As ISIL crumbles in Libya, hopes of unity remain remote

Diplomats hope the success will persuade Libya’s rival factions to unite, but the signs that this might happen have been less than encouraging.

Forces loyal to Libya’s UN-backed unity government battle extremists in Sirte during an operation to recapture the city from ISIL. AFP / June 12, 2016
Powered by automated translation

PARIS // The near-collapse of ISIL in Libya has been as brutal as it has been unexpected, raising hopes that the group can be expunged from North Africa.

In the space of a month, ISIL has seen the extension of its self-declared caliphate to Libya overrun by forces from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

The offensive, which began on May 17, is led by militias from the city of Misurata who had declared loyalty to the GNA – a unity government installed in Tripoli in March.

ISIL announced in November 2014 that its caliphate had expanded beyond Iraq and Syria to three Libyan provinces – Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan .

A month ago, the extremists controlled an area stretching 250km along the coast and more than 100km inland.

Today, however, ISIL’s territory has been compressed to Sirte town centre, and its units are surrounded by government loyalists within a five-square-kilometre zone of the town.

On May 17, Misurata-led militias – augmented by units from Tripoli – overran ISIL positions in Abu Grein, 140km from Sirte. Less than two weeks later, Misurata units were 15km from Sirte.

By then, a second offensive had been launched against ISIL, this time from the east. The Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), a militia guarding the oil ports, who also declared loyalty to the GNA, captured Bin Jawad, 120km east of Sirte. ISIL units offered little resistance and PFG units captured the town of Harawa, 70km from Sirte, this month.

By June 4, Misurata-led units took control of Sirte airport, and on Friday, the militias captured the town’s port aided by Libyan air strikes and artillery.

ISIL had proclaimed Sirte as its base in October 2014 because of its strategic location. Sirte lies midway between Libya’s warring factions – the Tripoli-based Government of National Salvation, and its rival, the House of Representatives parliament based in Tobruk in the east.

Uncertainty remains over how many fighters ISIL has in the town, with the Pentagon estimating between 5,000 and 6,000, while the United Nations Special Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) estimates half that number.

What does seem clear is that, as with Iraq and Syria, ISIL lacks tactical skills in open combat.

Misuratan commanders have said government forces are receiving intelligence and assistance from between 25 and 30 British and US special forces troops in the area.

More hard fighting may remain, but it is likely that ISIL will be crushed in Sirte. Whether it re-emerges as a guerrilla organisation is unclear, but its prospects of carving out its own state in Libya appear to be over.

Diplomats hope the success will persuade Libya’s rival factions to unite, but the signs that this might happen have been less than encouraging.

The international impetus for setting up the GNA government was led by the desire to halt the growth of ISIL, by getting Libya’s rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk to stop fighting and to battle the extremists.

While most Tripoli and Misurata militias have switched their loyalty from the Tripoli government to the GNA, forces of the Tobruk parliament, led by Gen Khalifa Haftar, have refused to recognise the new government.

Gen Haftar’s army was deployed south of Sirte during the latest GNA operation against ISIL, but did not join in the attack on the town. With eastern and western Libya each issuing its own currency earlier this month, the country’s political divisions are as wide as ever.

On Friday, the bodies of 12 former Qaddafi loyalists who were due to be released from prison a day earlier were discovered around Tripoli.

The attorney general has begun an investigation into the incident. UNSMIL envoy Martin Kobler tweeted “circumstances of the murders must be investigated promptly and with transparency by the authorities”.