazi since early 2016, fighting ISIS and other armed groups alongside Haftar. In July, the French government admitted three casualties in Benghazi among its forces. See Chris Stephen, “The French special forces soldiers die in Libya”, the Guardian, 20 July 2016, available at

[49] Mary Fitzgerald and Mattia Toaldo, A Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players, ECFR, December 2016, available at

[50] Author’s confidential interviews with Libyan experts and security officials, Tunis and London, October-November 2016.

[51] The United Nations Support Mission in Libya is currently tasked with implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement and with facilitating the Libyan Political Dialogue. UNSMIL also has the responsibility of coordinating humanitarian aid and promoting reconciliation.


Libya, Sirte, Benghazi, ISIS, Stabilization, Political Coalition, Decentralization, Reconciliation, De-escalation,

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