Sirte Liberated: Islamic State Suffers Major Setback in Libya

Sirte Liberated: Islamic State Suffers Major Setback in Libya

Libyan forces say they have retaken control of the port in the city of Sirte – the most significant IS stronghold outside Iraq and Syria – after fierce fighting with Islamic State militants.

The massive Sirte Basin is the centre of Libya’s oil industry. About 80% of Libya’s accessible oil is located there.

The brigades largely composed of fighters from Misrata troops, allied to the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, began the battle backed by air strikes and bombardment from naval ships to retake the city last month. Now Islamic State (IS) has lost almost the entire self-proclaimed caliphate in Libya that, until last month, stretched for 150 miles along the coast and deep into the Sirte basin oilfields. The militant group has suffered setbacks on several fronts in the Middle East where it captured large swathes of territory two years ago, including the loss of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra liberated with the help of Russian aviation.

The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya contributed greatly to the current refugee crisis in Europe. Moscow abstained from the UN Resolution 1973, which allowed for a military intervention to protect Libyan civilians. Since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted the same year, Libya has fallen into anarchy, ruled both by the internationally-recognized Council of Deputies based in Tobruk and the Tripoli-based General National Congress. The instability has triggered the rise of numerous Islamic militant and terrorist groups, which has been carrying out attacks on Libyan oil and other infrastructure. The Islamic State took advantage of the ensuing chaos to expand into the country, seizing Sirte and the surrounding coastline in late 2014 to construct its biggest stronghold outside Syria and Iraq.

The UN-backed government of national accord (GNA) was formed in Tripoli more than two months ago. The GNA is designed to replace two rival governments that have competed for power from Tripoli and from the east since 2014, backed by complex alliances of armed groups. Since arriving to Tripoli in March, the GNA has sought to unite Libya’s key armed factions, even as it continues to face resistance from political and military hardliners in the east. Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the Presidential Council based in Tripoli, invited different military factions present in the country to join «the victorious forces» and «build the Libyan nation together, united against the common enemy». Pro-government militias have been the main fighting force for the UN-brokered unity government formed earlier this year in an effort to stem the bloodshed and chaos that followed Gaddafi’s death. The UN-backed government is still being challenged by the rival Tobruk government, which has the loyalty of the «Libyan Army» under the command of General Khalifa Haftar and has been supported by Egypt and the UAE. Haftar has been conducting a campaign against Islamists and other opponents in Benghazi for the past two years. He has also previously refused to back the UN-sponsored peace process. The «east commander» has held his own troops – uniting militias from several other cities and the Petroleum Facilities Guard – back from the battle for Sirte, with many Libyans now wondering whether the crushing of IS will be the prelude to renewed hostilities between the forces of west and east Libya. The liberation of Sirte took place as the US announced it was sending the second aircraft carrier and its strike group of guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to bolster operations in the Mediterranean.

The UN Security Council pledged to consider training and arming the Libyan government on May 16. In their statement, the 21 nations said they would cease contacts and support to «parallel institutions», and said Mr Serraj’s government was «the sole legitimate recipient of international security assistance». The UN put the ban in place five years ago, but allowed for exceptions needed to secure the North African country and fight terrorist groups. 

The victory in Sirte is important but it does not solve the problem of terrorism in Libya. Islamic State is a symptom of the crisis ensued as a result of the 2011 NATO’s intervention. To do away with the group, Libya needs to bring back order and stability. An international effort is also required to block hundreds of thousands of refugees. Aid packages and mediation activities have to be approved by the UN Security Council and conducted under international supervision – something unthinkable without Russia.

Western foreign military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have been aimed at government change and all have ended in disaster. The ensuing lack of law and order has brought about much more trouble and instability affecting adjacent states. To avoid the repetition of these horrible scenarios an international effort must be applied according to the norms of international law. Russia and the West face the common threat. The need to tackle the situation in Libya unites rather than divides them. Germany’s Foreign Minister has recently stated that the efforts to stabilize Libya need Russia’s involvement.

«We need an incisive international response and Russia’s role can be decisive given its history and its role in the [UN] Security Council», Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said at a joint press conference after talks with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, in Moscow. «Without Russia it is much more complicated to find a point of equilibrium», he added.

Russia’s special relationship with General Khalifa Haftar, who has visited Moscow on a number of occasions, is an important factor. It strengthens its role as a mediator between Libyan factions.

The liberation of Sirte dictates the need to urgently address the situation in Libya internationally. Like in the cases of Syria, Iran and North Korea, the West needs Russia to tackle a major security problem.

Tags: ISIS   Libya