While Russian and U.S.-led airstrikes put significant pressure on ISIS in Syria, there are signs that ISIS could be preparing a new front in Libya.

Libyan military soldiers fire their weapons during clashes with Islamic militias in Benghazi. Libya, virtually a failed state the past years, has provided a perfect opportunity for the Islamic State group to expand from its heartland of Syria and Iraq to establish a strategic stronghold close to European shores. Photo: AP

Reports that Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters from Syria and Iraq are leaving for Libya have started to appear in recent months. They also claim that foreign fighters now prefer to travel to Libya to join ISIS rather than to its besieged core positions in Syria and Iraq. These reports should come as no surprise as there are several objective factors contributing to a change of the current trend.

ISIS fighters are fleeing Syria and Iraq to Libya as military pressure on them has significantly grown in the course of recent months. Data from U.S. officials confirms that, saying the number of ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq is decreasing while ISIS ranks in Libya are growing.

On Feb. 4, the White House revealed a new intelligence report which claims that ISIS has up to 25,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq as compared to 31,000 in 2014, which means it has experienced an almost 20 percent loss in its fighting force.

Although the media has not covered this development extensively, it is nonetheless very important: it could indicate that Libya, which is just 200 miles away from Italy, is to become one of the major concerns for the West.   

The 'Arab Spring' and its impact

For the last century, the Middle East has been one of the most volatile and explosive regions in the world. Nowadays it is proving to be the same, if not more turbulent. A number of the main global challenges are coming from this region now, including the refugee crisis and the threat posed by terrorist groups, in particular, by ISIS.

The so-called Arab Spring that emerged in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 spurred tectonic changes in the region, which led to the exacerbation of tensions along ethnic, tribal and religious lines, a struggle for economic and political dominance, the rise of radical Islamist ideology and increased involvement of external actors in regional affairs. As a result, there has been extreme turbulence and instability.

Civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen threaten to destabilize neighboring countries while years of turbulence gave birth to the Islamic State and the rise of radical Islamist groups in general. For the last several years, Syria and Iraq have been considered among the most volatile countries in the region because of ongoing civil wars and terrorist insurgencies.

This instability made them a magnet for jihadist fighters from across the globe and attracted the attention of the international community as the terrorist threat has become all too real. However, in recent months the reality with regard to ISIS in the Middle East is changing and a new trend of regional dynamics has appeared.

Russian and U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria

The quick uncontrolled rise and spread of ISIS in Iraq and Syria forced the U.S.-led coalition to intervene with airstrikes in September 2014. A year later, on Sept. 30, 2015, Russia started its own anti-terrorist air-campaign upon the request of the Syrian government.

As a result, both Russia and the U.S.-led coalition put serious pressure on ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria. Moreover, Russian involvement in the conflict allowed the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to regroup and to develop an offensive against terrorist groups.

Also read: "Why is Russia bombing Syria?"

In addition to that, Syrian Kurds and their People’s Protection Units (YPG) as well as Iraqi Kurds played a big role in fighting ISIS, adding up to overall pressure on the terrorist group. Both Russia and the U.S. provided Kurds with arms to enhance their fighting capabilities against ISIS.

As a result of the airstrikes and SAA and Kurdish actions on the ground, big chunks of the Turkish-Syria border were put under control, which cut the supply routes of terrorists and imposed significant damage on a source of ISIS funding – the illegal oil trade. Tighter control of Syrian borders made it also more complicated and dangerous for foreign fighters to flock into Syria, which contributed to a decreasing number of jihadists coming to the country.

ISIS opens a new front in Libya

At the same time, Libya after the ousting and murder of its leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has been experiencing hard times. It has become one of the main suppliers of jihadist fighters to Syria and Iraq who are currently coming back with solid military experience. In general, it would be fair to say that since 2011 Libya has become a highly fragmented state with no central authority.

As the instability is thriving in Libya and all attempts to form a unity government have failed, the country remains highly fragmented with large swathes of ungoverned territories. This made it a perfect safe haven for the jihadists and a fertile ground for recruiting new fighters. Without having an internally supported unity government in Libya that can control rival armed groups and unite them against the jihadists, the West is hesitant to provide large-scale military assistance in the form of arms supplies, providing military equipment and training.

This is why ISIS views Libya as a key strategic position. Its branch in Libya aims to grow and expand, thereby creating a strong foothold that could become a fallback option for the terrorist group once it fails in the Levant. Starting in 2014, ISIS established its branch in Libya transferring there some of its senior commanders, such as Iraqi national Abu Nabil al-Anbari. By June 2015 ISIS captured Sirte and basically announced it a backup capital.

It is also not a coincidence that top ISIS commanders have moved to Libya from Iraq and Syria in recent months. Considering all the above-mentioned facts, Libya has become a safe haven for ISIS, where it already has a stronghold in Sirte, controls about 250 kilometers of nearby coastline and accesses oil wells and reserves, which helps it to fill its coffers. On the top of that, according to Pentagon estimates, ISIS ranks in Libya grew to 5,000-6,500 fighters.

ISIS in North Africa poses a threat to Europe

All this leads to a growing ISIS threat to Europe as now it is within 200 miles from Europe’s southern borders. Capturing the Libyan coastline gives ISIS a powerful tool for controlling refugee flows to Europe as well as a source of additional funding.

Considering the long and porous Libyan borders, ISIS has an opportunity to freely move in and out of the territory and has almost inexhaustible access for recruiting new fighters from neighboring states. This is why ISIS is likely to dominate Libya’s security concerns, increasing the chances to further destabilize North Africa and pose a greater threat to Europe.

It has to be mentioned that there is a growing concern among Western powers about Libya and the threat it poses. Although the Western military already proposed plans that include deployment of a limited number of troops in Libya, the major obstacle for that is a lack of consensus among the Libyans and their rival governments.

Another issue is that Europeans are waiting for the U.S. to take decisive action on Libya. However, U.S. President Barack Obama is wary about intervention in another Arab country even though his aides and military advisors press him to approve use of U.S. force in Libya. It is unlikely that the Europeans will take a decision to intervene in Libya without the U.S.

Also read: "Russia and the West need to think beyond Syria to deal with ISIS"

Therefore, lack of unity and decisiveness among Western powers and the continuous fragmentation of Libya may cost the West dearly as ISIS possesses all tools at its disposal to grow and become stronger in North Africa. As a result, maybe now is the best time for the West and Russia to consider a united response against ISIS in Libya.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.