Libyan forces prepare for IS showdown in Sirte

Libyan forces prepare for IS showdown in Sirte
Pro-government forces, backed by US airstrikes, are poised for a decisive assault on remaining Islamic State positions in the coastal city
2 min read
13 October, 2016
Islamic State fighters asserted control in Sirte over the course of 2015 [AFP]
Pro-government forces in Libya are advancing into the last remaining strongholds of the Islamic State group [IS] in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte.

Current advances come following a five month campaign during which the United States has also targeted Islamic State targets in the city with airstrikes.

An official statement put out by the US military’s Africa Command centre on Wednesday noted that US forces had conducted a total of 270 airstrikes on IS targets in the city having begun operations on August 1.

IS fighters asserted control in Sirte over the course of 2015 forcing pro-government troops to retreat from the city.

However, after months of intense fighting, the extremist group is now said to control only a kilometre-long residential strip in the war-torn city.

According to the UN around 90,000 people – three-quarters of Sirte’s pre-war population – have fled the city since it was taken by IS.

Living conditions for those that chose to stay are reportedly dire with reports from humanitarian groups stating that there are major shortages of food and medicine in the city.

“Sirte is a collapsed city,” said Claudio Colantoni, the International Medical Corps’ country director for Libya, earlier this week adding that the Libyan government and aid agencies will face a huge challenge to rehabilitate Sirte. 

The loss of the city would constitute a major defeat for the group, given current setbacks in Syria and in Iraq, where Iraqi forces are currently preparing for a decisive assault on the city, backed by a host of international actors.

However, Reuters reported that Libyan officials believe that some IS fighters and commanders have managed to escape Sirte, raising concerns that they will continue to launch guerrilla-style attacks in the country even if the city falls.

While retaking Sirte would constitute a major boost for Libya’s UN-backed government, headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, it could also exacerbate rivalry with forces loyal to military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

In September Haftar seized a number of Libya’s oil ports, including Brega, only 200 kilometres from Sirte. Although Sarraj said in September that Haftar should have a position within the Libyan government Haftar has refused to recognise his authority. To date, attempts to bring the pair to the negotiating table, led by France, have been unsuccessful.