Libya’s move to the center of the Islamist terror map and Riyadh’s change of heart toward the Muslim Brotherhood under King Salman have tied the Middle East tangle in new, unforeseen knots.
On Feb. 15, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant released another horrific video showing 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian workers in Libya being dragged to their death by beheading. Chaotic Libya had suddenly jumped alongside Iraq and Syria onto the brutal jihadist battleground.
Egypt retaliated with aerial bombardments of ISIS camps and facilities in the eastern Libyan town of Darnah.
This air operation petered out after two days, much in the same way as Jordan and United Arab Emirates wound down the aerial offensive they launched against the Islamists last month in reprisal for the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Lt. Moaz Kassasbeh.
The three Arab governments have no plans for battling ISIS in an organized manner. They also lack the will and the resources for taking up arms in this contest. Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi called this week for a pan-Arab force to fight the terrorist menace. This step was logical in the circumstances, except that it had not the slightest chance of taking off. And indeed, no Arab League member picked up the gauntlet.
Chaotic Libya – a perfect breeding ground for Islamist terrorists
The region is being unsettled in new ways by blowback from the mess in Libya and Riyadh’s new affinity with the Moslem Brotherhood (see separate article) combined with the approaching Saudi rapprochement with Turkey.
This shake-up deals new cards to the players in five instances and loads the dice in favor of the Islamic State:
1. Libya is split between two governments and a host of religious and tribal militias with endlessly shifting loyalties. The internationally-recognized administration has its seat in the eastern city of Bayda and is supported by the former Qaddafi-era general, Khalifa Hifter at the head of a cluster of militias.
Its rival is a coalition of Islamist and other extremists, and provincial militias, which calls itself Libya Dawn and rules from Tripoli which it seized last year.
Egypt and the United Arab Emirate quietly back the Bayda government in its effort to bring to an end the rule of the Islamists, while Turkey and Qatar sponsor Libya Dawn.
The outcome of the rivalries between the two governments and the jockeying for influence among their Arab backers feed the turmoil plaguing Libya since Muammar Qaddafi’s downfall and generate an ideal breeding-ground for ISIS to thrive and prosper.
Muslim Brotherhood in league with ISIS against El-Sisi
These alignments account for Qatar’s sharp condemnation of the Egyptian air strikes against Islamic State targets in eastern Libya and the recall of its ambassador from Cairo, whereas Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states were predictably more supportive: “Egypt had the right to protect its security,” said a GCC statement, following Cairo’s bombardment of ISIS positions in Libya. “The security of Egypt is part of Gulf security, and the situation in the region requires close relationship between brothers,” it added.
These words were not however accompanied by any commitment for active support.
2. Egypt suddenly finds itself hemmed in on two hands, in Libya and Sinai, by ISIS belligerents bent on terror and fighting to sweep into the cities of the Suez Canal.
Intelligence agencies confirm that the opposition Muslim Brotherhood is conspiring with ISIS in Libya and Sinai (using the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza as middlemen) to mount terrorist operations for destabilizing the El-Sisi government.
The Egyptian president finds the Saudi rug pulled out from under his feet just when he needs its financial and political support more than ever before. The silence in Riyadh which greeted his air strikes against ISIS reverberated across the region, compounded by the Obama administration’s statement in Washington that Cairo had neither consulted with nor informed the US of its coming military action in Libya.
El-Sisi must reconcile himself to disappointment if he counts on generous largesse to come out of the conference of donor nations supporting the Egyptian economy, which is due to meet soon at the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The Saudi pivot isolates Egyptian president and Israeli premier
3. Saudi Arabia is in the process of a major policy pivot towards Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, one of the Egyptian president’s most furious opponents in the Muslim world. They are discussing a new regional alignment linking Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey. El-Sisi fears Egypt is to be left out in the cold to struggle alone against the Muslim Brotherhood and its violence.
4. Cairo is further isolated by the severance of its ties with Washington. El-Sisi still has three allies – Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Syrian ruler Bashar Assad. But none of them are much help when it comes to alleviating his country’s economic woes or stabilizing his regime. It is a little known fact that El-Sisi made terms with the Syrian ruler for substantially helping Egypt shoulder the campaign against the Brotherhood.
5. ISIS has not been slow to exploit the rift between the Obama administration and Egypt to extend its terrorist thrust through Egypt’s northern African neighbors and into the wider Middle East. The perils besetting El-Sisi and his regime are spreading far and wide.
6. Netanyahu’s situation is not much happier than the Egyptian president’s. He had counted heavily on the unwritten pact he had developed with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to cover Israel’s back against Iran’s avowed threat to the Jewish state and President Obama’s pro-active, pro-Tehran orientation.
This pact melted away overnight with the passing of Saudi King Abdullah. His successor Salman prefers to cozy up to Turkey, whose aversion for Israel even outweighs its ill will for Egypt.
The Israeli leader, therefore, after successfully roping in two key Arab countries, the largest and the richest, suddenly finds Israel out on a limb.