Battle against ISIS fuels Libya factional strife
Tunis - Rival forces are gearing up to advance into Sirte, the stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya, but the offensive could threaten the authority of the UN-backed leadership, which is trying to pull the country out of years of violence and divisions.
The UN-brokered government of national unity led by Faiez al- Sarraj urged rival militias to hold off on planned advances into Sirte.
“Sirte is a hot spot because of Daesh presence,” Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Tahar Siala said in Tunis on the sidelines of a May 5th ministerial meeting of the Arab Maghreb Union.
Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“All parties are looking to fight Daesh and free Sirte but they have to wait as the communiqué of the Presidential Council had made it clear,” he added.
The unity government’s Presidential Council on April 28th said it welcomed the “push by various factions and armed forces to fight Islamic State forces in Sirte” but warned that an uncoordinated offensive could lead to civil war.
“In the absence of coordination and unified leadership… the council expresses its concern that the battle in Sirte against Daesh will be a confrontation between those armed forces,” it said in a statement, adding such a conflict would likely benefit ISIS.
“Accordingly, the Presidential Council, as the supreme commander of army, demands all Libyan military forces wait for it to appoint a joint leadership for the Sirte operation,” the statement said.
The main armed faction, the rump of the ousted Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan National Army (LNA), appeared to ignore that warning and moved troops to free Sirte unilaterally.
Local media reported that 3,000- 4,000 infantry troops and artillery divisions of the LNA arrived on April 28th at Ajdabiya and Marada, south-east of Sirte.
Analysts said any success of LNA’s commander Khalifa Haftar to dislodge ISIS from Sirte belittles the authority of Sarraj in the eyes of rival factions and militias and would weaken the stand of members of the House of Representatives (HoR), whom Sarraj needs to endorse his government.
Freeing Sirte is a key step in Sarraj’s agenda to prove his legitimacy to lead the national army.
Announcing that the fighting in Sirte had started, LNA spokesman Colonel Ahmed Mismari said there were clashes between forces of the LNA moving westward to free Sirte with Drouaa (Shields) militiamen backed by Misrata militias, in reference to main Islamist militias opposing ISIS as well LNA under Haftar’s command.
The two bands of militias are the main backers of Sarraj’s government in Tripoli.
UN Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler said the military led by Haftar does not represent all Libyans. He urged Libyans to strive to “find a fruitful way to form a unified army that would include forces from the west and east”.
“We crushed them (Drouaa militiamen),” said Mismari. “This is a testimony to the fact that we in Libya have a unified single army with recruits from east, west and south fighting terrorism on the behalf of the whole world.”
Rumours of factions fighting on the way to Sirte prompted fears among Libyans that the Sirte battles may ignite a new cycle of bloodshed in Libya and make Sarraj’s unity government a stillborn project.
“We see infighting between various political and military forces over who leads and who takes part in the battle of Sirte, which had been widely deemed as an element to unify all Libyans,” wrote Libyan columnist Ahmed Ibrahim al Fakih.
“The Sirte issue is being twisted into a cause for conflict. No one could predict what comes next and what arrangements would be made to fight Daesh but the danger of derailing Skhirat’s accord and nullifying the Presidential Council looms large,” he said, referring to the Moroccan city where the UN-backed deal to set up the council and the unity government was signed last December.