Dueling Libyan Governments At Odds Over US Airstrikes

By Patrick Goodenough | August 3, 2016 | 4:15am EDT
The United States launched multiple airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Libya on Monday, August 1, 2016, opening a new front against the group at the request of the United Nations-backed government, Libyan and U.S. officials said. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The State Department stressed Tuesday that U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) targets in Libya had been carried out “at the specific request” of the Western-backed “government of national accord” (GNA) in Tripoli. But angry condemnation from a rival government in eastern Libya underscored how fractured the country remains, five years after the Western-backed toppling of Muammar Gaddafi led to Libya’s disintegration.

The so-called House of Representatives (HoR), based in Tobruk in the east, said the airstrikes were illegal and unconstitutional, and had been conducted without any coordination with it.

It demanded that the U.S. ambassador appear before the HoR’s security and defense committee to explain Washington’s actions.

(The HoR backs renegade Libyan general, Khalifa Hiftar, who has been fighting Islamists in Benghazi and the east since 2014 and against ISIS specifically since last year. Hiftar, a critic of the GNA, enjoys the support of some U.S. allies in the Gulf, as well as Egypt and France.)

The U.S. airstrikes focused on Sirte, a small city about halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi that was both Gaddafi’s hometown and the location of his death in 2011. It has been home to ISIS fighters since the middle of last year.

A conference center in the city, built by Gaddafi to host an African summit in 1999, has been the terrorist group’s headquarters, and Libyan media say it was a likely target of the airstrikes.

Up to now, militias loyal to the GNA have been unable to retake the Ouagadougou Conference Center because of the presence of ISIS snipers, the Libya Herald reported.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis identified targets hit only as ISIS tanks, vehicles, a rocket launcher, and “an insurgent fighting position.”

Fayez al-Sarraj, the GNA prime minister, told a press conference the airstrikes had caused “huge losses in the lines and assets of the enemy, enabling our field forces to control strategic locations.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby stressed that the military operation had been carried out at the express request of al-Sarraj and the GNA.

He reaffirmed “steadfast and sure” U.S. support for the prime minister, and called on rivals in the east to support rather than try to obstruct the GNA.

Moscow has been a longstanding critic of Western intervention in Libya, and its ambassador to Libya charged that this week’s airstrikes were illegal. A subsequent Russian foreign ministry statement was less critical, but did call for “solid coordination among all states engaged in the fight against terrorism.”

Kirby called Russia’s claim of illegal conduct “just false.”

“There was a legal authority to do this in terms of our counterterrorism role,” he said – apparently in reference to the authorization of military force approved by the U.S. Congress after 9/11. (The AUMF related to groups responsible for or supportive of al-Qaeda’s attack on America. ISIS did not exist in 2001, but was born out of and became successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq.)

Last month Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at “countries that were determined to overthrow Gaddafi [and] did not shy away from cooperating with certain terrorist groups.”

“We all see … where this has gotten us. Today Libya is a den of terrorism.”

ISIS’ Libya outlook?

Just how important Sirte is to ISIS remains a matter of debate, although the terrorist group itself has hyped its presence there.

“Sirte is so important to the Islamic State that the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, mentioned it alongside Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq in a speech in May,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal noted, pointing out that the other two cities named are “the de facto capitals of the self-declared caliphate.”

Emily Estelle, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project, has questioned Sirte’s importance to ISIS.

“It is just a minor city that ISIS was able to seize and hold, and can abandon without excessive pain,” she wrote in an earlier analysis. “In fact, ISIS has been preparing to withdraw from Sirte since April, and is already carving out a new safe haven in southwestern Libya.”

While Sirte’s loss would be a setback, it would also allow ISIS to reestablish itself in the Libyan desert which would arguably be more dangerous.

“The North African desert is crisscrossed by extensive trade, smuggling, and trafficking routes that connect across the African continent and matter far more than state borders,” Estelle said. “Southwest Libya actually contains more strategically significant terrain than Sirte because of these routes.”

An ISIS stronghold in the southwestern desert would enable it to tap into militant networks across the region, deepen its relationship with Boko Haram, develop new ties with groups in Mali and continue destabilizing Libya while supporting terror in Tunisia and Algeria, argued Estelle, whose research focuses on al-Qaeda affiliates and associated groups.

She questioned the wisdom of the West in doing deals with the sponsors of various warring groups in Libya.

“Libyan militias represent popular forces mobilized to fight one another. They will not be controlled by an elite bargain negotiated by foreign countries,” she said. “The Libyan civil war, like the Syrian civil war, needs a real resolution, not a back-room deal worked out in European hotels.”

 

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