Libyans face civil war af­ter oust­ing com­mon en­emy

Is­lamic State nearly elim­i­nated in Sirte

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MATHIER GALTIER AND JOHN DYER

SIRTE, LIBYA | From the sec­ond floor of a school, Ab­dal­lah Karim, 20, gazes at down­town Sirte, at build­ings blown apart, streets lit­tered with bro­ken glass and rub­ble — his home­town re­duced to a field of ru­ins. Still, he says, he en­joys the view. “I re­ally don’t care about the de­struc­tion of my city. Look, over there, my house was there,” said Mr. Karim, a fighter from the De­fense Mis­rata brigade, point­ing to a de­stroyed build­ing through the large win­dow. “I don’t care. I just want the Is­lamic State men to be dead.”

The last hold­outs of the ji­hadi group are cling­ing to a square half-mile area of this strate­gic coastal city, the Is­lamic State group’s “cap­i­tal” in Libya and once its most for­mi­da­ble out­post out­side of its base in Syria and Iraq. Mis­rata fight­ers, part of the U.N.-backed Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Ac­cord Forces, con­tinue to make ad­vances against the sur­rounded group.

Although the GNA forces ex­pect to cap­ture Sirte within the next month, the Mis­rata fight­ers say they are brac­ing for a wider war over who will rule Libya.

U.N. of­fi­cials and pri­vate an­a­lysts an­tic­i­pate that clash soon and are not sure Libya, as a func­tion­ing state, can sur­vive it.

“Ev­ery day is a step fur­ther in the de facto par­ti­tion of the coun­try,” said Mat­tia Toaldo, a Libya an­a­lyst for the Euro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, based in the United King­dom.

Speak­ing last week in Geneva, Martin Kobler, the U.N. spe­cial en­voy to the Libyan cri­sis, is­sued a stark warn­ing that the coun­try is at risk of de­scend­ing once again into chaos.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we are now fac­ing a po­lit­i­cal im­passe …,” Mr. Kobler told a meet­ing of the U.N. Hu­man Rights Coun­cil. “The risks of in­creased ten­sions in the cap­i­tal should not be un­der­es­ti­mated.”

The Is­lamic State’s hold on Sirte, the home­town of long­time Libyan dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi and a key oil ex­port­ing cen­ter, be­gan to loosen af­ter the U.S. and Bri­tain stepped up sup­port last month in the four-month drive to oust the mil­i­tant group. Each coun­try sent ad­vis­ers to pro­vide in­tel­li­gence.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has au­tho­rized airstrikes on the city since Au­gust. One strike de­stroyed the Oua­gadougou Con­fer­ence Cen­ter, a show­case of the Gad­hafi regime that the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, used as its lo­cal head­quar­ters.

But the re­treat of the Is­lamic State fight­ers has ex­posed other deep fis­sures in Libya, with the gov­ern­ment in Tripoli fac­ing a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to its le­git­i­macy.

By the be­gin­ning of Septem­ber, the Mis­rata fight­ers thought they had won and soon would be able to lay down their arms. But then came Gen. Khal­ifa Haf­tar and his “Libyan Na­tional Army.”

On Sept. 11, the for­mer Gad­hafi gen­eral and his forces took con­trol of the main re­finer­ies of the coastal re­gion known as the Oil Cres­cent — in­clud­ing the oil ter­mi­nals and ports of Ras Lanuf, As-Sidra, Brega and Zueitina — in the name of the ri­val gov­ern­ment based in the east­ern Libyan city of Bayda.

Dur­ing the takeover, the pro-GNA Pe­tro­leum Fa­cil­i­ties Guards, led by Ibrahim Je­dran, dis­armed on or­ders from the east­ern tribal lead­ers. These chiefs had been meet­ing se­cretly with Gen. Haf­tar and the east­ern gov­ern­ment to mo­bi­lize Op­er­a­tion Sud­den Light­ning to take con­trol of fa­cil­i­ties in the oil-pro­duc­ing area. The re­sult: a stand­off between Gen. Haf­tar and the forces of the GNA, whose au­thor­ity is re­jected by the coun­try’s east­ern tribes. Fears of a new of­fen­sive Ob­servers fear GNA forces will go on the of­fen­sive to re­cap­ture the ter­mi­nals.

The fa­cil­i­ties give Gen. Haf­tar a big ad­van­tage be­cause he now con­trols the oil rev­enue from them. The Oil Cres­cent holds 60 per­cent of Libya’s oil re­sources.

“Given the ten­sions that Haf­tar’s move has pro­voked, a mil­i­tary at­tempt on the ter­mi­nals is cer­tainly pos­si­ble,” wrote Clau­dia Gazz­ini, a se­nior an­a­lyst on Libya for the Cri­sis Group, a think tank based in Brus­sels.

