Three years after the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi, the military chiefs of seven Arab countries are expected to meet in Cairo next week to discuss whether they should intervene in Libya, which is split between two governments, controlled by rival militias and home now to a blossoming Islamic State affiliate.
Analysts of Middle Eastern affairs said the meeting is likely to increase outside support for Khalifa Hifter, a former Gadhafi general who defected to the United States in the late 1980s and returned to Libya during the 2011 uprising that ended in Gadhafi’s death.
Hifter, who had expected to lead the creation of a new Libyan army after Gadhafi’s fall but was sidelined by the country’s political rivalries, launched an assault last year on what he said were radical Islamist groups that had taken control of much of Libya in the past three years. Libya is now divided between two main factions, one known as Operation Dignity, which is allied with Hifter and based in Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, and another called Libya Dawn, which is based in Tripoli and is backed by several militia factions.
The civil war anarchy has left room for the Islamic State to organize. It now controls Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte. In January, it posted a video of what it said were 21 Egyptian workers being beheaded on a Libyan beach.
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Ayham Kamel, director for the Middle East and North Africa for the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk advisory firm, said he doubted that the seven countries meeting May 18 in Cairo will agree to send troops to Libya. But increased military support for Hifter’s forces could provide an important edge in what has been the long-running stalemate between the Tobruk government, which the United States and the European Union recognize, and the Tripoli one, which has won a ruling in favor of its legitimacy from the country’s supreme court.
Kamel said supporting Hifter would be the easiest route for the Arab countries, rather than becoming involved in U.N.-sponsored peace talks that have made little progress in months of trying.
Next week’s gathering in Cairo was first reported by the U.S. publication Defense News, which said that participants include seven of the 10 Arab countries that have intervened in Yemen.
But the Libya meeting is a separate initiative pushed by Egypt, which borders Libya on the east. Saudi Arabia is the prime mover behind the Yemen campaign.
The countries sending representatives to Egypt include Jordan and Sudan and four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. All seven nations are members of the Saudi-led coalition currently opposing Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Notably, the gathering in Egypt excludes another Gulf Cooperation Council member, Qatar, which supports the Libyan Dawn administration in Tripoli.
Theodore Karasik, a Saudi-focused analyst based in the United Arab Emirates, called the Cairo meeting part of a “grand experiment in Arab-led coalitions” that “will illustrate how different theaters of the Middle East and North Africa are viewed in functional strategic and tactical direction.”
He noted that the one item of interest to analysts as the Yemen and Libya situations play out is “who is politically willing or excluded from operations.”
The May 18 meeting would follow up discussions last month by Arab League military chiefs in Cairo, which were attended by the Tobruk government’s armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Abdul Razzaq Nadhuri.
Since then, the UAE has delivered five Russian-built Mi-35 Hind helicopters. Additional Russian anti-tank and armor-piercing weapons and munitions will soon be delivered, Defense News reported.
Parallel to the military initiative, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said last week it would host a forum in late May of Libyan tribal leaders supportive of the Tobruk-based government to “unify the Libyan people” and “to give a necessary boost toward political dialogue.”