ISIS is defeated in Sirte but Libya’s problems remain
Tunis - Libya’s militias aligned with the UN-backed government in Tripoli have uprooted Islamic State (ISIS) militants from their stronghold in Sirte after a 7-month battle that left most of the Mediterranean town in rubble.
Misrata militias lost 711 men with 3,200 injured in the fight in which they were supported by US air strikes, British front-line intelligence and logistics as well as by Italian medical assistance.
“The number of ISIS’s fighters killed since the beginning of the operation stands at more than 1,200,” said Ahmed Al-Rawayati, a spokesman for the Misrata militias, on December 5th as he announced the final collapse of ISIS in Sirte, the jihadist group’s main foothold in Libya.
The death toll might suggest that thousands of ISIS fighters escaped from the city or that the numerical threat of ISIS forces had been over-estimated by Western powers, whose intelligence agencies and think-tanks had put the number of ISIS fighters in Sirte at 5,000-8,000.
Rawayati said militias and authorities in Tripoli were preparing a “post-liberation plan” for the town.
The birthplace of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Sirte has a strategic importance because of its tribal make-up and proximity to the oil terminals, Libya’s sole source of foreign currency.
The militias that led the campaign against ISIS are made up mainly of men from the western city of Misrata, who have had a tense relationship with Sirte residents, the latter blaming them for not preventing ISIS from taking control of their city in the summer of 2015.
ISIS’s defeat brings relief for Sirte’s 80,000 inhabitants. It is also good news for countries in the region, especially Tunisia, which suffered from infiltration by ISIS fighters across its border from Libya. It is also a source of satisfaction for Europeans who have been jittery about the presence of an ISIS stronghold south of the Mediterranean.
The Sirte battle against ISIS had been touted as possibly unifying fighters from various Libya’s regions and tribes and sending a message for the divided country for reconciliation and peace but the outcome of the Sirte battle does not seem to be bridging Libya’s chronic divide.
Instead, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces continued their own fight against Islamists and other opponents in the east while various militias in the west and south watched on the sidelines when not intervening to support their own allies.
UN envoy for Libya Martin Kobler told the UN Security Council on December 6th that the country’s chaos enables the possible re-emergence of terrorist networks despite the gains against ISIS in Sirte and other radical Islamists elsewhere in Libya.
He warned that the “fragmented security situation allows criminal and terrorist networks to flourish” and that, despite an arms embargo, the country continues to be awash in weapons.
“The lack of rule of law, corruption and high yields on the black market result in billions of dollars disappearing into shadowy accounts,” Kobler said. “The country will face an economic meltdown unless something changes.”