All Eyes on Sirte: Beating the Islamic State, but Losing Libya
The battle against the Islamic State in Libya may be at a new and optimistic peak, but politically, the country is still a chaotic mess. The multi-pronged battle to wrest control of the Libyan coastal town of Sirte from the Islamic State may be distracting the transitional, U.N.-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA) from uniting the country’s warring factions and reaffirming trust in unbiased, national-level institutions. The international actors that have thrown their weight behind GNA as a channel to counter the Islamic State may be well advised to seek out an alternate strategy if this transitional government falters in its mandate.
In the two years since Libya’s descent into violence, competing political groups and the array of militia groups scattered under their respective military umbrellas have driven rival factions to splinter, leaving space aplenty for the Islamic State to exploit. The Islamic State embedded itself in Sirte late last summer and expanded its territorial holdings across more than 100 miles of Mediterranean coastline and into southern regions. Libya’s disparate political-militia groups, now including those affiliated with the GNA, are competing to be the main expeller of the Islamic State from Libya.
After all attempts by the United States, international partners, and the United Nations to promote a new unity government that could fight the Islamic State, key players in the east are still war with the GNA’s affiliate militias. As the GNA’s legitimacy is still tenuous, its capacity to fight the Islamic State as the state authority continues to be challenged.
The Challenge to the GNA’s Legitimacy
The GNA comes to the fight against the Islamic State at a time when it already is entangled in the power struggle between forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the House of Representatives (HOR) based in the eastern town of Tobruk; and the powerful militias of Misrata who were affiliated with the Tripoli-based General National Council (GNC). The two groups, and the range of armed groups associated with them, have been at war since summer 2014. Each has also made attempts to become the liberator of Sirte and other Islamic State-held areas.
At the same time, the United Nations has been working to resolve the prolonged political struggles that have plagued Libya. The U.N. proposed a new framework for a unity government under the auspices of the GNA in December, but fringe factions within the HOR and GNC have been unwilling to validate the accord, leaving the GNA in a state of legal limbo.
Like the three government administrations preceding it, the interim government is dependent upon its allied militias to provide security, not vice-versa. Short of an unlikely shift of circumstances that will solidify the GNA’s legitimacy nationwide, efforts by international actors to create a stable Libya, or to weaken the Islamic State for the long haul, are at serious risk of being spoiled.
Why the Battle for Sirte Really Matters
The powerful militias of Misrata are seen as the key backers of the new unity government and formidable opponents of the Islamic State. According to a local journalist in contact with Misrata’s leadership, they acknowledge the keen interest of the United States and European nations in degrading the Islamic States reach in Libya. Misrata may indeed have a genuine desire to assist in the Islamic State’s demise, but it is still more concerned with confronting Haftar.
As willing participants in a U.N.-sponsored, U.S.-backed government administration, Libya’s armed groups, including those from Misrata, may believe that Western nations will accept them as credible partners in the fight against the Islamic State. Misrata and its partner militias may therefore hope to reap the added weapons supply, intelligence coordination, and other benefits that could come with the GNA’s association. These same tools bear the potential to later be redirected at Haftar’s forces after Sirte is captured.
Haftar, meanwhile, is digging in his heels, reportedly relying on support from Egypt and advisory assistance from foreign special operations forces to maintain his position in the east. He is the lynchpin to uniting the east with the rest of the country, but the GNA has failed to bring him into its political and security fold. Like the militias in Misrata, Haftar may be more focused on the spoils that Islamic State-held territory might garner than on the battle against the Islamic State itself.
As expert analyst Mattia Toaldo and others have noted, Libya’s competing groups see the struggle for Sirte as a sort of prize to be won. Both unaffiliated and pro-GNA militias from Misrata and Haftar’s anti-GNA militias to the east likely consider ousting the Islamic State from Sirte as the optimal path to international attention and the support that comes with it.
The Destabilizing Potential of the Uncoordinated Fight
The GNA, GNC, and HOR have set up separate “operations rooms” to coordinate the disparate armed groups they are bringing to bear against the Islamic State in Sirte. Each claims to share the goal of defeating the terrorist organization, yet as the groups remain at political odds with one another, their respective operations rooms are acting independently. Because so many factions are still in conflict with one another, coordination among the rooms is highly unlikely. The GNA Presidential Council has noted that failing to coordinate could reignite Libya’s civil war.
In the past few weeks, Misrata’s Bunyan Marsoos offensive, allied with other GNA-allied costal militia groups led by Ibrahim Jathran, have now pushed Islamic State militants to the confines of the city center. Until very recently, however, Jathran’s forces were in weak alliance with the East. His new bond with the GNA and Misrata has turned the tables against Haftar’s eastern access to Sirte. Given Jathran’s abrupt volte-face, combined with growing dissent among the East’s ranks, Haftar’s ground position is weakened. He has nonetheless clearly stated that a political solution with the GNA is not possible and that he will continue to refuse to coordinate in the fight against the Islamic State. Perhaps in an attempt to show up his adversaries, he recently launched another series of airstrikes. He has attacked Jathran’s forces and alleged militants and in Derna, the other militant stronghold that shifts between al-Qaeda and Islamic State hands. All sides of the battle against the Islamic State are demonstrating certain unpredictability.
The GNA’s Presidential Council has encouraged all anti-Islamic State forces to work together, but this is unlikely to happen until the GNA establishes itself as a body that will protect the interests of all the parties after the battle for Sirte is won. For now, not all militias seem convinced of its capacity to do so. Given the fluidity of alliance building and breaking among Libya’s armed groups in the past, it cannot be assured that the GNA’s affiliated militias will stay united long enough for the state to rebuild.
If the GNA Falters, Have a Plan B
At a time when the GNA could be working to unite Libya’s armed groups and promote political stability, it has instead become entwined in the race for Sirte. Moreover, the GNA will face continued challenges to coopt Haftar in the east if it is simultaneously fighting him through Misrata-allied militias. If the body is perceived as giving Misrata oversized influence, which some already claim, it may lose the narrow window of opportunity to establish itself as the fair, representative institution that the United States hopes will take hold. The opportunity to reach a political solution may be lost as war is waged.
Despite the GNA’s lack of progress on the political front, Libyans and international actors alike still see the body as a best hope to eliminate the Islamic State while establishing a modicum of political stability and national unity. The GNA does not appear able to fill both of these functions at once, however, and is instead falling into the trap of war that may further divide the country. Each of the country’s political bodies and militias oppose the Islamic State’s presence, yet they are motivated by self-interests and thus not coalescing into a united front for the time being. More importantly, the Islamic State’s complete removal from Libya is by no means guaranteed once it is routed from Sirte.
Rather than helping to pull Libya out of this darkness, the GNA has been drawn into it as yet another potential agent in the civil war. In doing so, it may ultimately compromise its role as the body designed to resolve Libya’s political chaos. The United States and its partners — despite all best efforts to unite Libyans behind the GNA — must think ahead if the body cannot unite and stabilize the country. Should this be the case, international actors seeking to degrade the Islamic State in Libya may be losing the last remaining U.N.-sponsored channel through which to do so.
Amanda Kadlec is a project associate at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. She conducted field research in Libya in 2011 and 2012 and is the author of the Libya chapter in The Middle East (13th Edition, Sage/CQ Press). She has also provided commentary on Libya in Foreign Policy, Sada, The Guardian, and other outlets.