No respite for Libya after ISIL driven from Qaddafi’s hometown
TUNIS // As ISIL’s last defences crumbled this week in their Libyan stronghold, Sirte, dozens of women and children used as human shields stumbled dazed and dust-caked from the rubble.
Meanwhile, the fighters who had defeated the extremists feted the end of a punishing six-month battle by flying Libyan flags over the Mediterranean city, hometown of late dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
But the celebrations were short-lived.
Far from unifying the country, the campaign has proved a trigger for ISIL counter-attacks and renewed war among Libya’s military factions.
Just hours after the last district in Sirte was cleared, fighters in a newly formed force swept up from the desert south of the city towards Libya’s Oil Crescent, seeking to recapture ports that had changed hands three months before.
Tripoli has seen its worst clashes for more than a year as the capital’s militias rolled tanks onto the streets in a feud infused with ideological and political disputes. In Benghazi, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) continued accruing heavy casualties as it battled Islamist-led rivals after more than two years of warfare.
The government based in Tripoli looks increasingly helpless, despite the UN and the West backing it as the only path towards peace. The UN’s Libya envoy Martin Kobler told the Security Council this week that with the stalling of a year-old peace plan, weapons were still being delivered into Libya, the economy was facing “meltdown”, and the country remained a “human marketplace” for migrants trying to reach Europe. Any gains against militants in Sirte and Benghazi were “not irreversible”, he added.
The Sirte campaign was led by brigades from Misurata, an influential port east of Tripoli. They launched their offensive in May when militants advanced up the coast towards their city. The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) scrambled to take command, but only ever had nominal control over fighters on the ground, some of whom had ambitions beyond the Sirte campaign.
Attacks by ISIL snipers, suicide bombers and mines dragged the battle out over months. Following the GNA’s formal request focus air support, nearly 500 strikes were carried out over Sirte between August 1 and early December.
After the last buildings in Sirte’s Ghiza Bahriya neighbourhood were secured on Tuesday, jubilant fighters paraded through the streets, chanting that the deaths of more than 700 men from within their ranks had not been in vain.
In Misurata, however, where the fighting force rose out of a 2011 uprising, there was no sense of triumph.
“Every time after we win a war we celebrate,” said Ahmed Algennabi, 28, a salesman in a Misurata perfume shop. “But now I don’t think that it’s the end of this war, and I expect more fighting against ISIL.”
Fears of ISIL retaliation or an insurgent has prevented an official declaration of an end to the operation in Sirte.
Libyan security officials say a significant number of militants left Sirte either before the battle or in its early stages, regrouping in ISIL cells along Libya’s western coast and in the hinterland. They attacked from behind the front lines with suicide bombings and a major ambush even as the fighting raged in residential neighbourhoods in Sirte. Military officials say they will deal with this threat by securing the desert valleys south of Sirte and chasing down fugitive militants.
But they are also nervous about Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the LNA in the east. Since 2014, he has sided with forces opposed to the Misurata brigades in a stop-start national conflict and has recently made significant military advances of his own. In September, with Misrata’s fighters still tied up in Sirte, his forces seized the Oil Crescent ports. Many believe his aim is national power.
With no state control, any patriotic feeling arising from the Sirte victory is unlikely to last, said Libyan analyst Tarek Megerisi.
“Now it’s over it’s just back to business as usual, because none of the divisions have been healed, none of the drivers of conflict have been stopped or put on hold,” he said. “Everyone’s just been manoeuvring, waiting for this to end, so that they can return to their power struggle.”