June 10, 2016
GNA-Allied Forces Seize Momentum against ISIS in Sirte
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) is losing the battle for Sirte, its stronghold on the central Libyan coast since early 2015. Militias allied with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) from the western Libyan city of Misrata and the eastern oil crescent region have advanced rapidly into ISIS’s control zone since May 12. The Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar has not mobilized to Sirte, but it is using counter-ISIS operations as cover to project influence over key oil sites in the region. The LNA serves as the military for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, a political body that has yet to recognize the GNA. The convergence of these factions in central Libya, where they are all seeking to control territory, threatens to bring them back into conflict in the absence of a political settlement. Libya could grow even more unstable with the fall of Sirte, and possibly descend back in to civil war, worsening and prolonging the conditions that allow Salafi-jihadi groups to flourish.
The Misratans are now pressuring ISIS’s remaining bastions in the Sirte city center and may even claim control of the city within days. Dense urban terrain still held by ISIS will make for a tough fight before friendly forces actually have full control of Sirte. ISIS militants are reportedly fleeing the city, and the group’s numbers there may have decreased by half this month. The militants that remain, estimated to be at least 2,000, are fighting to slow the Misratan advance, relying on vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks and sniper fire. ISIS has neither the capability nor the intent to recapture Sirte. It is fighting instead to delay the offensives and facilitate its withdrawal from the city.
The loss of Sirte will be a significant blow to ISIS, but it is not mortal. ISIS’s withdrawal, though rapid, is not surprising. ISIS has been laying the groundwork to withdraw from the city for months and will regroup elsewhere in Libya, albeit without an urban center. The group will likely retreat to the Fezzan region in southwestern Libya, where it will establish a new safe haven and continue to disrupt the unification of the Libyan state. ISIS could then set conditions to return to Sirte, or possibly turn its resources toward Tunisia.
The counter-ISIS fight has masked the ongoing political fight in Libya. General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) remain the key spoilers, more likely to resume the fight against GNA-allied militias than cede political or military authority. Even among the militias that support the GNA, unresolved cleavages will likely reopen once the battle for Sirte ends. The Misratan militias will likely comprise the bulk of the holding force in Sirte. They will also deploy south of Sirte toward al Jufra, a likely route for escaping militants but also a strategic site for control of Libya’s oil. The Misratans’ expansion, as well as its alliance with the UN-backed unity government, will further harden the LNA’s opposition to the unity government and encourage it to project influence into the same region. A stand-off in central Libya will exacerbate already deep divisions between east and west and marginalize the GNA’s efforts to unify the country.
The continued lack of a political resolution will continue to drive instability in Libya. Libya’s competing factions will continue to prioritize their interests over the counter-ISIS fight, allowing ISIS and other Salafi-jihadi groups to operate freely. These groups will in turn preserve their safe havens and destabilize Libya even further. Breaking ISIS’s hold on Sirte is necessary, but Sirte’s fall in the absence of a political solution is a dangerous catalyst for more conflict and chaos.
Belligerents in Libya
- Misratan militia forces
- Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG)
House of Representatives faction:
- Libyan National Army
- Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) Wilayat Tarablus
- Ansar al Sharia
MAY 1 – MAY 14
ISIS launched coordinated ground and explosive attacks against Misratan positions approximately 100km west of Sirte on May 5. The offensive advanced the frontline of terrain under ISIS westward. It was likely intended to deter the advance of Misratan forces on Sirte, ISIS’s stronghold in Libya. The liberation of Sirte would be a significant blow to ISIS and would give local and international legitimacy to whichever armed factions could claim the victory. The Misratans launched counterattacks to reclaim the seized sites, and ISIS responded to Misratan advances with a series of SVBIED attacks.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) continued efforts to clear Benghazi, where there is a small ISIS presence. Al Qaeda-linked Ansar al Sharia constitutes the primary resistance in Benghazi to the LNA, which began an operation to take full control of the city in February 2016. The LNA also launched an operation to encircle militant-controlled Derna. The militants in Derna, like Benghazi, are predominately Ansar al Sharia.
MAY 15 – MAY 30
Misratan militias advanced past the positions that they held before ISIS’s May 5 counter-offensive. The militias, augmented by small numbers of American and British special operations forces, used air power and other specialized capabilities to neutralize most of ISIS’s SVBIED attacks on the frontlines, as well as to clear the explosives retreating ISIS militants planted in their wake. The Misratans reach the western outskirts of Sirte city on May 29. The Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), a militia force based in eastern Libya that also supports the GNA, mobilized on May 31 and seized the easternmost ISIS-held town, Ben Jawad. Both the PFG and the LNA used the counter-ISIS mobilizations as justification for contesting or consolidating control of key oil sites in eastern Libya.
JUNE 1 – JUNE 10
The Misratan militias sought to isolate Sirte by extending the frontline from the west to the south, where they seized key military sites on June 4 and 5. They withdrew briefly on June 7, but then advanced into Sirte city center from the west and south. The Misratans are now concentrating air and artillery power on ISIS’s headquarters in a conference center in central Sirte. The PFG advanced to Harawa, the last ISIS-controlled village east of Sirte city. Meanwhile, the LNA intensified operations in Benghazi and Derna in response to increased opposition from local Islamist militias, al Qaeda associate Ansar al Sharia, and ISIS Wilayat Barqa.
For analysis of ISIS’s options after withdrawing from Sirte, read “ISIS’s Courses of Action-Out of Sirte.”