Sirte fight more a symptom of Libya's instability than a cause to rally the natives
Published 06/08/2016 | 02:30
Libya was briefly back in the headlines this week with the news that the US had conducted air strikes against Isil in Sirte, a coastal town which had become the group's stronghold in the country.
The air raids, which the Pentagon says will continue for 30 days, signal a deeper Western military engagement with Libya five years after a Nato-led intervention helped tip the balance in favour of rebel forces trying to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year-old regime.
The presence of Western special forces in Libya has been an open secret inside the country for some time. France was recently forced to acknowledge it had forces on the ground when three soldiers - whom Paris said were involved in intelligence gathering - were killed when the helicopter they were travelling in was shot down near Benghazi, Libya's second city.
This week was not the first time the US has conducted air strikes on Isil targets in Libya. Last year, Washington said it had killed a senior Isil figure during bombing raids on the outskirts of Derna, an eastern town where Isil built a presence before being driven out by local militias. Earlier this year, US warplanes struck a location used by Isil on the outskirts of Sabratha, a coastal town in western Libya, killing scores of mostly foreign militants.
What makes this week's air strikes different is that they are the first to come as a result of a request from a UN-backed unity government which was installed in Tripoli earlier this year but has struggled to gain support - let alone impose its authority - since.
The aerial intervention by the US is happening at the same time as Libyan forces - a mix of army units and militias loosely aligned with the Tripoli-based unity government - are battling Isil inside Sirte. That ground operation, which began in May, made significant gains at first but has now slowed. More than 300 anti-Isil fighters have been killed as they pushed deeper into the town and many more injured. At present hundreds of Isil militants are estimated to be holed up in central Sirte, using snipers and suicide bombers against their adversaries to stem their advance. Most are believed to be foreigners, among them Tunisians, Iraqis, Egyptians and Sudanese.
While US officials had earlier this year estimated the number of Isil militants in Libya to be upwards of 6,000, some observers have questioned this figure given the progression of the battle in Sirte, which was its main base in the country. Others suspect a number of Isil fighters fled from Sirte in the run up to the May operation, most likely to southern Libya.
Isil wrested control of Sirte, a city which had been largely abandoned by the post-Gaddafi authorities because it was perceived to be still loyal to the former regime, last year. The group maintained its control through violence and intimidation, carrying out public executions to instil fear.
Isil has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks in Libya since late 2014. The bloodiest attack was earlier this year when a suicide bomber killed more than 60 people when he targeted a police training centre in the western town of Zliten.
Isil first emerged in Libya in Derna. Many young men from Derna had joined Isil in Syria and Iraq. Some returned home to establish its first Libyan branch, which declared its allegiance to Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2014. But while Isil in Libya has Libyans within its ranks, it is predominantly foreign-led and a large number of its fighters are non-Libyan. As a result, many Libyans perceive it as an alien presence in the country, and this is probably why there has been little or no public backlash to this week's air strikes and those the US had conducted earlier this year and in 2015.
Isil is more a symptom of Libya's instability than a cause. The group's expansion into the country was made easier by the vacuum caused by a political power struggle which began in summer 2014 and resulted in rival governments and parliaments, each backed by a myriad of armed groups. Isil took advantage of the ensuing chaos, building itself up in various parts of the country while the squabbling political factions were more bent on prevailing over their opponents than acknowledging the growing threat posed by the group.
The worry now is that the battle against Isil in Sirte will exacerbate those divisions. The forces that have taken on Isil in the town since May are all from western Libya and largely at odds with armed groups in eastern Libya loyal to a controversial general named Khalifa Haftar. He is opposed to the UN-backed unity government. A victory against Isil in Sirte, while welcomed by Western powers and most Libyans, could trigger a race to control the town, crucially located as it is near the country's so-called oil crescent.