US warplanes carried out air strikes on positions of the Islamic State (IS) group in the Libyan city of Sirte for the first time on Monday, the Pentagon and Libya’s unity government announced.
“The first American air strikes on precise positions of the Daesh organisation were carried out today, causing heavy losses… in Sirte,” Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said in a televised speech, using an Arabic term to refer to the IS group.
In Washington, the Pentagon said the raids were launched in response to a request from the unity government.
“At the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), the United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL [IS group] targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold in Libya,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said, using another name for the IS group.
The strikes targeted an Islamic State group tank and two vehicles that posed a threat to forces aligned with Libya’s GNA.
US strikes in Sirte “will continue”, Cook added without elaborating.
The factoid that this is the “first time” the US has bombed ISIS in Sirte is true but misleading, because if you’re not familiar with the story you might assume this is the first time the US has bombed ISIS in Libya altogether, and it most definitely is not. This is the first time the US has gone after ISIS targets in Libya at the behest of what passes for a Libyan government, though to be fair Libya hasn’t really had much that could be called a “Libyan government” for a little over two years now. And frankly it’s also a little misleading to call the GNA a “unity government”–that’s certainly its intent, but until the House of Representatives in Tobruk finally agrees to recognize the GNA’s authority there’s not really much “unity” happening there.
Western nations have been champing at the bit to throw financial and military aid at somebody in Libya, both to drive ISIS out of Sirte and to stabilize the country so as to stem the tide of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean via Libya to enter Europe. The GNA, UN-backed as it is, was the logical choice politically, but militarily the Tobruk government and the warlord who
controls it commands its army, General Khalifa Haftar, was also a viable candidate for assistance if the GNA proved unable to get the job done. The Sirte operation has in some respects been the GNA’s audition for Western assistance, and apparently it’s done well enough that the US is comfortable supporting it at least on this narrowly defined (for now) mission. The belief is that American “precision” targeting capabilities will allow the GNA’s forces to strike ISIS inside Sirte’s urban areas without unduly risking civilian casualties. And, hey, what works in northern Syria is bound to work here, am I right?
What happens if and when ISIS is driven out of Sirte is still an open question. Haftar (currently trying to wrest control of Benghazi from the Shura Council, a coalition of Islamist militias) insists he won’t join the GNA until it disbands its “militias,” but at this point those “militias” can make a stronger case to being Libya’s real army than Haftar’s forces can, at least from an international perspective. And though the US appears to be in the GNA’s camp, it has long and deep ties to Haftar dating back to his time as a top officer in Muammar Gaddafi’s army who, at the CIA’s urging, turned on Gaddafi in the late 1980s after being left to rot in a Chadian prison (it’s a long story that you can read about here). As the Last Man Standing against extremists, leading the secular Tobruk government’s army against the more Islamist government in Tripoli (which has since disbanded in favor of the GNA), Haftar has been getting substantial aid from Egypt, the UAE, and even France, and he’s not going anywhere. The GNA faces the somewhat daunting task of trying to take him, and the substantial number of Libyans who support him, on while still trying to portray itself as a “unity” government above the fray of the civil war.
Meanwhile, the fight against ISIS just keeps metastasizing, with seemingly no comment from just about anybody in Washington on what that means politically and constitutionally. Add Libya to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan on the list of places where America is actively combating ISIS with nary a hint of Congressional authorization, and to Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia on the list of countries the US feels free to strike at will because Terror. I wonder where the next front will open up. Nigeria? Mali? Sinai? Your guess is as good as mine! Wherever it is you can be sure there won’t be any real debate about it in the halls of Congress, which with very few exceptions (and, whatever else you want to say about him, potential VP Tim Kaine is, to his credit, one of the exceptions) is very happy to just leave this stuff to the president. Yes, a vote to authorize new military actions like this one would probably amount to a rubber stamp, but at least there would be a vote, there would be a record, and symbolically, if in no other way, Congress would do something about its tendency to simply disappear whenever a serious national security issue comes up.
Congressional authorization could be incredibly useful in the case of Libya, in order to limit this operation’s scope so that it doesn’t spiral into some kind of open-ended effort to intervene in Libyan internal affairs, not that I’m drawing any particular analogy to any specific past Libyan operation or anything. But you can be sure we’re not going to get it.