Ms. Gazz­ini said crude in the Gulf of Sirte ac­counts for about 80 per­cent of Libya’s to­tal oil ex­ports, by far the coun­try’s top source of rev­enue. “From a po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary point of view, these de­vel­op­ments are a huge set­back to the au­thor­ity of the U.N.-backed fledg­ling gov­ern­ment in Tripoli,” she said.

Gen. Haf­tar has nom­i­nated mil­i­tary of­fi­cials — who don’t an­swer to the unity gov­ern­ment — in­stead of civil of­fi­cials to run cities such as Beng­hazi, Ajd­abyia and Sha­hat, fur­ther weak­en­ing the GNA’s au­thor­ity.

The gen­eral, who once served un­der Gad­hafi, sounded de­fi­ant in writ­ten re­sponses to ques­tions posed by The As­so­ci­ated Press. He re­jected the au­thor­ity of the unity gov­ern­ment in Tripoli, at­tacked Mr. Kobler, the U.N. en­voy, for “meddling” in the coun­try’s af­fairs and said Libya would be bet­ter served by a leader with “high­level mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence.” He said much of Libya’s tur­moil was the re­sult of armed gangs and Is­lamist mili­tias dom­i­nat­ing the gov­ern­ment in the coun­try’s western half.

GNA forces fear that Gen. Haf­tar will ride the mo­men­tum of his cap­ture of the oil re­gion to push far­ther to the west.

“Now, Haf­tar’s planes are close enough to con­duct airstrikes on our men in Sirte,” said Ibrahim Beit el-Mal, head of the mil­i­tary coun­cil of Mis­rata, echo­ing other se­cu­rity of­fi­cials who say Mis­rata is also vul­ner­a­ble.

Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials also be­lieve the gen­eral wants to strike now while the Mis­rata fight­ers are worn from bat­tling in Sirte.

“We ex­pect a big­ger war against Haf­tar soon,” said Adel Gl­i­dam, a Mis­rata Red Cres­cent vol­un­teer whose fa­ther died fight­ing in Sirte. “He wants to fight be­cause he knows we are phys­i­cally weak and morale is low be­cause of the war in Sirte.”

Haf­tar forces are in Harawa re­gion, less than 45 miles from GNA forces.

For the first time since the Libyan civil war in 2011, when the death of Gad­hafi un­leashed tribal ri­valry and con­flict, there is no buf­fer between the fac­tions. In the past, it was Mr. Je­dran’s Pe­tro­leum Fa­cil­i­ties Guards and then the Is­lamic State that oc­cu­pied the ter­ri­tory between the feud­ing Libyan fac­tions.

A po­lit­i­cal agree­ment seems highly un­likely, an­a­lysts say. To GNA sup­port­ers — and es­pe­cially Mis­rata fight­ers — Gen. Haf­tar rep­re­sents a re­turn to the bad old Gad­hafi days, and his rise to any of­fi­cial po­si­tion in the coun­try is a red line.

“What Haf­tar did [seiz­ing the oil fa­cil­i­ties] shows that he has no re­spect for Libya and that he wants to be a dic­ta­tor,” said Ali Abu Sitta, a mod­er­ate mem­ber of Mis­rata’s mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil.

Fayez Sir­raj, prime min­is­ter in the Tripoli unity gov­ern­ment, said this week that po­lit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is vi­tal to pre­vent­ing even more blood­shed af­ter the loom­ing de­feat of the Is­lamic State. He said GNA of­fi­cials were open to ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“As a Pres­i­den­tial Coun­cil, we are open to all po­lit­i­cal fac­tions. … I have no reser­va­tions. Any­thing that helps solve the Libyan cri­sis and that can open bot­tle­necks, we are ready to meet any­one,” Mr. Sir­raj told the Reuters news agency.

He struck a con­cil­ia­tory tone about the seizure of oil fa­cil­i­ties but added, “Who­ever pro­tects the oil must be un­der the um­brella of the Pres­i­den­tial Coun­cil.”

On the other hand, Gen. Haf­tar’s fol­low­ers con­tend that he is the only Libyan truly fight­ing Is­lamists in the coun­try. Is­lamic State fight­ers may be on the run, but other ji­hadi groups and the Mus­lim Brother­hood are deeply en­trenched in GNA-con­trolled ar­eas. The Brother­hood’s Ab­dus­salam Ka­j­man is a deputy leader of the Pres­i­den­tial Coun­cil, or Cab­i­net, led by GNA Prime Min­is­ter Fayez al-Sar­raj.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY MATHIEU GALTIER/SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

De­fense Mis­rata brigade tanks pro­tect a street in Sirte from Is­lamic State ji­hadis. Although the Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Ac­cord Forces ex­pect to cap­ture the city within the next month, the Mis­rata fight­ers are brac­ing for a wider war over who will rule Libya.

De­fense Mis­rata fighter Ab­dal­lah Karim watches for mil­i­tants amid the de­struc­tion of his city. “I don’t care,” he says. “I just want the Is­lamic State men to be dead.”

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