Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Libyan forces battle Islamic State

Sirte has risen up against Islamic State terrorists as the internationally recognised government of Libya calls for a lift of the arms embargo, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Armed clashes intensified in the city of Sirte last week between the Islamic State (IS) in Libya and local Salafist youth. As casualties mounted on both sides, the interim Libyan government appealed to Arab countries to intervene militarily by delivering air strikes against IS locations in the city.

The Arab League (AL) session took place on Tuesday at the level of permanent representatives to discuss means to counter crimes committed by IS.

The meeting headed by AL Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi and Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Dairi was not set to give an easy green light to the demand of the Tobruk government.

The clashes were triggered by the murder of Khaled bin Rajab, a Salafist leader in the city, by IS elements late Monday last week. Rajab, who served as imam of the Cordoba Mosque in the Third District of Sirte, belonged to the Farjan, the major demographic component of the coastal city.

 Fighting erupted the following morning when youth belonging to the Islamic Calling moved to avenge the assassination. They were supported in their offensive against IS strongholds in the Third District, the most densely populated quarter in the city, by other youth from the Qadhadhfa and Maadan tribes.

 After more than a week of fighting against the terrorist organisation, the city’s security and humanitarian situation continues to worsen. News out of Sirte is hard to come by, however, as lines of communication have been severed and large numbers of people have fled their homes in fear for their lives.

Officials in Tripoli have been competing with their rivals in Tobruk and Beida in issuing proclamations condemning the events in Sirte and pledging support. But neither side has yet to take practical steps to bring relief to the people of Sirte, whose appeals for help in their struggle against IS have grown increasingly desperate.

On Saturday, the interim Libyan government headed by Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni called on “sister Arab nations” to deliver limited air strikes, in coordination with his government, against IS locations in Sirte.

He held that the government is unable to confront IS independently because it is unable to obtain the necessary weapons to fight the terrorist organisation, due to the international ban on supplying arms to Libya, which is still in force.

In his appeal, Al-Thinni called on Arab nations to “apply and implement Arab League resolutions pertaining to the Joint Arab Defence Agreement.” He also urged Arab governments to exert pressure on the UN Security Council to lift the prohibition against supplying arms to Libya.

Meanwhile, officers and commanders from the Libyan Army General Command, headed by General Khalifa Haftar, announced that it is ready to launch air strikes against IS targets in Sirte. No action of this sort has been undertaken yet, in spite of the fact that Haftar belongs to the tribe that is being targeted by IS.

The parallel government in Tripoli and its military wing, which are not recognised internationally, have acted similarly. They too have proclaimed their intention to defend Sirte but have yet to launch military operations to rescue the city. IS took control of the city in May after the Libya Dawn’s 166th Brigade, which had been charged with protecting Sirte, withdrew from its positions there.

A mystery continues to surround the sudden withdrawal of the brigade, which belongs to the militia grouping that controls Tripoli. Officials have yet to offer an account, in spite of the fact that this action helped IS forces secure an unrivalled grip on the city.

Some observers had wondered why it took the inhabitants of Sirte so long to rise up against their IS occupiers. It was not until the terrorist organisation assassinated a religious leader with strong popular backing that the people were galvanised into action.

A similar scenario occurred two months ago in Derna, where IS elements assassinated Abu Salim Nasser Al-Akr, a commander of the Shuhada (Martyrs’) Brigade. This led members of the brigade, backed by Derna inhabitants, to attack IS elements and drive them out of the city.

The Libyan authorities’ evident helplessness in the face of the IS presence in various parts of the country draws attention to the extent of the freedom of movement available to terrorists due to the ongoing absence of a cohesive government, the reign of rival militias and conflicts between rival factional, tribal and regional interests.

It is little wonder that IS has been able to seize on this chaos to expand its presence and strengthen its hold in some areas.

On Friday, IS took control of the Third District of Sirte, where it changed the name of Cordoba Mosque to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the IS godfather who was assassinated by US forces several years ago, before IS announced its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq.

There have been reports that IS unleashed a horrifying massacre against the Salafist youth of the city and youth from other tribes who took part in the recent campaign against it. There have been rumours that IS crucified some before killing them.

On this occasion, however, IS propagandists did not post images of the murders on its Internet sites, contrary to the organisation’s customary eagerness to publicise its atrocities as a means to spread terror and boast of its control.

 The media office of the so-called IS Tripoli Province did, however, post images of what it claimed were “spoils of war” from Sirte. The photos showed large quantities of boxes filled with ammunition, four-wheel drive vehicles mounted with missile launchers, anti-aircraft guns, RPGs and other weapons. There was no indication of where, in Sirte, these photos were taken.

IS forces, which had begun to move into the region near Libya’s major petroleum facilities half a year ago, have taken control of strategic locations in Sirte, which was Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown and a pro-Gaddafi bastion. Observers see this as a starting point for forcing a new reality on the country’s new rulers, compelling them to take choices.

One of these could be to accept partition of the country, in view of a new de facto reality and given the ongoing militia warfare, the inability to surmount political divides and, simultaneously, the inability to confront the presence of a terrorist organisation that appears to be growing stronger by the day.

Arab foreign ministers are due to hold a meeting this week to discuss the situation in Sirte and how to support the internationally recognised government in Libya against IS. Above all, the participants will consider the feasibility of launching air strikes against IS strongholds in Sirte, Benghazi, Derna and other areas.

With regard to diplomatic efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis, the Moroccan coastal resort town of Skhirat is due to host another round of the Libyan dialogue. This round will focus on discussing the annexes of the recently concluded agreement concerning the creation of a national consensus government and building the financial structure of the government, a Council of State, and the army and security agencies.

The General National Congress (GNC), the self-resurrected parliament in Tripoli, has agreed to take part in the dialogue after having refused to initial the final agreement that the other parties signed 12 July.

UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon, who also heads the UN Special Mission to Libya (UNSMIL), asked participant parties to intensify their efforts to create a national unity government by September, which is when his term as UNSMIL head comes to an end.

At the same time, a cloud of uncertainty hovers over the possible movements of the various political parties in Libya as the end of the constitutionally stipulated term of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives approaches in October.

The general expectation, at the moment, is that the parliament’s term will be extended if dialogue participants reach an agreement over the creation of a national unity government, eagerly awaited for many months by the international community and the Libyan people.

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