Why did the US decide to provide air support for Libyan offensive against ISIS in Sirte?

On August 1st, the Obama administration announced that Operation Odyssey Lightning had begun, a series of air strikes against the remnants of the Islamic State, or Daesh, surrounded in a confined area of their former stronghold Sirte.

The strikes were coordinated with a ground assault by the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous (Solid Structure or BAM) forces loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The U.S. has carried out targeted air strikes in the past and also has a few special forces working with BAM, but also in Benghazi with the rival government and forces led by General Khalifa Haftar — who has so far rejected the GNA and refused to join its armed forces under the command of the GNA Presidential Council (PC).
The official reasoning for the strikes is given in a government release of a statement by Pentagon Press Secretary, Peter Cook. The aim was to help the BAM forces to defeat the IS in Sirte. The strikes were recommended by Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman Dunford. Cook claims that the strikes were consistent with US policy of working with capable and motivated local forces against the IS. The statement notes that BAM forces have already made significant advances against the IS and the air strikes will enable BAM forces to "make a decisive strategic advance". The statement concludes:The U.S. stands with the international community in supporting the GNA as it strives to restore stability and security to Libya. These actions and those we have taken previously will help deny ISIL a safe haven in Libya from which it could attack the United States and our allies.
Given that the BAM forces have the IS forces surrounded and would in time defeat them without help, the timing of the bombings is a bit strange. Why did the US not help BAM from the first when it could have been very helpful to the GNA and have meant less casualties? The GNA no doubt was concerned that asking the US at that time could have resulted in a backlash over overt foreign interference. The GNA is already often criticized at being a creation of, and beholden to foreign interests. However, recently the French have been discovered as supporting the rival House of Representatives (HoR) government and its forces under General Haftar. Three French agents were killed when a helicopter crashed or was shot down while on a reconnaissance mission for Haftar. The GNA may have wanted to show that it too can gain international support.
The raids were condemned by the HoR and Haftar even though they are proponents of the war on terror. Haftar had announced that he was marching to liberate Sirte but took no part in the offensive. The Grand Mufti has joined his opponent Haftar in also condemning the attacks as unacceptable interference in Libyan affairs. Areligious body also condemned the attacks, as reported by the Libyan Observer:The country’s top religious body has totally refused the call for foreign intervention. The Fatwa House said in a statement on Tuesday that the request of the Presidential Council aims to steal the efforts of the revolutionaries and their sacrifices in Sirte front lines.
“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,” the statement reads, calling on all concerned parties to bear their responsibilities and reject this intervention.
The BAM forces themselves approved the attacks but wished they had begun sooner. The BAM forces have been virtually stalled for some time and have faced heavy losses from the determined resistance of the few remaining IS fighters. They face snipers, IED's and suicide attacks. It is not surprising that they should welcome help from whatever quarters.
An article in the Atlantic, by Dominic Tierney, editor of Atlantic and Associate Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, notes that the US attacks represent a considerable escalation of US involvement in the conflict and in particular it involves publicly choosing to support one side, the GNA, militarily. However, the article argues that the bombing operation is very much evidence of the short-term thinking and lack of long term plans, which characterized the earlier intervention which overthrew Gadaffi.
Tierney remarks that Obama seeks to use force to degrade the IS, but avoids getting into wars using large numbers of boots on the ground that can result in casualties that cause political problems. The articlenotes:The current air campaign in Libya exhibits all the hallmarks of Obama’s way of war: the careful and calibrated use of force, the reliance on air power rather than ground troops, the coordination with local allies — in this case, the GNA, which requested the anti-ISIS strikes.
While the policy may be successful, in the short term there is no clear plan for an endgame. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said about US policy in the Middle East that the US was basically playing out its tactics day by day. U.S. Marine Lt. General Thomas Waldhauser, when asked about US policy in Libya said: “I am not aware of any overall grand strategy at this point.”
Perhaps, as the article suggests Obama does not want to plan too far ahead in Libya as he could be drawn into more involvement than he wants, perhaps even into "nation building". Obama also must realize that he soon will not be president and may leave it to the next president to make plans for the future. Yet without a long term plan there is not likely to be a durable success in Libya. The bombing campaign is for only 30 days. The GNA still lacks power within the country and has been unable to create a truly national unified government including the HoR and General Haftar. While all of this may be true, the US may be reluctant to commit itself to a much greater degree of intervention since it is uncertain of what the results would be. Perhaps, the US policy makes sense and is based upon a realization that even great powers may not be able to control events in the manner they wish with long term plans.
In a world where it is not easy to control events it may make sense to hedge ones bets and be cautious in any intervention. Tierney writes:France, Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy have all backed the GNA as the recognized government in Libya. But Western governments seem to be hedging their bets. In July, three French special operations troops died in a helicopter accident near Benghazi, after working on an intelligence mission alongside House of Representatives forces. The international community must send a consistent message about which Libyan groups are considered legitimate.The members of the international community do not have all the same aims. Russia, Egypt, the UAE and likely France support Haftar and the HoR while all also express support for the GNA. Even the UK and US have special forces in Benghazi supporting the HoR and Haftar.
Tierney is certainly correct that the Obama move may set a precedent to supporting the GNA in the future and defeating the IS does not "finish the job" but perhaps it is wrong to think in the first place that there is such a thing a finishing the job. It implies at type of imperialist thinking that is itself part of the problem that the U.S. faces.
Russian reaction to the bombing has been negative, as it shows clear military support for the GNA while Russia supports Haftar and the HoR and gives only lip-service to the GNA. A Russian interviewwith Yuri Zinin of the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations points out the bombing was not authorized by the UN. Zinin suggests that Obama wants to improve his image at the end of his presidency. and notes that the request for the bombing came from the GNA. However, the GNA is very weak and has been unsuccessful so far at creating a unified and stable government. In response to the question 'what can the U.S. do in Lbya?' Zinin replies:"I do not know the answer to this question. When Sarraj said that he had asked the Americans for help, all others stood in opposition to him. They could not understand how it was at all possible to ask the Americans to bomb Libya at the time when the country is disintegrated and the government is illegitimate. This is total chaos. There is no centralized power, and the reconciliation process hardly brings any results."This is simply wrong on several accounts. It is the type of answer you would expect from a Haftar supporter. All others did not stand in opposition to Serraj when he asked the US for help. The GNA Presidency Council support him and the State Council as well. So do the BAM forces as well as many others. The GNA is called illegitimate but is recognized by the UN and most countries as the sole legitimate government of Libya.


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