Buoyed by US air strikes earlier this month, Libyan pro-government forces are pressing their advance against Islamic State (IS) militants in the city of Sirte, with the conflict escalating and the country descending into near-anarchy.
Libya is ruled by competing parties and rival militias vying for power, with the Islamist militants increasingly gaining influence in the country over the past years.
Libya has become a beacon for Islamists and radical groups in North Africa, some of whom have managed to seize strategically important areas in the oil-rich country, posing a threat to the Maghreb region and other Mediterranean countries.
There are mounting fears that the militants may use the Mediterranean city of Sirte as a jumping-off point for terror attacks in Europe.
In May, forces aligned with Libya's UN-backed government began a military offensive to retake the city, which IS captured in June last year. US forces also launched air strikes on the stronghold in August.
The air strikes have facilitated the advance of the US-backed Libyan ground forces into the IS group's headquarters in the city.
The Pentagon announced that the strikes were carried out upon a formal request from the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al-Sarraj. The strikes were the first US military operation to be implemented in “declared coordination” with the GNA.
The August strikes, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, were the third part of a comprehensive three-phase initiative of military operations against IS. These strikes were planned and directed by the United States Africa Command (US AFRICOM).
Libyan political analyst Al-Husain Al-Mesuri believes that the US military intervention is linked to that country’s upcoming presidential elections.
"The significance of the US air strikes against IS group in Sirte is crystal clear; to give [presidential candidate] Hillary Clinton a push against her Republican rival Donald Trump, who has accused the former Secretary of State of [mishandling the response to the] attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012," Al-Mesuri told Ahram Online.
On 11 September 2012, Islamist militants attacked the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, killing US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and others.
“The US administration has launched election-flavoured political strikes. It delivers a message to the American citizen that the Democratic president helped liberate Sirte from the notorious IS group,” Al-Mesuri added.
Another message delivered by these strikes, Al-Mesuri believes, is that the United States will only give its support to Libyan forces that back the GNA and the Skhirat agreement, which calls for a presidential council to lead a unified government.
Under the deal, a nine-member presidential council forms the GNA, with the current, eastern-based House of Representatives as the main legislature, and a state council as a second, consultative chamber.
Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the US intervention has not been met with a major backlash because few Libyans have any doubts about the need to destroy the Islamic State in Sirte.
"It was a precisely-defined, narrow and time-limited intervention with high chances of success, carried out upon the request of the government recognised by the US," Toaldo told Ahram Online.
Toaldo added that military action in Benghazi would be more contentious because the Islamic State is mixed up with other groups there that have the sympathy of some Libyan factions.
The majority of the militias leading the offensive in Sirte are made up of armed groups from the city of Misrata, which already backs the GNA. By contrast, the Libyan army led by General Khalifa Haftar has not yet recognised the GNA and the presidential council led by Al-Sarraj.
Therefore, Haftar will seemingly fight the Islamist militants in Benghazi alone unless he recognises the GNA.
File photo: US air force plane (Reuters)
Some Libyans are against the idea of foreign military intervention as a solution to the fierce ongoing conflict in the country, which fell into chaos after the March 2011 military action by a NATO-led coalition against the regime of long-time president Muammar Gaddafi.
However, foreign assistance, as opposed to intervention, is “certainly acceptable to some of the competing Libyan factions,” Rex Brynen, professor of political science at McGill University, told Ahram Online.
"Most Libyans recognise the danger posed by IS, and many are still grateful for the support that NATO and some Arab states provided during the war against Gaddafi." he said.
According to Brynen, if the intervention is limited to support in the fight against IS, it will likely strengthen the position of the GNA.
On 9 August, the Washington Post reported that US Special Operations forces are providing direct ground support for the first time to fighters battling the Islamic State in Libya, coordinating American airstrikes and providing intelligence in an effort to oust the group from its stronghold.
Although foreign intelligence operatives in Libya provide support to the Libyan fighters through directing air operations, there are no combat troops on the ground, Al-Mesuri said.
"There are about 35 military advisers and intelligence operatives in Benghazi, and dozens more in Sirte. Special Operations forces in Benghazi are from the US, France and Jordan, while in Sirte there are intelligence advisers from the US, Britain and Italy."
The fate of the Islamic State
US officials announced in February that the number of IS militants in Libya ranged from 5,000 to 6,000, though recent estimates suggest that the number has seen a sharp decline to reach around 1,000 members.
Sirte has a long coastline along the Mediterranean Sea and has many entry points towards the desert to the south.
“The IS militants are more likely to escape to the south,” Al-Mesuri assesses. “They may be able to escape to neighbouring countries, but that depends on how tight the borders are. They may also find places on the borders of these countries that might serve as transit stations for re-organising their ranks.”
The IS militants are also active in the Sabri district of Benghazi, where they are fighting the Libyan army.
Libyan forces celebrate after they liberated the city of Sirte from ISIS (Photo: facebook.com/BMCLY)
Political settlement unlikely
It is unlikely that the fighting parties in Libya will reach a political settlement in the near future, even after repelling the Islamic State militants, says Brynen.
"The country will continue to be divided among rival militias, and the GNA’s authority will continue to be very limited," Brynen says.
Al-Mesuri explains that there are three levels of the conflict in Libya; the international level, the regional level, and the local level.
On the international level, the US and Britain have contacts with some local parties but do not exercise any kind of pressure to help resolve the dilemma. Italy and France usually offer their political and financial support to the vying parties and are keen on helping find a political solution.
If there is a real international will, there could be a possible solution to the struggle, Al-Mesuri says.
On the regional level, countries like Turkey, Qatar and Sudan consistently try to prove to the US and the UK that they can play a remarkable role in the Libyan conflict. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also worked to show their ability to do the same job as powerful regional players, according to Al-Mesuri.
The Egyptian role, however, is unique, Al-Mesuri says.
“[Egypt’s role] is not based on external considerations; it is based on Egypt's national security. Egypt is always keen on helping Libya become a safe country, simply because the two counties share a 1,200 km border."
The countries surrounding Libya, notably Tunisia, are big supplier of fighters joining the ranks of the Islamic State group.
Al-Mesuri believes that although the status quo is unlikely to change, there are two key regions that could have an impact on the situation in Libya; the oil crescent – which includes the ports of Siddra, Ras Lanouf and Brega – and the capital Tripoli.
“The party that is able to control the oil crescent and Tripoli will be able to change the political equation in Libya,” he said.
The issue of both the oil crescent and Tripoli is in the hands of the parties that signed the Skhirat agreement in December 2015. They are the only ones, if they can come to an agreement, who are capable of reaching an impactful political settlement.
Toaldo expects that there is reason to believe that if the GNA somehow holds and oil production is even just partially restarted, the West and the South of the country could see a gradual decline in violence.
"For the east, there does not seem to be an end in sight to the ongoing violence. Reconciliation among the eastern groups and between the east, particularly the interim government, and the GNA is in the high seas for the moment."