Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Libyan successes against IS

Forces controlled by the Libyan National Accord government have made significant progress in flushing Islamic State group forces out of their stronghold in Sirte, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Recent days have brought significant progress in the Bunyan Marsus Operation launched by the internationally recognised Libyan National Accord Government (NAG) last month against the town of Sirte, which the Islamic State (IS) group has controlled since June 2015.

The operation has begun on 4 May by the military forces created by the Presidency Council of the NAG following an attack by IS forces against towns and villages to the east and south of the western Libyan coastal city of Misrata.

The attack, directly threatening the best-organised city in Libya in the wake of the chaos that has prevailed in the country since the fall of the former Gaddafi regime in 2011, surprised observers, especially as the forces of military leader Khalifa Haftar had declared their intention to attack IS forces in Sirte in April.

Haftar had earlier been focussing on Benghazi, his main objective in the Operation Dignity that he launched two years ago against the Islamist militias occupying Libya’s major eastern city, though decisive victory has proved elusive. Recently, he has shifted his focus westward, but in spite of the fanfare on pro-Haftar social networking sites surrounding the movement of his forces to attack IS in Sirte, nothing precise is known about these forces or their mission.

At the end of May, a spokesman for Haftar said that information concerning the operation to liberate Sirte was confidential and could not be disclosed to the press.

The Bunyan Marsus Operation has succeeded in retaking towns and villages in the vicinity of Misrata, among them Abuqrin, Washka, Sadada and Wadi Bi, then moving to recover Sirte International Airport, the Qardabiya Airbase 20 km south of Sirte, and the power station 30 km west of the city.

Operation forces are now poised to enter Sirte itself and do battle with the IS forces that have secured a foothold in the city.

The success of the Bunyan Marsus Operation is a major victory for the Presidency Council, and its importance should not be underestimated at a time when this body, arising from the Agreement struck between the Libyan factions in Skhirat in Morocco last December, is still waiting for parliament to approve its second slate of cabinet ministers.

However, the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk is deeply divided and dominated by a majority allied with Haftar. It has been unable to convene for a vote on the proposed cabinet, compelling the majority of representatives who support it to submit an official declaration to the Presidency Council and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) that sponsored the dialogue that produced the Skhirat Accord.

Observers believe that Haftar’s move to liberate Sirte is a ruse to cover up an attempt to gain control over the oil fields and ports in the centre of the country that are controlled by his adversary Ibrahim Al-Jadran. Al-Jadran was appointed commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guard by the House of Representatives and the government in Baida following clashes with Libya Dawn forces that had attempted to seize control of port facilities in 2015.

Since the Skhirat Accord in December, both Al-Jadran, formerly an ally of Haftar’s forces in the east, and the Misrata forces in the west have made serious attempts at rapprochement. It thus appears that new and significant alliances will soon emerge in the Libyan arena.

It also appears that Haftar has now lost another ally in the east. Benghazi was the scene of acrimonious disputes between various combat forces and Haftar after Al-Mahdi Al-Barghathi, commander of the 204th tank regiment, joined the NAG as minister of defence. He was supported by some of the strongest units fighting on Haftar’s side, leading Haftar, who still rejects the new government, to dissolve the units supporting him.

Observers in the east now fear that the coalition formed beneath the banner of Operation Dignity could shatter to the point of armed clashes. Haftar spokesman Ahmed Al-Mismari hinted at this week in remarks made to a local newspaper on Al-Barghathi’s reaction to the dissolution of two military units, the Special Missions Force and the Military Intelligence Security Support Regiment.

Al-Mismari said that Haftar would not escalate his response as Al-Barghathi’s side might resort to violence. He said that problems caused by Al-Barghathi’s reaction would be solved through mediation by either tribal dignitaries or civil society organisations, but also suggested that there could still be a “recourse to military force” as Al-Barghathi had sought to “plunge the army into internal conflicts” at a time when it needed to focus on the battle for Benghazi.

Commander of military intelligence in Benghazi Salah Abulghib was alarmed at Al-Mismari’s hint at the possibility of military escalation, warning that his forces could be withdrawn entirely from Benghazi if internal warfare erupted between them and the forces under the command of Haftar.

Abulghib added that he would take the dispute with Haftar to tribal elders and notables in Benghazi in order to seek a solution. This in turn has raised concerns regarding the potential impact of the dispute on the area of eastern Libya historically known as Cyrenaica.

The groups in the east that have declared their support for the NAG headed by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj represent some of the largest and most influential forces in Cyrenaica and the most prominent forces in the Operation Dignity campaign launched two years ago.

Misrata and its forces in the west are larger and more influential politically and militarily in spite of the campaigns of attrition against them since the onset of the political crisis two years ago. It is believed that the victories scored by the Misrata forces, which make up most of the Bunyan Marsus Operation, will lend significant impetus to the Presidency Council, the NAG and other bodies of the Skhirat Accord.

If these forces sustain the current level of progress in the campaign to defeat IS in its stronghold in Sirte, the government will be able to assert its influence more broadly throughout the country and enhance its performance in crucial areas.

At the same time, Haftar, his allies in the House of Representatives and their regional allies will come under increasing pressure to end their foot-dragging, which has prevented a vote of confidence in the proposed cabinet that would enable the NAG to work properly and receive international support.

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