Another “but,” this time in Libya

So there’s also some good news today in Libya (I know, it’s a weird day):

Forces aligned with Libya’s unity government battled Islamic State (IS) on Thursday in the militant group’s stronghold of Sirte, but faced resistance from snipers as they edged towards the city center.

Brigades mainly composed of fighters from the western city of Misrata have advanced rapidly, driving the militants back along the coastal road west of Sirte before seizing strategic points on the edge of the city.

A separate militia that controls terminals in Libya’s oil crescent, the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), said it had advanced further from the east to reach the town of Harawa, about 70 km (44 miles) east of Sirte.

If the advances are sustained, they could dislodge IS from its most important base outside the Middle East and provide a boost to the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

A GNA military spokesman said they expect to have control of Sirte in “days, not weeks,” and there’s no way that would be anything other than serious bad news for ISIS. Sirte is their strongest base of operations outside of Syria and Iraq, the place they’d targeted as their safety valve in case things went completely off the rails in their main home base (which, in many respects, they are). Losing it would be a big blow.

And now for the “but”: if the GNA does successfully take Sirte, there’s a chance that it will only precipitate a shooting war between their forces and the forces loyal (at least nominally) to the other Libyan government, the one based in Tobruk. Their commander, Khalifa Haftar, seems to have been planning a move on Sirte but opted to sit back and see what happened when the GNA forces advanced on the city. Haftar reportedly believes (not unreasonably) that the GNA, should it manage to gain control over all of Libya, would drum him out of his command (again, not unreasonably), and so he’s been unwilling to merge his army with the GNA’s. At some point that tension is going to have to be resolved, either by negotiation or…well, you can probably figure it out.

If Haftar v. GNA turns violent, beginning yet another phase in Libya’s five-plus year long civil war, that would threaten to undo the good that capturing Sirte would accomplish. Because while capturing Sirte is a necessary condition to getting ISIS out of Libya, it is not a sufficient one; only the advent of a single stable Libyan government can finally eliminate the chaos that allowed ISIS to get a foothold there in the first place. More civil war would obviously mean more chaos, not less.


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