Clearing Sirte of ISIS presents Sarraj with an opportunity
TUNIS - Libya’s internationally backed Government of National Unity (GNA) faces a make-or-break legitimacy test when militias aligned with it attempt to clear out Islamic State fighters from the central coastal city of Sirte, analysts said.
Misrata militias allied with the GNA appear to have cornered Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Sirte with the help of nearly a month of US air strikes. US Marine AH- 1W SuperCobra helicopters have been dispatched to help eliminate the extremists holed up in densely populated buildings.
ISIS fighters have retreated “to the densest, most built-up part of the city,” a US Defense Department official told the Washington Post. “[The AH-1W] is a platform that lends itself well to that kind of mission.”
Libyan and foreign experts said they saw evidence to back statements by Misrata forces’ spokesmen about taking control of Sirte within days after more than three months of an offensive that stalled in July before receiving a military boost from the United States.
Political analyst Ahmed Ibrahim Fakih said a victory against ISIS in Sirte would present Libyan Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj with an opportunity to cobble together the basis of a national army from the militias.
“This step is necessary for those who want to unify the country. There is no alternative to this step of bringing together this component of the national army with the other part in the east,” Fakih said.
The most immediate barrier to creating such a force is the renegade role being played by General Khalifa Haftar, who commands the rump of the National Libyan Army of the ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi and is based in the country’s east.
The Presidential Council, which heads the GNA, wants Haftar to accept its leadership over the military while he and his supporters want him to be recognised leader of the national army.
“I concluded after discussions with officials close to the Presidential Council and leaders of the militias that the fate of the forces that are fighting in Sirte depends on a wise decision to be taken by the Presidential Council,” said Alaa Farouk, a Libyan security analyst.
He pointed out the rapid advances against ISIS in Sirte by GNA’s allied forces in comparison to the stalemate of the campaign of Haftar’s forces against radical Islamists in Benghazi and Derna.
In contrast to the GNA and the Presidential Council, which sought an alliance with some Islamist militias to try to rebuild state institutions in Tripoli, Haftar sees Islamists as “terrorists” he must eradicate to stabilise Libya after five years of chaos.
Sirte was severely damaged during the anti-Qaddafi uprisings in 2011, with the UN refugee agency estimating that it suffered more material damage than any other Libyan city.
The tribes associated with the city — the Qadhadhfa and Furjan — are linked to Qaddafi’s rule. As such, they were discriminated against by post-Qaddafi authorities who invested little in Qaddafi’s home town, before ISIS seized it in February 2015.
The wealthiest families of Sirte have deserted the town for fear of revenge attacks by radical Islamist militias
Analysts say that GNA must decide quickly on how to run Sirte after the city is freed from ISIS. Were it to leave it to the Misrata militias to decide who is to manage the city affairs, that would revive grudges of the city’s population, which blames Misrata militias for having abandoned the city to ISIS as a way to punish the people.
Its control by triumphant Misrata militias would fuel more conflict in the eastern oil basin and unravel the fragile balance of political and tribal powers on which Sarraj’s government sets its authority, the Libyan experts said.