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air strike libya

The US air strike against Sirte was triggered by motivations that reach well beyond the mere military aspects of the operation. The ISIS, barricaded in a neighborhood in Sirte, didn’t represent an imminent threat as they did a few months earlier, when the international community frantically sought a way out of the Libyan crisis.

Since the beginning of military operations carried out by the Misurata militias belonging to Prime Minister Serraj – a figure produced by a long and painful internationally-sponsored process of national reconciliation – the military fortunes of the ISIS in Sirte had been on steep downslope. Many Jihadists had already fled south while the remaining lot, roughly 5 to 7 hundred men, were encircled and were already unable to condition the already-precarious social and military situation in Libya.

Nonetheless, as in all urban fights – a non-conventional form of warfare – those defending (in this case the ISIS) benefit from the urban context and can cause numerous casualties among those attacking.

In the Libyan case, the Islamic militants proved to have a solid military formation. They fought at the risk of their own life and that of others (in this case, the local population). They used unscrupulous defensive methods (there is an intense use of explosive booby-traps), a frequent recourse to suicide bombers and the refused to take prisoners. This caused numerous losses among the Misurata fighters and a stall in re-capturing the city.

Could the above circumstances justify a US air strike that constitutes a waiver of the policy of limited involvement by the US in the events of the Middle East?

Although this isn’t the first time that US airplanes strike the ISIS bases in Libya (the February strike in Sabratha was carried out without consulting anyone), this time around the military strike has different motivations.

The first and most important motivation is political. Since Fayez al Serraj settled in Tripoli in March he has been trying – with scarce success - to create a popular consensus around his role as the Prime Minister of a government of national reconciliation. Some members of the Islamic government in Tripoli (the “non-legitimate” government, since it lacks international recognition) have opposed him. Even within the Tobruk government and parliament (the one that was considered “legit” until the arrival of Serraj) there is a staunch opposition against this new government of national reconciliation.

In order to be credible, a government should control finances, public order and the armed forces, while Serraj’s government come short on all three.

Some progress has been made on the financial side. The government has some control of the central Libyan bank and oil production (which is the primary form of revenue for Libya) has been partially reactivated.

Fayez al Serraj

Following a merger between the many branches of the National Oil Company, Serraj was forced to accept the presence of Ibrahim Jadhran’s militia (the so-called Petrolium Facility Guards (PFG)) in and around the installations. Jadhran is a questionable character, both for his Islamic past and for his attempt to sell the oil extracted from structures which he was supposed to protect for his own gain. Although Serraj lacks some decisional power, Jadhran’s “presumed” 25.000 men (the militia is paid by the government, but it is reasonable to believe that they may be smaller in numbers; possibly 12.000 plus another 3.000 when the ranks are full) constitute a steady support for his wavering government. Jadhran is a sworn enemy of General Khalifa Haftar, who is trying to hinder the Serraj government and who doesn’t want to relinquish his command over the “national army” (that same army which was considered “legit” before the coming of Serraj).

Haftar neither wants to accept alternative duties (there was a plan to create regional commands; Haftar would have kept command over his contingent in Cyrenaica) nor does he accept the idea that his former commander of tank units, Madhi Al Barghouti, could exercise the role of Minister of Defense.

Haftar’s hostility on the military level and Tobruk’s on the political level have determined in Serraj the need to accredit his role through a military victory on the ground against the ISIS in Sirte.

However, after an initially successful attack, the Misurata militias were stopped by the ISIS and suffered heavy losses, making Serraj’s campaign a failure.

The losses suffered by the Misurata militia weakened the already-limited military structure which today acts on behalf of the Prime Minister’s interests.

The agreement underwritten by the parts under the auspices of the UN said that Libya should install a government of national reconciliation which could request international military support if needed.

Seen that the prerequisite of installing a true government of national reconciliation is more of a virtual requirement, Serraj has requested and obtained (in a consensual decision with the US) the American military support.

A victory over the ISIS in Sirte, even if diminished by help of the United States, would nonetheless give Serraj the bare minimum of legitimacy which he couldn’t obtain in other ways.

If the air strikes are successful, Serraj and “his” army will defeat Islamic terrorism while Haftar, with the other army, fails to do as much in Bengazhi and Derna. Exactly what Serraj needs, especially now that he has to lead an internationally-sponsored national reconciliation to the detriment of other, opposite, aspirations.

