Almost three months ago, the isolated official government in Libya began an effort to roll back gains from ISIS in the failed state created by the US and its NATO allies after the decapitation of the Moammar Qaddafi regime. ISIS seized the coastal city located just 280 miles from Tripoli last year, and they have made it one of their central strategic positions. The Libyan army began attacking ISIS positions in Sirte in May, a location about halfway between the capital in Tripoli and the free-for-all in Benghazi, but despite initial successes have not been able to push their way into the city itself. The deadlock has frustrated the weak Libyan government:
Today, after getting a desperate plea from Tripoli for an intervention to end the stalemate, the US announced it would start bombing ISIS positions near Sirte. It’s a new front in the war on ISIS:
JUST IN: U.S. begins new military air campaign against ISIS in Libya https://t.co/vZPfhd4NEL
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) August 1, 2016
Fayez Serraj, the head of the U.N.-brokered presidency council, said in a televised statement Monday that American warplanes attacked the IS bastion of Sirte, adding that no U.S. ground forces will be deployed.
“The presidency council, as the general army commander, has made a request for direct U.S. support to carry out specific airstrikes,” he said. “The first strikes started today in positions in Sirte, causing major casualties.”
It’s a new front — but will it be an effective front? The Libyan military barely operates outside of Tripoli at all, and has to rely on local militias as they are in Sirte. Even if US and NATO bombing strikes manage to force ISIS out of Sirte, the likelihood of the Libyans holding that ground afterward seems … slim. Perhaps the demonstration that ISIS’ control is not an inevitably permanent condition might rally Libyans to the cause of the government in Tripoli, but this failed state has a lot more networks of terrorism than it has central-government strength. Even if ISIS retreats, what about some of the other networks in play in eastern and southern Libya?
At least the Obama administration is setting expectations comfortably low by noting that it will take “weeks and even months” of air engagement to make an impact. Just imagine if we had applied that strategy to Ansar al-Sharia and other terror networks in 2011 rather than to the Libyan military and Qaddafi. We might have had a situation in which genuine political change could have taken place in a peaceful manner — but at the very least, we would not have created a failed state in which ISIS could metastasize, and where they could take control of a major Mediterranean port like Sirte. We can thank Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the necessity of cleaning up that mess in this manner now, and it’s almost certain that this won’t work without at least some American ground troops to secure ground.