Sunday, November 20, 2016

ISIS all but eliminated from their Libyan stronghold in Sirte, but the threat remains.

A Libyan fighter takes cover during the battle against ISIS in Sirte. Reuters. 

The Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Libya as they only control one square kilometer in their former base of operations in Sirte. Reuters. No quarter is offered or expected in a brutal battle that has lasted since last May. ISIS fighters and Libyan soldiers and militiamen fight close enough to throw insults at each other and ISIS fighters are fighting to the bitter end. The few surviving ISIS fighters have inflicted heavy casualties on the Libyan forces fighting against them, killing as many as 660 and wounding 3000 more. And even when the last fighters are cleared out of Sirte, the threat to Libya remains as hundreds of fighters were able to escape before the military was able to take control of the city. These fighters are now launching raids and terror attacks against the Libyan's rear areas. ISIS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi has called for new Jihadist recruits to travel to Libya to join the fight. There is also fear that the Libya's two rival governments will pick up fighting after the last holdouts in Sirte are killed. 

My Comment:
Sirte and Libya have largely fallen off the radar, overshadowed by bigger battles in Iraq and Syria. The local government there has declared victory in the battle several times already, but it's clear to me that the battle will continue as long as at least one of these ISIS fighters still draws breath. ISIS has held out well here, despite overwhelming odds and US air support. 

Part of the problem is that the people fighting ISIS aren't really professionals. Many of them are local militiamen, poorly trained and under immense pressure. I recently posted an excellent piece of journalism from RT showing how intense the battle is. That video showed how amateurish and unprepared the Libyan fighters are. Given that most of them are just guys that picked up rifles, either during the revolution against Qadaffi, or during the recent civil war, they deserve credit for doing as well as they have, but it's clear that their lack of expertise is what is prolonging this battle. A more professional army with better weapons would probably have won this battle by now. 

I have to admit, that these ISIS fighters are being pretty brave. Don't get me wrong, I despise ISIS and I hope every single one of the fighters currently fighting in Sirte dies, but it takes courage to fight under these conditions. It's a pity that they are showing such courage in service to such an evil cause. Either way though, these men are going to fight to the end. 

The battle for Sirte is an ominous warning for the battle of Mosul in Iraq. Currently Iraqi forces are engaged with heavy fighting and ISIS hasn't been surrounded yet. When that happens though, expect the battle for Mosul to end up the same way as Sirte did. Some ISIS fighters will escape, but those that do not will fight and fight hard. They know that their is no mercy to be had for them and they will fight like hell. Plus, unlike Sirte, Mosul is still full of thousands of civilians, many of whom are going to be caught in the crossfire. 

Indeed, brutal close range fighting in urban areas might be the norm for awhile. ISIS still controls several major cities and city fighting is nothing if not horrible. I am guessing that each of these battles, Mosul, Raqqa, Dier Ez Zor, and Tal Afar will be just as bloody and excruciating as Sirte was. Once those cities are liberated, ISIS will continue to fight, but they will probably morph into a more traditional terrorist group, launching raids and terror attacks as opposed to taking and holding territory.

No matter what though, it looks certain that Sirte will fall. It may take a while to clear out the holdouts, but it will happen eventually. What happens to ISIS in Libya then? I agree that it isn't the end of the line for ISIS in Libya. They still have a couple hundred fighters that escaped the battle and there is even a tiny chance that a few might escape from the Sirte pocket. Those survivors will try and regroup and reorganize and will probably eventually emerge again, either in Sirte again, or somewhere else where their enemies are vulnerable. Either that or they go underground and revert back into a terror organization. 

There are also more terrorist flowing into Libya. Border security isn't really something that exists in Libya and I am guessing it's not that hard to get into considering how many miles of coast and border that would have to be covered. With the route to Syria and Iraq largely cut off, Libya might make a much easier and more attractive destination for terrorists, especially those that are from North Africa and Europe. 

And it's not like their is any unity in the country right now. Libya has two government and also has several other factions that control large swaths of the country. ISIS isn't even the only Jihadist faction in the country, and all of these factions mostly hate each other. The fear is that when these other factions start fighting each other again in earnest, that will leave a new opportunity for ISIS to rise from the ashes. That is how they gained control of Sirte and several other cites in Libya in the first place.  

Still, the destruction of ISIS's main stronghold in Libya has broken their back. There was a great fear that ISIS would use Libya as a backup plan after their territory in Syria and Iraq was liberated. That is still a possibility, but it is looking quite a bit less attractive then it did before. When Sirte is finally completely liberated it will be a major victory for anyone and everyone opposed to ISIS. 

There are other candidates for a backup base for ISIS though, some of which are closer than Libya. ISIS is active and holds territory in both Eygpt and Yemen, and they have been expanding in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. If we do end up kicking ISIS out of Iraq and Syria, that means that the threat will still remain. 

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