Libya: Unity first, military victories second

Sunday 11/09/2016
A pilot of the Libyan Air Force, on September 4th, aboard a fighter jet on the tarmac of the Air College in Misrata, that was turned into an air base for jets targeting the positions of ISIS.(AFP)

Both the Americans and their Libyan allies have been declaring their impending victory against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sirte but maybe, as with other “mission accomplished” moments, we should remain sceptical.

A new phase of internecine conflict is likely on the horizon and, lacking unity of purpose, one-off military victories mean little. In fact, they may exacerbate the Libyan scene’s centrifugal tendencies.

In early August, the United States launched air strikes against ISIS in Libya at the behest of the largely Misratan Bunyan Marsus (BM) forces. They are aligned with Libya’s UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) and have been fighting a full-scale ground assault against ISIS in Sirte since late May. Although BM fighters have sustained many casualties from retaliatory suicide and improvised explosive device attacks, with American air support, they may be on the verge of liberating the city.

Paradoxically, far from symbol­ising the destruction of violent jihadism in Libya, the potential liberation of Sirte is likely to cause greater instability within the country because of the precarious realignment of power that will inevitably follow. Victory against ISIS in Sirte should confer greater political legitimacy on the GNA. However, it would also likely stoke tensions between the GNA and its rival government, the House of Representatives (HoR). It is also unclear if the very same Misratan forces who led the fighting in Sirte under Bunyan Marsus would continue to back their erstwhile political patrons.

Although the interests of the pro-Western GNA and various Misratan militias have aligned in their desire to take back control of Sirte, many of these same militias were part of the largely pro-Islam­ist, anti-Western Libya Dawn alliance that took control of Tripoli in 2014 and waged war against the HoR and General Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist Operation Dignity in eastern Libya.

The heavy losses sustained by Bunyan Marsus in the battle for Sirte, and the GNA’s perceived lack of support for them during the campaign, could lead to an internal split among BM fighters between those who remain loyal to the GNA and those who want to take greater political power for their brigades as their just desserts. In fact, some command­ers may fancy themselves popular enough to become military dictators over the newly liberated territories.

Although Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is suppos­edly waging its own war against ISIS and other jihadist groups in Benghazi and eastern Libya, Haftar and his political patrons in the Tobruk-based HoR have made clear that they view a victory by their Misratan rivals in Sirte as a fundamental threat to their ambitions. Despite both the BM and LNA espousing strong anti-ISIS rhetoric and committing fighters to combat ISIS in Sirte and Benghazi, respectively, these two bitterly opposed factions want sole control of the surrounding oil-rich areas.

Both may actually fancy their chances of using their victories to become military hegemonies over all of Libya. This desire to use their competitive campaigns against ISIS to project power, garner international support and control territory has made it impossible for them to collabo­rate. Victories as separate entities make the emotional and struc­tural hurdles to a compromise even greater.

Consequently, the LNA and HoR have made clear their aim to nullify any potential political gains that the destruction of ISIS in Sirte might confer on the GNA and Misratan forces, especially in terms of increased Western support.

Indeed, on August 22nd, after several months of delaying the vote, the HoR used a technicality in the UN agreement to vote against the proposed GNA ministerial list, throwing the legitimacy and political power of the GNA into question once more.

This competition for control of the country’s resources is a primary factor preventing compromise between Libya’s main political blocs and can be seen playing out in the tug of war for political control of Libya’s few real institutions, most notably the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Despite its assets being technically frozen, the LIA has three rival contenders for the chairmanship, each under the sway of a different political faction.

In short, limiting or even destroying ISIS’s hold over Sirte does not mean destroying ISIS in Libya. The group’s successes in establishing foundations in disparate places throughout Libya is a direct symptom of the chaos, political division and lack of state control that has plagued the country since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Very little stands in the way of ISIS’s regrouping in Libya’s southern expanses.

To eradicate the roots of violent jihadism in Libya, a sustainable political solution is required. Without this, instability, civil conflict and statelessness will persist and individual military victories against ISIS will do little to eliminate the threat of jihadist groups constantly relocating, regrouping and continuing to wreak havoc in Libya and across North Africa.