Serraj stated repeatedly that the support he requested was limited to the skies and that there were no foreign troops on the ground because he needs to come off as the leader of the Libyan government rather than a pawn in the hands of internationally-led interests. He also needs to safeguard the sense of national pride that is dominant in Libyan society. No foreign ground troops means that there was no interference and no violation of national integrity. Yet when Serraj says that there were no foreign troops, he willingly omits to say that American, French, English and Italian (and maybe even Jordanian) troops are stationed in Libya, albeit with training duties (and demining duties, in the Italian case); they are in Libya as counselors, not as combatants.

The US strike in Libya also follows a local, American, political logic. The Obama administration was always reluctant to get involved militarily in the Middle East. Having inherited a number of difficult situations for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from the Bush administration, President Obama tried, during his 8 years in office, to limit further US military involvement in the region. Interventionism is a trait of the Republican Party. Today Obama, while disregarding his former ideas with the air strike in Libya, attempts to support the candidacy of his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who was one of the political instruments of this political-military approach to foreign policy. The coming elections weighed heavily in the decision by Obama, who had previously expressed his regret for the war against Gaddafi in 2011, which was perceived as being an error “instigated” by the French.

On the internal political level, the competition with Russia plays a major role. The US military disengagement from the Middle East was not only criticized at home, but also disappointed several Arab allies of the US. This has left room for Russia to consolidate its influence in the region. Russia now plays a central role in the solution to the Syrian crisis. They are in talks with Israel and support Damascus militarily and are eyed with interest by many Arab countries, including Turkey.

Khalifa Haftar

Russia has kept a low profile on the Libyan crisis, giving limited support to General Haftar. A choice that was not publicized because it contradicted the UN resolution in favor of Serraj.

Haftar studied in Russian military schools; he is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates; he profits from discreet French support and is surely an instrument of offense against Islamic extremism.

It is not by hazard that both Russia and Haftar immediately questioned the legitimacy of the US air strike in Libya.

Russia argued that a US military strike should have been previously approved by the UN security council.

Haftar argued that it is an issue of national legitimization: In order to install itself in power, the Serraj government needed to obtain the approval of the only legitimate Libyan parliament, the one in Tobruk. This did not happen (and Haftar was partly responsible), therefore Serraj is an illegitimate Prime Minister.

It is emblematic that the US air strike was criticized even by an individual who is considered very close to Islamic extremism and a sympathizer of the ISIS: Sadek al Ghariani. A rival of Haftar and Serraj, Ghariani said from Tripoli that the US air strike was “illegitimate” because it targeted Islamic people.

Regardless of the critics, it is unsure whether the US air strike against the ISIS will improve the poltical-military situation in Libya, one currently marked by instability and social disintegration. It is also unsure whether Serraj will gain politically from the circumstance in the exercise of his governing function or in the intrinsic legitimization of his conduct.

Nonetheless, a government without its own army and at the mercy of various “private” militias will not last long, even when benefiting from the temporary backing of the US military.

In Ghaddafi’s time, a good part of the army was composed of members of the tribes (in Libya, “Kabile”) faithful to the regime. Those very tribes, now marginalized, had no part in the reconstruction of the Libyan Armed Forces, leaving the latter without capable managing personnel. The reconstruction of a new Libyan army must be the fruit of a process of national reconciliation which includes the members of the old regime. This is not happening and that’s why some of Ghaddafi’s former soldiers are fighting alongside the ISIS in Sirte.

In Ghaddafi’s time there was no Ministry of Defense and no central structure of command.

Today the Libyan military is comprised of two main “armies”, one in Tripoli and one in Benghazi which compete and are hostile with each other. In addition to these there are a number of militias that answer to tribal, private or criminal aims.

The reconstruction of a Libyan Army is a process that needs time, but there are currently more armed individuals in the country than one would need to build a new army. Ghaddafi had never really empowered the Libyan army because he didn’t trust it. He and the others that helped him in his 1969 coup came from its ranks and Ghaddafi feared that the advent of another military coup could dethrone him in turn.

In 2012 there was a timid attempt to demilitarize and dismantle various militias with the possibility of re-integrating their members (not the militias themselves) within the national army. The attempt failed. It is difficult to think that Serraj could succeed in such a task without specific international assistance. And if this is true, the US air strike is just the beginning of a growing military intrusiveness/presence in Libya, perhaps in a different shape and form.

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