Rome talks on Isil will add urgent Libyan Question to the tangled Syrian one

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 12, 2015
Isil fighters in Libya burn drums

Isil fighters in Libya burn drums

John Kerry will be joining Sunday’s Rome talks and presumably, there will be some clarity (or at least a clear focus) on Libya. The Rome talks have already gone on three days as part of a Mediterranean forum. Mr Kerry will be joining the one-day conference on Libya alone called by the US and Italy. The foreign ministers of Britain, China, France, Russia and several Middle Eastern countries will also be in attendance. Italian foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is co-host with Mr Kerry.

Not before time.

To the Syrian Question, let’s add the Libyan Question.

The UN has tried – and failed – to organize some sort of national unity government. No one seems to have any ideas about what to do next.

Isil’s Libyan wing, which is close to the leadership, controls Sirte, just 600km (370 miles) from European Union territory (the Italian island of Lampedusa).

Isil, which is increasingly under pressure in Syria, is said to be slowly moving some of its leaders and footsoldiers to Libya. They go by sea to the country that is a leaderless vacuum. But even before the skies over Syria filled with disparate bombers from disparate countries, Italian officials had spent months ringing alarm bells about Isil’s growing strength in Libya.

In the absence of a functioning government, national control by any one authority, security and rule of law, Libya can easily become a huge desert caliphate for Isil, what Afghanistan was for Al Qaeda, a haven.

Just days ago, The Times London was reporting that Isil had seized control of Sabratha, a Unesco world heritage site famed for its Roman treasures, thereby moving within 50 miles of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The newspaper described Isil’s operation as follows:

“Travelling in 30 pick-up trucks, the jihadists stormed the coastal city after three of their men were captured by a rival militia on Wednesday night. There are fears for the city’s priceless heritage, including a 3rd-century Roman amphitheatre that is one the best preserved in the world.

“Black-clad militants quickly set up checkpoints across the city, easily overpowering the residents. “There was no resistance. No one wanted to provoke them, so they set up their checkpoints and drove about town showing off their weapons,” one terrified resident said. “They wanted to show who really controls the town.”

That says it all really.