Libyan militias said to corner ISIS in Sirte

Sunday 12/06/2016

Tunis - Militias aligned with Libya’s UN-backed unity government have advanced to the edge of the last redoubt of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) stronghold in Sirte, forces allied with the government said.

The militias’ progress stands to roll back gains made by ISIS since it occupied the central coastal city of Sirte in February 2014 and boost the standing of the Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Faiez al-Sarraj. The GNA has yet to show advances in tackling Libya’s main challenges, which include restoring political unity, power outages, bank cash shortages and rebuilding state institutions.

Sarraj, however, may rue the day he gave government backing to mi­litias fighting ISIS. Previous Libyan governments failed to check the chaos that emerged after the over­throw of Libyan despot Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, after having relied on alliances with militias whose leaders often ignored principles of the rule of law, national unity and political integrity.

In statements on Facebook, GNA-allied forces made up of various militias led by groups from Misrata reported having to constantly deal with bombs and booby-trapped ve­hicles left by retreating ISIS fight­ers.

ISIS militants reportedly fled to central Sirte under heavy artillery fire and air strikes. About 150 mi­litiamen have been reported killed since fighting began in May.

An AFP correspondent at the scene June 10th reported heavy street fighting about 2km from the Ouagadougou conference centre and Libyan forces said they were facing sniper fire in that area. The next day, forces allied with Libya’s unity government said they had taken the port in Sirte from ISIS fighters, who were reported to be surrounded inside the city.

Militias are carrying out a three-pronged assault on ISIS. They in­clude Misratan-led militias from the west and the Petroleum Fa­cilities Guard (PFG), which a few months ago was fighting Misratan militias, from the east.

Libyan analysts said Sarraj and his colleagues on the Presidential Council should have built a na­tional army to free Sirte from ISIS, a battle they said would help unify the country, reignite a national spirit among the population and sideline the militias.

Instead, the UN-sponsored au­thority handed legitimacy to the militias, which could hinder its at­tempts to achieve national unity.

“The unity government has re­lied on a ragtag assortment of exist­ing militias. The same strategy was pursued by the GNA’s predeces­sors,” said political analyst Tarek Megerisi.

“It is destined to fail for the same reasons that these earlier attempts did. These militias are loyal only to themselves, not to any civilian administration, and they are cor­respondingly useless as a fighting force,” added Megerisi, who has worked extensively with Libyan and international organisations on Libya’s transition since 2012.

The GNA is pushing for the en­dorsement of the House of Rep­resentatives, the internationally recognised parliament. The gov­ernment has yet to show tangible achievements since it sailed into a navy base on the edge of Tripoli on March 30th.

Martin Kobler, the UN special en­voy for Libya and the main power behind Sarraj’s GNA, recently told the UN Security Council: “Immedi­ate steps are needed to ensure that shortages in cash availability, food and electricity are satisfactorily ad­dressed without further delay.”

Libyans are hoping that Sarraj reaches out to all influential figures — whether civic or military — to forge a domestic consensus rather than strolling world stages to bol­ster his international image.

“It is fair that Sarraj takes part as Libya’s president in international meetings and Arab conferences provided he extends his hand out­side his base in Tripoli, the capital of his ‘state’, which is in the grips of thieves and assassins,” said Libyan political analyst Ahmed Fitouri.