Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Islamic State rolled back in Derna, Sirte

Major fighting in central Libya has put Islamic State forces on the back foot, though for how long remains to be seen as national faction leaders continue to evade a crisis resolution agreement, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

‌Fierce fighting erupted in Derna a week ago on Tuesday, between the Derna chapter of the Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen and the Islamic State (IS) affiliate in that city. The fighting erupted after IS assassinated two Majlis leaders, Nasser Al-Akr and Faraj Al-Houti. A third, Salem Darbi, was killed during a Majlis attack to avenge the two murders.

‌The forces of the Majlis, an umbrella group of Libyan Islamist radicals, made steady progress in driving back IS forces during the week. They recaptured all the buildings that IS had been using as headquarters. These included the Lulua Hotel, the former People’s Attorneys offices that IS had turned into its Hisbah bureau, and the Derna Court of Appeals building that IS was using as its Islamic court.

‌By the beginning of this week, the Majlis militia, which had been joined by local armed residents, had secured control over most parts of the city. Dozens of IS leaders and members began to surrender to the Majlis when it became clear that the Majlis was on the verge of driving them out of Derna.

‌The town became a major stronghold for IS in Libya last October when a group calling itself the Shura Council of Youths of Islam declared its allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Observers believe that the Majlis are now on the verge of a definitive victory against IS in Derna.

‌In recent years, the port city has been an important centre for radical Islamist groups. Although Derna once stood as a beacon of culture and education in modern Libyan history, neglect and repression by the Gaddafi regime and continued marginalisation under the country’s new rulers, turned the city into a hub of intrigue and tension.

‌In the 1940s, the intellectuals of Derna, then the most urbane and sophisticated part of the country, succeeded in bringing together and rallying the Cyrenaican tribes around the Senussi clan in the framework of what was known as the Harabi Charter. ‌Cultural life thrived and the city became the heart of Libyan liberalism. There were theatres, literary salons and other outlets for artistic and intellectual activity. Then Gaddafi came and punished the city by removing the theatre and transferring it to a Bedouin village where it became a storehouse for animal fodder.

‌Libyan liberals and intellectuals hope that Derna’s recent success in driving out IS will herald the city’s return to the country’s cultural and political vanguard, in which capacity it would lead the country to reconciliation and reunification, much as it did when it laid the foundations for the modern state in the middle of the last century.

‌As the combined forces of the Majlis and the people of Derna reclaimed their city from IS, the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli launched a military campaign to liberate Sirte from IS, which had recently gained control of the city and neighbouring areas near the major oil exporting ports and the area known as the petroleum crescent.

‌Observers predict that the battle to liberate Sirte will be more difficult than that in Derna. They believe that the pacts and alliances that IS has made with the tribes in the area will give it a major source of strength in its battles against its adversaries.

‌The chairman of the Sirte Council of Shura and Wise Men, Abdel Fattah Marzouq, has stated that IS members in Sirte are members of the Ansar Al-Sharia group, listed as a terrorist organisation locally and internationally. He said that he knows them and their families and tribes.

‌This extended kinship/tribal dimension is a factor that could cause any confrontation with IS to escalate into another outbreak in the civil warfare that has gripped the country for over a year and a half.

‌Marzouq, in remarks on a local radio station based in eastern Libya, said that the Sirte Council furnished documented information to the internationally recognised government and House of Representatives confirming that certain individuals associated with the eastern federalist movement were involved in supporting IS. This support originated in the village of Ajadabiya, he added.

‌At close inspection, IS’s control over the central region, which marks the divide between what were historically known as the provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, would offer the federalists a strategic advantage.

‌The creation of a de facto barrier between the east and west would strengthen their call for autonomy for Cyrenaica that, the federalists charge, had been marginalised by the Gaddafi regime in Tripoli for more than 50 years.

‌It is noteworthy, in this regard, that the armed units that control oil ports in the central coastal area not far from IS locations have not ventured beyond their boundaries to confront IS forces, despite the threat that IS poses and the fact that it has already destroyed a number of oil fields near the oases of Ojala, Jalo and Ajkhara in central Libya.

‌Supporters of the government and the House of Representatives in Tobruk are wary of the victories of Libya Dawn and its allies over IS in Sirte and Derna, as they will cause considerable embarrassment to the army that has been fighting for more than a year to gain control over Benghazi, but without success, while the infrastructure of the eastern city has been destroyed.

‌Meanwhile, the House of Representatives and its supporters are embroiled in disputes over the fourth draft agreement for a solution to the Libyan crisis that was submitted to political factions in the UN-sponsored talks in Skhirat, Morocco, last week. ‌The factions have been given a week to register their observations as the international community upped its pressure on the factions to show flexibility and make compromises in the interests of forming a consensus government capable of steering the country out of its current straits.

‌Differences in Tobruk over the fourth draft agreement arose between those MPs that took part in the dialogue in Skhirat, the team of advisors and other MPs. The major division appears to be between those who reject the draft agreement entirely and those who have strong reservations on the grounds that it legitimises the GNC, which had resurrected itself in Tripoli, or because they reject the principle of power sharing.

‌Conflicting positions surfaced when the team of advisors to the MPs that participated in the dialogue announced unilaterally that the House had withdrawn its negotiating team and suspended its participation in the dialogue.

‌At the same time, however, the negotiating team travelled to Berlin to meet with the permanent members of the Security Council, which impressed upon the Libyan factions the need to accelerate talks and reach a solution.

‌UN special envoy and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Bernardino Leon met with members of the Libyan House of Representatives in Cairo to clarify certain points in the agreement and persuade them to approve the fourth draft.

‌The Libyan factions still refuse to recognise the gruelling conditions that plague the country and the disintegration that will render any agreement futile unless it prepares grounds conducive to its effective implementation. This is all the more so as the negotiating parties do not accurately reflect the situation on the ground.

‌Nor do the major parties, including the army, have real control over the militias that are fighting each other to promote their differing agendas, even if they declare their loyalty to government structures in Tripoli or Tobruk.

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