US air campaign in Sirte comes with caveats
TUNIS - In a first significant Western military effort to help Libya’s embattled government, the United States has launched a bombing campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) targets in Sirte.
The targets included T-72 tanks and transport vehicles used by ISIS in defence of its last redoubt in Libya, where it has been fighting Libyan forces for more than three months.
The US involvement may increase instability in Libya and its neighbours by fuelling violence and resentment about foreign meddling, analysts said. Many Libyans blame the chaos in the country on Western military intervention in 2011 that led to the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Despite efforts by Western allies and Arab neighbours to brand it as the only legitimate authority in Libya, the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) has no military force. The fighters taking on ISIS in Sirte are mostly Misrata’s powerful militias.
If they do not end up help the GNA restore stability, the bombings could be perceived as another US administration’s action to favour particular militias over others. This impression could endure regardless of the effects the US strikes have on ISIS.
The US strikes came amid another raging campaign: Democrat Hillary Clinton is battling Republican Donald Trump in the US presidential race. Trump has been dwelling on US policy on Libya under Clinton when she served as US secretary of State, calling it a “failure”.
The United States staged the air strikes against ISIS in Sirte on August 2nd with drones from Jordan after the initial attacks the day before. Pentagon sources told the Military Times the operation in Sirte could last “weeks”.
The Misrata militias, allied with Fayez al-Sarraj’s government, launched an offensive in May on ISIS positions in Sirte, rolling back most of the extremist group’s gains. More than 300 militiamen were killed in the fight.
ISIS fighters have used weapons, including the tanks, left over from Qaddafi’s army. The tanks have a firing range of up to 4,000 metres and can hit low-flying targets, such as helicopters and drones.
Military experts said ISIS’s use of the tanks, manned by former Qaddafi loyalists, pushed back the offensive and extended the battle.
Pentagon spokesman US Navy Captain Jeff Davis said that after one of the tanks was destroyed, pro-government militias took control of neighbourhood of Dollar.
The GNA had threatened to carry out its offensive for weeks, so the jihadists knew it was coming. Many ISIS leaders are thought to have slipped out of Sirte and headed south.
“Even if Sirte is liberated, that does not mean that ISIS is gone from Libya,” said Jason Pack of Eye on ISIS in Libya, a monitoring service.
Libya’s neighbours fear that fleeing ISIS fighters could cross into their territories.
Algerian security analyst Fateh Othmani said: “Algeria is not welcoming the strikes in Sirte because they bring trouble for the region.”
Algeria’s El Khabar newspaper quoted reports by unnamed government security bodies as warning “the bombings against Daesh [an Arabic acronym for ISIS] would push dormant cells of ISIS across North Africa to carry out revenge attacks against Western targets and even against states of the region.”