Can Libyan gains against IS avert a foreign intervention?

Can Libyan gains against IS avert a foreign intervention?
Forces loyal to Libya's unity government are achieving significant gains against IS, however more efforts to unify the country's rival factions are needed to avoid a foreign intervention.
4 min read
02 June, 2016
The GNA faces an uphill struggle in uniting the country's rivals [AFP]
Libyan forces loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) advanced towards the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte on Wednesday, taking control of a major power plant in the area.

Pro-government fighters were engaged in "fierce battles south and west of Sirte, which concluded in the complete capture of Wadi Jarf, south of the city and the thermal power plant" west of Sirte, Mohammad al-Ghasri, a GNA spokesman told The New Arab.

The capture of the strategic plant follows the taking of two coastal towns earlier this week from the extremists as forces advance towards Sirte, 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital.

The unity government's forces are closing in on the IS group's bastion from two sides, with the western advance being only some 17 kilometres (11 miles) away from the city centre, while another government contingent is already on the city’s southern outskirts, according to Ghasri.

Meanwhile, airstrikes pounded IS positions in and around the city in an attempt to stop the militants from reorganising after they had lost ground to GNA troops.

"Government forces are in a strong position and are close to storming the city," Ghasri told The New Arab.

"However, that stage is the most complex in the battle due to the existence of civilians in the city".    

Sirte was the hometown of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which was seized by IS last June, and used as a base to carryout attacks on other Libyan areas.

About 4,000 to 6,000 IS fighters are currently operating in Libya

About 4,000 to 6,000 IS fighters are currently operating in Libya, a number that has doubled in the last 12 to 18 months, according to General David Rodriguez, head of the US military's Africa Command.

Western governments fear IS militants could use Sirte's port on the Mediterranean, and the city's airport as a springboard for attacks on Europe.

They have been betting on the newly formed unity government to request foreign military action against the extremists, after it asserts its control.

Uniting Libyan forces

However, the GNA seems to have gauged the lack of public appetite for outside involvement, attempting instead to unite rival Libyan forces to work together in booting the militants out.

Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj wrote a May 15 article in the British Telegraph newspaper against intervention, in which he urged assistance for his country instead of "foreign boots and foreign boats".

"We are not asking for foreign boots on the ground, but we are requesting assistance with training, and lifting the arms embargo on Libya," Sarraj wrote.

Musa al-Kouni, the deputy head of the GNA told The New Arab on Tuesday that the new cabinet "has not, and will not ask for direct [foreign] intervention in the country".

Kouni stressed that Libya is able to manage its own affairs and the GNA has only requested foreign training, which will not begin before the country's armed groups are united under a single umbrella.

Prime Minister Sarraj argued that division is Libya's greatest enemy, as it has empowered those who work to destroy the country

He also stressed that the cabinet will not enter into any cooperation deal with foreign entities before Libya's rival political and armed forces are united under the unity government.

However, the GNA will face an uphill struggle in its attempts to achieve such a unity.

The controversial General Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army which is loyal to the rival Tobruk administration, has already lashed out at the GNA’s anti-IS assault, describing it as "worthless".

"The GNA's military operation against IS is just worthless posturing, I won't waste my time speaking about it. My army is the only legitimate force that can defeat IS," Haftar said in an interview with local media.

He also accused the Tripoli army of working with Islamist militias which he said "can be put in the same basket at IS", in reference to Tripoli based forces that ceded power to the GNA.

In his May 15 article, Sarraj argued that division is Libya's greatest enemy, as it has empowered those who work to destroy the country.

This is true of both the Islamic State group and the looming foreign intervention, which will only exacerbate the country's problems.

Therefore, the GNA needs to redouble its efforts to unite Libyan forces to retake their country from the brink of perpetual conflict.