US Airstrikes Polarize Opinion on Ground in Libya

Two major pronouncements were made this week. 1. Misratan forces continued their protracted advance into Sirte as battles supposedly moved into what Banyan Marsus is calling their ‘final stages’. 2. Simultaneously as the fight against ISIS has become less popular for some militia men in Tripoli, non-ISIS jihadis such as the grand mufti are expressing support for ISIS.

In the first development, the GNA affiliated Misratan forces announced on 7 August that the countdown to the end-game against IS in Sirte had officially begun, after a week of US airstrikes has reportedly given significant advantage to these forces, enabling them to take control of the ‘Hay Dollar’. Battles are now concentrated in Hay Al Deyafa and near the ‘Indian flats’ just west of the main IS HQ areas Ouagadougou complex, Sirte Hospital and the University. The Misratan-led Bunyan Marsous operation room is also coordinating Libyan airstrikes against IS locations in the city, via their connections to American targeteers.

US support is also fuelling divides with Misratan ranks between pro-GNA formations and more anti-GNA hard-line militias. These divides may escalate the closer the BM gets to victory in Sirte. Anti GNA sentiment remains high in Misratan ranks, with many fighters rumoured to be actively ready to move against the GNA in Tripoli after victory in Sirte.

In the second development, tensions are flaring between the grand Mufti Sadeq Al Ghariyani and Abdurraouf Kara head of anti-jihadist Al Rada force which is also one of the biggest pro-GNA militias in Tripoli. Ghariyani had accused Kara of using RADA to crack down on BRSC and Benghazi Defense Brigades members in Tripoli. In response, RADA issued a strong statement on 4 August admitting links between the BRSC and IS, and linking BRSC fighters to IS cells inside Tripoli who conducted operations even against Rada itself. RADA reportedly is already holding more than 200 IS operatives in Tripoli in detention. On 3 August, another Tripoli militia was involved in a shooting with a BRSC militiaman in Tripoli who raised the IS flag on his home in Tripoli road. These tensions, which increased after the US airstrikes, indicate that the capital Tripoli is likely to witness heightened instability in the future and possibly even conflict between pro and anti GNA militias, especially if Misratans and Islamist hardliners join ranks again in opposition to the GNA in Tripoli.

The US airstrikes are further polarizing opinion on the ground in Libya and are making strange bedfellows between the Islamists and Haftar who both oppose the airstrikes. It is also being reported that Italy is now offering support to the US operations.

Although the UN-mediated GNA received two significant breakthroughs last week; namely the oil ports deal on 31 July and beginning of US airstrikes against IS targets in Sirte on 1 August, both of these are still failing to translate into strengthened political legitimacy or unity between the opposing Libyan factions. To the contrary, the oil deal seems to be fueling tensions rather than reducing them, with conflict possible between the LNA and Jadhran’s PFG forces in Zeuitina, while US airstrikes seem to have widened the political gap between the various anti-ISIS actors even further.

US airstrikes were also received with different reactions in the country: welcomed by pro-GNA Misratan factions who were grateful at their potential for cutting their large loss of life via US air support.

Ironically however, bitter enemies Grand Mufti Sadeq Al Ghariyani and Khalifa Haftar, both anti-GNA, found themselves in another agreement in denouncing the intervention. Ahmed Mismari, LNA spokesman claimed that the air raid was carried out for US electoral purposes to help Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, insisting that Sirte would be only liberated by the LNA.

For his part, Al Ghariyani, who leads the hardliner Islamist alliance against both Haftar in the east and the Presidency Council in the west, likewise called it illegitimate, edging ever more closer to condoning IS in Sirte. Asked on his Tanasah TV station why international intervention was acceptable in 2011 but not in the fight against IS, he said that NATO help against Qaddafi in 2011 was legitimate because he was not a true Muslim. However, raids now were illegal because what was happing in Libya was a conflict between local people who were all Muslims. The statement has sparked further fury from the wider population at Ghariyani’s claims, as evidence of a closer rapprochement between Islamist militias endorsed by Ghariyani and IS & AS terrorists. Other more moderate Islamists are following Ghariyani’s suit.

Many are now worried about, how ISIS will lash out in response to the Western intervention.  Possibly with an attack on Italy.

Libya-Analysis is the most read independent English-language blog on Libyan affairs. It is run by Jason Pack, founder of and researcher of World History at Cambridge University