After many months of concern that the military forces of Libya’s divided government would never be able to work effectively against the Islamic State, there is encouraging news that a major Libyan offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Sirte is underway.
AFP reported on Thursday that forces loyal to the internationally-backed Government of National Accord have entered Sirte. Meanwhile, the unity government’s naval forces “control the entire coast of Sirte,” meaning the jihadis “will not be able to flee by sea,” according to naval commander Rida Issa.
The unity government also claimed its forces have captured two ISIS military barracks outside Sirte during their advance, while Reuters says they have also taken “an air base, several military camps and a roundabout where IS had previously hung the bodies of executed enemies.”
Reuters reports the Libyan troops are having trouble with ISIS snipers as they push into the city, but they have succeeded in “driving the militants back along the coastal road west of Sirte before seizing strategic points on the edge of the city.”
“We think that Sirte will be liberated within days, not weeks,” said military spokesman Mohamed al-Gasri. “The Daesh snipers are a concern to us because they shoot from long distances and that has hindered us in the battle inside the city.”
Of course, this being Libya, there is more than one “government army” working the battlefield. Reuters reports that a “separate militia that controls terminals in Libya’s oil crescent, the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG),” has been advancing from the east, and is now about 44 miles away from Sirte.
Reuters sums up the dicey political situation in ruined Libya:
The GNA is designed to replace two rival governments that have competed for power from Tripoli and from the east since 2014, backed by complex alliances of armed groups.
Both the PFG and key armed groups from Misrata have pledged to support it. Western powers see the new government as the best chance of ending the turmoil plaguing Libya since Gaddafi was forced from power in an uprising five years ago.
Since arriving in Tripoli in March the GNA has sought to meld some of Libya’s key armed factions into a unified security force, even as it continues to face resistance from political and military hardliners in the east.
These include eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar, who has been conducting a campaign against Islamists and other opponents in Benghazi for the past two years.
Haftar is spoken of as a menace almost on par with ISIS, uniting militias from several other cities and the Petroleum Facilities Guard to what European Council for Foreign Relations analyst Mattia Toaldo called “quite a remarkable degree of coordination” by Libyan standards.
Toaldo worried this alliance might fall apart after ISIS is ejected from Sirte, giving Haftar opportunities to expand his own influence.
The UK Guardian reported on Thursday that Libyan forces claim they have reached the center of Sirte, and have essentially wiped ISIS out, which would be remarkable given that U.S. intelligence estimates put about 6,000 jihadis in the city:
Videos circulated on social media showing triumphant militiamen flashing victory signs and chanting “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great” as they drove around Sirte. Forces from Misrata, aligned with Tripoli’s UN-backed government, posted photographs showing they had captured the area around an iconic billboard previously used by Isis to display the bodies, clad in orange jumpsuits, of those it had executed. The billboard, at the town’s Zafaran intersection, was torn down as militias pushed towards the city centre.
The European Council on Foreign Relations’ Mattia Toaldo is quoted in the Guardian’s story as well, saying that if the reports from the Libyan joint command are completely accurate, “they have reached the administrative headquarters of ISIS.”
“If that is the case we are talking about hours from the end, and not days. The rate of progress is far faster than anyone predicted even two days ago,” said Toaldo, suggesting that ISIS might have collapsed because it was never able to win much support from Sirte residents, and its actual fighting force may have been scarcely 10 percent of what earlier estimates suggested.
“It dos not mean that Isis has been ended in Libya if Sirte falls. The example of Isis in Baghdad shows that if they lose territory they resort to terrorism, and it may be they have sent their forces into the desert in order to regroup or prepare to strike later in Tripoli,” Toaldo added.
The Guardian cites other experts who suggest ISIS might be digging in for a long and bloody fight along the coast, having no means of escaping from the city.