Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government fire weapons during a battle with IS fighters in Sirte, Libya on July 21, 2016. Via Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

August 11, 2016

ISIS Loses Headquarters in Sirte, Libya

U.S.-backed forces in Libya may declare victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in Sirte this week, but a victory over ISIS in Sirte may lead to more conflict in the long term and ultimately strengthen actors that pose a direct threat to U.S. national security.

The fall of Sirte is imminent. Libyan militias allied with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) seized ISIS’s primary remaining stronghold on August 10, along with other key ISIS positions in the city center. U.S. air support and Special Operations Forces allowed the GNA-allied militias to overcome ISIS’s defenses. The militias will continue to combat pockets of resistance in the city but will likely declare total victory over ISIS in Sirte within the coming week. 

The fall of Sirte is not an existential threat to ISIS in Libya, however. ISIS militants continue to operate openly in northern Libya, including in Benghazi in the east and near Sabratha in the northwest. Nor has ISIS lost the capabilities that it based in Sirte. Approximately 350 ISIS fighters remain in the city, but the majority of ISIS’s fighting force has withdrawn to southern Libya or infiltrated civilian populations. ISIS may reconstitute in a safe haven in southern Libya, from which it will resume attacks in northern Libya and attack into neighboring Tunisia and Algeria.

The U.S. accelerated the fall of Sirte but has not set conditions to stabilize Libya in its aftermath. The fall of Sirte may lead to increased conflict as rival factions attempt to consolidate control of terrain in central Libya after ISIS’s withdrawal. U.S. support is not enough to legitimize the GNA, which faces significant political challenges and a rising tide of protests throughout the country. The conflict sparked by Sirte’s fall will set favorable conditions for the expansion of the other enemy groups that operate in Libya, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the al Qaeda associate Ansar al Sharia.

The U.S. is operating without a strategy in Libya. Continuing to do so only brings us farther away from a viable solution. 

Sarah Lossing contributed to this piece.