Libya: Daesh is Losing, but the Crisis Continues

Mohamed Ben Khalifa / AP/Press Association Images

Daesh is on the brink of losing its stronghold in Libya. Libyan militia forces loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord look set to liberate the city of Sirte just over a year after it was captured by Daesh in February 2015. 

Pushing Daesh out of the port city would be a significant achievement for Libya and its new government, as well as for the international effort against the group as a whole. For the past year, Sirte and the 150-mile stretch of surrounding coastline have been Daesh’s most important territorial presence outside Iraq and Syria, and a hub for its activities across North Africa and beyond – there were links between Daesh in Sirte and Boko Haram in Nigeria. However, while the liberation of the city would represent a great symbolic success, it would not remove the threat posed by Daesh to Libya and its neighbours, nor would it end Libya’s struggle with political crisis and instability.

The campaign to oust Daesh from Sirte was launched after the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, took up office in Tripoli in March. Since then, a loose coalition of militias loyal to - but not controlled by - the government have surrounded, and steadily closed in on Sirte. In the west, forces from Misrata have led the fight; from the east, the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), a militia in control of most of Libya’s oil infrastructure, has advanced. Their progress has been surprisingly swift - putting in doubt recent estimates that Daesh had up to 6,000 men under arms in Sirte. Remnants of the group’s fighters have retreated to the barricaded city centre and the final battle for control of Sirte is likely to be hard fought, with Daesh using similar tactics to those used in the recent fight for Ramadi in Iraq, including snipers, booby-traps and suicide bombers.

Even so, it appears unlikely that Daesh will defend Sirte to the last man. Although its territorial presence in Libya has been important to demonstrate the regional reach of its supposed caliphate, Sirte and Libya have never been much more than opportunistic battlegrounds for the group. It has struggled to recruit Libyan nationals, instead drawing most of its fighters from other African countries, especially Tunisia. In January, a Daesh propaganda campaign about the group’s ambitions in North Africa was almost entirely focused on Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco making only fleeting mention of further expansion in Libya.

It is therefore much more probable that the bulk of Daesh fighters in Libya will look to withdraw from Sirte, go into hiding, or regroup elsewhere: either in Libya’s vast and unmanageable southern desert, or in their home countries. Most of the group’s leaders, many with direct links to Daesh’s leadership in Iraq and Syria, are thought to have left Sirte weeks ago. The country that could be most affected by Daesh’s loss of a territorial base in Libya is Tunisia. All high-profile Daesh attacks in the country – including those carried out on the city of Sousse last year and on Ben Guerdane in March – were linked to training camps in Libya. Several thousand Tunisian Daesh fighters may now be looking to return home, posing a serious threat to Tunisia’s national security and stability.

In Libya, too, Daesh will continue to have the chance to exploit and further foment instability. Its presence in Libya has always been a symptom, rather than a cause of the country’s political crisis. For the moment, Misratan forces and the PFG are working together in Sirte, but just a few months ago they were fighting each other, and both are likely to want to claim an eventual victory against Daesh for themselves. Even more problematic is the fact that the Libyan National Army (LNA) - itself more of a militia based in eastern Libya than a national institution - has remained almost entirely absent from the battle against Daesh. The LNA’s commander, General Khalifa Haftar, has thus far refused to submit to the authority of the UN-baked GNA in Tripoli and is on the record as vowing to defeat Misratan militias, which he accuses of being terrorist groups little different from Daesh.

The real battle in Libya therefore remains a political one. The GNA is slowly establishing itself in Tripoli and can draw on the full support of the UN, and in particular Europe (led by Britain, France and Italy) and the US. Yet, the government’s authority does not extend much beyond the capital itself. The forces fighting in Sirte are doing so in the GNA’s name, but cannot yet be considered as under its sole command. Furthermore, the GNA continues to stand on incomplete legal foundations. The House of Representatives (HoR), the GNA’s designated legislative chamber, remains based in Tobruk and for the past six months has refused to even hold a vote on formally endorsing the GNA. The HoR still has its own prime minister and cabinet, which is nominally in control of the LNA (in reality, Haftar has never really submitted himself to any political oversight). Effectively, Libya therefore remains a divided country with two rival administrations and many more armed factions.

Rolling back Daesh has been one of the key objectives driving European and American efforts – facilitated through the UN – to end Libya’s political crisis, which has been festering since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi in 2011. After Daesh has been pushed out of Sirte, many European policymakers will be keen to move on to the second pressing security issue related to Libya, the flow of refugee and migrants across the Mediterranean. However, unless Libya’s political divisions are resolved and a clear political and military arrangement is in place to control the whole country – not just on paper, but on the ground – victories over Daesh or policies to stop cross-Mediterranean migration will only be temporary fixes. The liberation of Sirte may grab international headlines for a few days, but the key to the long term stabilisation of Libya lies in resolving the country’s political crisis.

Picture by: Mohamed Ben Khalifa / AP/Press Association Images

Dr Tobias Borck

Senior Associate Fellow

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