Sirte battle offers lessons for larger fight against ISIS

Sunday 13/11/2016

The offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sirte by Libya’s most powerful militias, backed by US air strikes and Western intelligence support, came six months before the massive assaults on the terror group in Iraq’s Mosul and in Syria’s Raqqa, its de facto capital.

The drive to recapture the ISIS stronghold in Libya may offer lessons for the larger fight against the extremist group in Mosul and Raqqa, despite differences in scale of the force and the higher regional stakes for the powers engaged in the war.

ISIS captured Sirte in February 2015 from the powerful Misrata militias. It was not a direct inva­sion as the capture of Mosul was. It was a confluence of local Ansar al-Sharia jihadists declaring their allegiance to ISIS and later joined by fighters fleeing the assault of the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who commands the rump of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan National Army in Benghazi.

The Misrata militias were shocked when ISIS fighters cap­tured the crossroads in Abu Gua­rein area in April. They launched a swift offensive against ISIS in May without careful planning.

There was a lengthy period of planning in Iraq, including using special forces to spearhead the assault on Mosul. Central govern­ment forces, Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militias — backed by US-led air strikes — are all taking part. The varying aims of each Iraqi force involved in the offen­sive might emerge when victory is near.

In Syria, US-backed Kurdish-led fighters pushed ahead with an offensive aimed at besieging Raqqa. Warplanes from the US-led coalition gave air cover for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

Libya’s ragtag militias recap­tured Abu Guarein from ISIS and then barrelled towards Sirte. How­ever, only after the offensive was launched in earnest by Misrata militias did Tripoli’s Government of National Accord give the opera­tion its legitimacy. It also left the militias’ leaders complaining about lack of support to sustain the fighting.

Not once was there an indica­tion that a true anti-ISIS coali­tion had been cemented to unite different anti-ISIS groups, which had various tribal and ideological backgrounds.

While Libya, as a whole country, needs to defeat ISIS as a military and ideological force to sustain its stability and build a decent working political system, Misrata militias seek to extend their terri­tory for national recognition.

Most of the initial advance by anti-ISIS fighters in Libya came after an artillery bombardment and air strikes by ageing Libyan warplanes from Misrata Air Base.

The military operation, named Bunyan Marsous, promised ISIS’s defeat within weeks.

Facing snipers, suicide car bombings and booby-trapped buildings, the military effort ground to a halt in July after ISIS had reclaimed parts of the bat­tlefield. On August 1st, the United States began air strikes.

There were 356 sorties in three months, underlining US caution to avoid killing civilians despite the fact that most of Sirte’s population had left months earlier because of the extremist group’s rule.

An assessment by Libyan offi­cials determined that 80% of the city’s buildings lay in rubble and the limited number of air strikes reflected the balance of forces in the battlefield, with entrenched ISIS fighters willing to die for their cause.

Bunyan Marsous fighters, as young as 17, showed courage and dedication in the fight but they lacked coordination and modern weaponry. As Misrata militias moved through the rubble they found networks of tunnels that allowed ISIS to survive the air strikes and move unobserved around its shrinking area of control.

At least 560 fighters on the Libyan side have been killed and more than 2,400 wounded. With ISIS sharing the area with the Misrata militia, Haftar’s spokes­man, Ahmed Mesmari, advised its members to step back to allow air strikes.