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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Obama claims that attacks on ISIS in Sirte are in US best interests

On Monday the U.S. launched air strikes against the remaining Islamic State (IS) positions in the center of their last stronghold in Libya Sirte. Obama said Tuesday that the attacks were in the U.S. national security interests.

The attacks are intended to support the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) forces against the Islamic State. The forces, Al-Bunyan Al Marsoos (Solid Structure or BAM) are composed mainly of brigades from the city of Misrata. The IS has been encircled in an area of about 5 square miles in the center of Sirte. Progress has been quite slow recently after earlier rapid advances. IS is putting up fierce resistance with suicide vehicle attacks, snipers and IEDs. Obama said that the strikes were undertaken to ensure that the Libyan forces would be able to finish defeating the IS in Sirte and increase stability in Libya. It is not clear how the attacks will increase stability since the split between the two rival governments remains even when the IS is defeated.
The bombing attacks open up a third front against the Islamic State. However, the US, UK, and France among others have already deployed special forces in Libya. Recently three French agents were killed in a helicopter crash as they were on a surveillance mission in aid of Khalifa Haftar, the commander in chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA) associated with the rvial government to the GNA of PM Abdullah Al-Thinni of the House of Representatives (HoR). Haftar's forces were clashing with those of the Defend Benghazi Brigades (DBB). Subsequent attacks on the DBB killed a number of DBB forces. There were numerous protests in the west of Libya, and the GNA decried the French ambassador in protest of France's deployment of forces in Libya without permission from the GNA. No doubt they had the permission of the HoR and Haftar.
The US is intending to use manned aircraft and drones to attack the remaining IS positions but will not commit any significant ground troops beyond the few special forces already present. Sending ground troops would likely result in a political backlash in the United States. The attacks come after a request from the UN-backed GNA government. Up until now, the GNA has been reluctant to ask for air support claiming it had the ability to defeat the IS on its own. However, with the recent revelation of the French intervention to help Haftar, the GNA may want to show that it too can get international help. The intervention may also help avoid continued heavy casualties being inflicted upon BAM forces as they engage in a final offensive against the IS. The US has attacked seven targets around Sirte during the last two days including two tanks, military and construction vehicles, a rocket launcher and an excavator according to Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis.
Earlier strikes could have reduced casualties to the BAM forces in their recent offensive and might have led to an earlier defeat of the IS. Intervening now has perhaps less military and more political significance. As a recent tweet puts it: "Monday, I said US airstrikes in Sirte were more diplomatic message than militarily necessry. Misrati fighters concur "
Reactions to the bombings were mixed. Not surprisingly the HoR government condemned the bombings. They see the attacks as a violation of Libya' air space since the HoR government did not give permission for them. However, the HoR government is not officially recognized by the UN or most governments including the US. The HoR has called in the US ambassador — mimicking the GNA's notice to the French ambassador over the French intervention. Until there is agreement on the GNA by the HoR this type of reaction is understandable. In western Libya, the top religious body, the Fatwa House, claimed that the GNA request for the US air strikes was an insult to the revolutionaries fighting to defeat the IS in Sirte: “This request is an insult to the large numbers of martyrs in Sirte and an attempt to save Haftar in Benghazi on the pretext of fighting terrorism. " It is not clear how the air strikes help Haftar. The HoR has also condemned the strikes. The GNA's State Council also supported the strikes.


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