Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The battle of Sirte

Operation Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus is preparing a final push to liberate Sirte from Islamic State control, but on the political front, Libya’s competing interests continue to stymie progress, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Brigadier General Mohammed Al-Ghasri, spokesman for the forces of Operation Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus (Solid Structure), tasked by the Presidency Council with recapturing Sirte from the Islamic State (IS) group control, has announced that preparations are now in place to begin the final phase of liberating that city. Al-Ghasri also stated Saturday that the round of air strikes US warplanes had launched at the beginning of the month were highly effective in supporting his forces in their fight against the extremist organisation that has controlled the city since June.

The US entry into the war against IS in Sirte came at the request of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj. The request was made at a point where Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus fighters had become bogged down in their advance because of IS forces’ intensive use of car bombs and snipers which, according to Al-Ghasri, brought the losses in Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus ranks up to more than 350 dead.

US Africa Command publicised a video-clip Saturday showing the first strikes US aircraft launched against IS targets in Sirte. Nine strikes were carried out in the first three days of August, AFRICOM reported. AFRICOM is the command responsible for overseeing US combat operations against various armed groups in a number of African countries. This was the first time Washington officially announced the number of strikes it carried out against IS targets in Sirte.

IS forces have been waging stiff resistance against Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus since this operation was launched 4 May by a coalition of militias primarily from Misrata but with the support of groups from a number of other towns and regions. Military observers have noted a marked rise in IS’s use of suicide bombers. Ali Al-Mabrouk Kashuda of Operation Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus’s media centre told Al-Ahram Weekly that at least 35 suicide bombings using booby-trapped vehicles have been carried out so afar against Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus forces. It appears that IS forces in Sirte have come to rely heavily on such weapons after having lost so much ground in the surrounding area in central Libya since May. The terrorists also mine hospitals and other buildings, plant explosives in household appliances that are triggered when Libyan forces enter houses to search them, and conceal IEDs in various kinds of food containers that are placed out in the open and are rigged to explode the moment they are moved.

To the east of Sirte, in the area known as the petroleum crescent, which is controlled by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG), tensions have risen with the arrival of forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar in Al-Shurb. Rumours began to circulate wildly to the effect that these forces were on their way to the port of Zueitina, 10 kilometres away, precipitating a rapid mobilisation and amassment of PFG forces in that oil-exporting port and the vicinity.

In addition, PFG spokesman Ali Al-Hassi released a statement warning that his forces were ready to ward off any attempt to seize the major oil exporting ports. He accused Haftar of trying to stir strife in the area as a ploy in order to seize control of the oil exporting ports that have been currently under the control of his former ally Ibrahim Al-Jadhran. Al-Hassi appealed to the Presidency Council and GNA to exert pressure on the general, who rejects the political accord, so as to prevent his bid to open new combat fronts in the strategic petroleum crescent region.

The petroleum crescent area contains oil fields and Libya’s major oil exporting ports which have been under the command of Al-Jadhran since mid-2013, following a dispute with former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan whom Al-Jadhram had accused of attempting to bribe him into reopening the port for oil exports. The area is contested by all conflicting parties in Libya because of the considerable leverage it gives to whoever who controls it.

Meanwhile, the political reconciliation process continues to flounder in spite of all attempts on the part of participants in the Libyan National Dialogue to push the Libyan House of Representatives to convene a session with a sufficient quorum in order to hold a vote of confidence in the slate of cabinet ministers that Prime Minister Al-Sarraj submitted to the legislature in February. Unfortunately, Speaker of the House Aguila Saleh, who is supported by Haftar, remains a major obstacle.

Against this backdrop, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri received a 40-member delegation of Libyan MPs who support the national political accord and who came to Egypt to appeal to Cairo to help persuade their rivals to reconvene the Libyan parliament, which has been unable to meet for months because of the dominating influence of parties who reject the political accord.

The Egyptian foreign minister related, via his Facebook page, that he had assured the Libyan MPs that Egypt was keen for the Libyan House of Representatives to approve the GNA. He also reiterated the Egyptian government’s support for the Libyan army in its battle against terrorism and for efforts to complete the implementation of the provisions of the accord struck in Skhirat, Morocco, in December last year. He added that Egypt was ready to offer all forms of support to the institutions of the Libyan state.

Shoukri underscored Egypt’s eagerness to create a political climate conducive to the continuation of the dialogue between the various political factions in Libya. Dialogue is the only way to achieve consensus among the different components of the Libyan people and to carry out all the provisions of the Skhirat accord, he said. He also stressed the brotherly relations that bind Egypt and Libya and their shared historical and cultural ties.

The head of the delegation, First Deputy Speaker of the House Emhammed Shoeib, expressed his appreciation for Egypt’s role and effective diplomatic efforts to communicate with all concerned parties so as to promote progress in the political process in Libya in the framework of the Skhirat accord. Describing the meeting as “positive”, another member of the delegation, Faraj Bouhashem, related that participants discussed the latest developments in Libya and clarified a number of matters concerning the political accord. The meeting with Foreign Minister Shoukri “comes within the framework of the important role played by the Arab Republic of Egypt and its efforts to promote the stability of the Libyan state,” Bouhashem said, adding that Shoukri asked the Libyans to redouble their efforts to affirm the legitimacy of the House of Representatives, and to combat terrorism and illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, back in Tobruk, the temporary seat of the House of Representatives, a delegation formed by the political dialogue group arrived to hold talks with Speaker of the House Aquila Saleh and rejectionist MPs in the hope of bridging the points of view between the two sides and in order to convey the message agreed upon in the closing statement issued at the end of the consultative meetings between the dialogue participants that were held in Tunis on 18 July under the sponsorship of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

The future status of Haftar, whom the house had appointed commander general of the Libyan armed forces, remains among the foremost obstacles to the implementation of the Libyan political accord. Another controversial issue relates to economic privileges that might be given to Eastern Libya. The east has always been more adamant on such economic issues as it believes that it has certain rights by virtue of its being the home to the country’s major energy resources, the nerve centre of the national economy. Such feelings have fuelled the demand of eastern federalists to reinstate the federal system that existed in the country following independence in 1951.

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