IS defeated in Sirte: What lies ahead for Libya?

IS defeated in Sirte: What lies ahead for Libya?
Comment: Eliminating IS from Sirte was an important step in bringing stability to Libya, but the political and economic challenges ahead are numerous, writes Guma El-Gamaty
6 min read
15 Dec, 2016
Forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord in Sirte, formely held by IS [AFP]

To put in to perspective the significance of the recent victory over Islamic State (IS), who were controlling the coastal Libyan city of Sirte, it is important to remember that Sirte - since early 2015 - had become the first stronghold IS held total control over, outside of Iraq and Syria.

IS controlled the whole city, and about a 150 km long stretch along the Mediterranean coast.

The IS fighters in Sirte were found to be, in small part Libyans, and over 80 percent are thought to have come from diverse Arab and African countries. Those evacuated alive included women and children of different nationalities.

Sirte's geographical importance derives from its location as a sea port, and is only some 400km from southern Europe.

One regional leader of IS, Abu al-Mughirah al-Qahtani, was quoted citing Libya's strategic and geographic importance, and threatening to use Libya's proximity to attack Europe; Al-Qahtani said "Libya has a great importance because it is in Africa and south of Europe... it is also a gate to the African desert stretching to a number of African countries".

The battle to liberate Sirte was launched seven months ago, on 12 May 2016. A force of a few thousand Libyan fighters was assembled, mainly from the western and southern regions of Libya and the majority of them from the city of Misrata; they were backed by the internationally recognised government of national accord (GNA).

In August, the GNA had formally requested that the US government assist in the fight, with instrumental targeted military air strikes which totaled 492 strikes according to Pentagon sources.

The battle to remove IS fully from all of Libya has not yet been won in full

However, the actual battle was fought by the Libyan fighters on the ground, which resulted in them losing 730 men and over 3,000 injured. IS losses are estimated from the body counts, at over 1,700 dead with many hundreds escaping, mainly southwards through the Libyan Desert.

The Libyan forces may have won a decisive battle against IS, eradicating them from their only controlled affiliate in Libya, but the battle to remove IS fully from all of Libya has not yet been won in full. The GNA has well-founded concerns that "hundreds of Islamic State fighters escaped Sirte, and dispersed to towns and smaller cities in the south of the country".

Political and Military officials say that military operations will "now move to deal with this threat by securing the desert valleys south of Sirte and chasing down fugitive militants".

American air strikes are likely to continue to support military operations on the ground, which aim to chase and hunt down fled and dispersed IS fighters in the vast desert of the south of Libya. A spokeswoman for US Africa Command recently said that "US airstrikes could be expanded to target Islamic State in other parts of Libya".

In the east of Libya, General Khalifa Haftar has adopted a narrative claiming his only mission is to rid Libya of the threat of terrorism, and that he is the only one who can deliver that for the Libyan people.

The liberation of Sirte, which has been achieved by a strong force backed by the GNA - thus not associated with, or loyal to, Haftar - has in effect exposed and discredited the narrative adopted by Haftar and his supporters, since the launch of his "Dignity" campaign in May 2014.

The reality on the ground, is that Haftar and forces loyal to him, mainly from the east of Libya, had nothing to do with liberating Sirte or even expelling earlier IS fighters from the city of Derna in the East or the city of Sabratha in the west of Libya.

Indeed, Haftar has still not succeeded in achieving a final conclusive victory in Benghazi where his military campaign began. A recent report by Reuters news agency stated that Haftar's "self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) continues to suffer heavy casualties as it struggles to secure parts of Benghazi against Islamist-led rivals after more than two years of warfare".

The recent success in Sirte should make it clear to all Libyans, whatever their political affiliation, that they can only defeat terrorism and eradicate IS from their country, by uniting against this common enemy. They must realise that it was their own divisions and conflicts over power that allowed IS to easily infiltrate and set up their presence in Libya to begin with.

Libyans must realise it was their own divisions and conflicts over power that allowed IS to easily infiltrate and set up their presence in Libya to begin with

Western governments, especially those on the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea such as Italy and France, have been eager to see IS pushed away from the Libyan coastline, after IS boasted of their proximity to Europe, and the terrorist threat associated with that.

This very concern was one of the main drivers for the EU supporting a unity government in Libya, in order to stabilise the country and significantly reduce the potential terrorist threat.

However, in the eyes of Libyans, their problems and sources of instability lie not only in the presence of IS, which is albeit a serious threat, but also the continued conflict between the various factions over power and wealth. This is fuelled by the detrimental interference of regional and international players.

A question that remains following the liberation of Sirte is whether western countries will continue to pursue a positive engagement policy in Libya. Or alternatively, will they shift to one of mere containment, where Libyans are left to sort out their problems by themselves, as long as the threat of terrorism and illegal immigration from Libya is well contained and under control?

The GNA, which has been struggling to impose its authority in Libya, even inside the capital Tripoli, may gain some credibility from the fact that it was officially behind the campaign to liberate Sirte, and has managed to muster vitally needed international help.

However, recent attempts by the GNA to push forward plans for a professional state force called the "Presidential Guards', which aims to displace the rogue militias taking advantage of the security void, are yet to materialise.

The political impasse that has been caused by a standoff between the GNA and the Haftar controlled parliament leadership in Tobruk, also still has no signs of being resolved or cleared.

As a result, many challenges lie ahead for the GNA. These include ending violence, reigning in rampant militias who have been flexing their armed power for their own gain, ending political divisions and uniting Libyans.

The lack of security and the socio-economic suffering of ordinary Libyans continues to deteriorate, despite the recently resumed oil exports reaching a reasonable commercial level.

There is no doubt that the liberation of Sirte has significantly reduced the presence and threat of IS, making all out defeat of terrorism in Libya truly attainable prospect.

It has also been an important step for the stabilisation of the country. Nevertheless, other political, security and economic successes are now needed before it can confidently be said that Libya has been brought back from the abyss, and is back on the right transitional track, heading towards a promising prosperous future.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process.

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab