The spoils of Sirte

After weeks spent encircling the city and slowly advancing upon it, Libyan forces loyal to that country’s Government of National Accord (GNA) are settling in for what may be a long battle to dislodge ISIS from its main Libyan base in Sirte. The forces slowly advancing on Sirte are largely composed of militias from the city of Misrata, and they have been working with US and UK advisers to map and then strike ISIS positions in the city, but the BBC says that it may be “weeks if not months” before they’re finally able to drive ISIS out.

Obviously defeating ISIS in its Libyan stronghold is important in and of itself, but the GNA’s main reason for targeting ISIS right now is because its officials are hoping that a victory in Sirte will win them more support–including military support–from the US and Europe. The feeling is that if they can demonstrate an ability to defeat ISIS, then Western powers will partner with them in further counter-ISIS operations. But the support they give to the GNA could then also be used against the other player in Libya’s civil war, Khalifa Haftar’s army in the east. Haftar’s forces are fighting for…well, mostly for Haftar, it seems, but they’re nominally serving the Libyan House of Representatives, based in Tobruk. The GNA was formed in an effort to unite the Tobruk government with the former General National Council government based in Tripoli, but what happened instead is that the GNC agreed to submit to the GNA, but the House of Representatives is dragging its feet. Part of the reason they’re dragging their feet may well have to do with Haftar, who probably suspects that he won’t have the same authority under the GNA that he currently has under the HOR.

Haftar also opposes ISIS, and also would dearly like some more international support. He would presumably like to be the one liberating Sirte, instead of the Misratan militias, in order that his forces could benefit from the military aid that’s expected to flow to whichever faction gets that job done. But the GNA and the Misratan fighters beat Haftar to the punch. So the upshot is that both of the sides in the civil war are anxious to defeat ISIS in Sirte, but mostly because of what doing so will get them from the West rather than as an end in itself. And whatever they get from the West may well be put into extending and expanding Libya’s civil war. If the GNA falters and Haftar is able to slip in to Sirte instead, then the international community will probably rethink its support for the GNA, and aid may begin to flow to Haftar. But if the GNA takes Sirte, then the international aid will flow to them and they’ll be in a stronger position to force Haftar and the HOR to submit. In that situation, Haftar may well decide to attack the GNA before the dust in Sirte has a chance to settle and before any new aid has a chance to start flowing.

Haftar is, for better or worse, the key to whether Libya descends back into an active civil war or whether the liberation of Sirte could be the first step on the road to a reunified country under the internationally recognized GNA’s authority. The Tobruk government has shown little ability and/or interest in reining him in, and while the GNA understandably isn’t going to want to subordinate itself to Haftar’s wishes, it will nevertheless have to find a way to make him happy if it wants to avoid more fighting.


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