Libyan forces advance against ISIL in its main base of Sirte

Libyan forces advanced against ISIL units at the militants’ main base of Sirte on Tuesday, taking advantage of US air strikes launched the day before.

In what is the first concerted air campaign in Libya since Nato intervened in the rebellion to topple Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, US manned aircraft and drones destroyed an ISIL tank and several other vehicles, the Pentagon reported.

Washington says the attacks will continue in support of Libyan ground forces who on Tuesday advanced to capture the central residential district of Al Dollar, with five killed and 17 wounded in heavy fighting.

“These actions and those we have taken previously will help deny ISIL a safe haven in Libya,” said the Pentagon.

The strikes have been in the works for some time. Back in January, with ISIL growing across Libya, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff General Joseph Dunford met his French counterpart Gen Pierre de Villiers in Paris to plot a strategy. “It’s fair to say we’re looking to take decisive military action,” said Gen Dunford at the time.

What followed has been an ever-expanding offensive by the two powers to combat the militants.

In January the Pentagon said its special forces were in Libya. Then in February, two US F-15 jets bombed the main ISIL base in western Libya at Sabratha, 80 kilometres west of Tripoli, killing 42 ISIL fighters. Sabratha militias then wiped out remaining militant units.

This policy of providing air support for local forces battling ISIL is the US template also used in Syria and Iraq, and is a strategy, not always successful, stretching back to the Vietnam-era Nixon Doctrine which envisaged air support for local forces battling communist insurgents.

Meanwhile, since August 2014 France has deployed 3,500 troops in Operation Barkhane, working in Niger on Libya’s southern border, to intercept militant convoys crossing the border.

But the joint policy to battle ISIL has also seen Paris and Washington back rival Libyan governments.

While US strikes are aiding forces of the new UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, Paris is supporting Gen Khalifa Haftar, army chief of the rival House of Representatives parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk. Militias supporting the two governments have fought a civil war, unrelated to ISIL, since July 2014.

Last month, France confirmed its units were working with Gen Haftar, announcing the death of three of its personnel in a helicopter crash south of Benghazi, the site of the main ISIL base in eastern Libya.

France’s admission drew a sharp rebuke from the Tripoli government, which complained that the GNA had not been informed of the French presence.

In these operations Sirte, ISIL’s main base in Libya, is the key objective. In late May, forces from both of Libya’s governments began to converge on the coastal town – Tobruk units moving from the east and Misurata units aligned with the GNA moving from the west.

The GNA has bourn the brunt of fighting, and casualties. Commanders of its operation, Bunyan Marsous, announced this week that GNA forces have suffered more than 300 dead and more than 1,500 wounded. The fighting has taken place in dense urban areas, with the ISIL militants in Sirte having to be winkled out of fortified buildings in close-quarters combat.

The Sirte battle has in recent weeks ground to a halt around the Ouagadougou conference centre, a sprawling concrete edifice almost impervious to infantry weapons and light artillery. Snipers from its rooftops have inflicted a steady toll on GNA forces.

In contrast to its operations in Syria and Iraq, ISIL has failed to become a mass movement in Libya, with the Pentagon estimating that at its peak it numbered no more than 6,000 fighters.

Bunyan Marsous commanders say this number has dwindled to a few hundred fighters holding a perimeter around Sirte town centre. Meanwhile, further east, Gen Haftar’s forces, with French help, have captured one of three ISIL-held districts in Benghazi.

It is likely ISIL will be crushed in both towns, just as it is losing ground in Iraq and Syria. Its guerrilla operations, such as the truck bombing of a police college in Zlitan last year that killed 47, may continue but the days of ISIL holding territory in Libya look to be over.

However, the defeat of ISIL will still leave Libya’s militias, some supporting Tripoli, some Tobruk, locked in their own conflict. Tackling that problem will be a job not for the military planners of France and the US, but for their diplomats.