US Launches Sustained Military Campaign in Libya

Libya (SCF) – The US launched a sustained campaign against the Islamic State militant group (IS) in Libya on August 1. President Obama authorized a 30-day mission for the US military to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State terror group in Libya as new strikes were unleashed the next day.

The decision to authorize the operation was taken by Obama after a request from the newly formed Western-backed unity government, known as Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and headed by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj. During a news conference, President Obama said,the airstrikes were critical for helping Libya’s fragile United Nations-backed government to drive Islamic State militants out of Sirte, which the group has controlled since June 2015.

US officials said, this one marked the start of a sustained air campaign, not isolated actions. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters the US military reserved the right to conduct counterterrorism strikes elsewhere in the country as the US military did in November and February.

The US amphibious assault ship Wasp, carrying an element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, is standing by in the vicinity of Libya, sources said.

That includes AV-8B Harrier attack jets striking IS positions in Sirte since August 2. Marine Cobra attack helicopters, Harrier jets and CH-53 transport helicopters are aboard the ship to take Marines ashore should a landing operation be needed. USS Wasp is set to remain off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea for the next month along with an escort ship, the guided-missile destroyer USS Carney capable of strategic land strike mission with its Tomahawk missiles.

The start of an ongoing campaign gives the US military a more prominent role in war-torn Libya and open a new front less than six months before President Obama leaves office. Libya is now the fourth country – including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – in which the US military is targeting Islamic State militants from the air in support of foreign ground forces.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni has said, his government would evaluate any US request to allow use of the Sigonella base in the airstrike campaign.

The air strikes are delivered responding to the UN-backed government’s request to help push the militants from their former stronghold of Sirte. Each strike is to be coordinated with the GNA and receive the approval of the head of US Africa Command, Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser.

The attacks are part of a comprehensive series of operations planned and controlled by US African Command– AFRICOM. The first element of this three-phase plan is Operation Odyssey Resolve, consisting of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights designed to counter violent extremism in Libya. The second phase, Operation Junction Serpent, provided targeting information. The third element, Operation Odyssey Lightning, the operation that began on August 1, includes strike aircraft hitting those targets.

Although it does not include the use of ground troops beyond small special forces squads rotating in and out of Libya and drones collecting intelligence, the air campaign opens a new front in the war against the IS. The White House said, US assistance to Libya would be limited to air strikes and information sharing. In the past few months, the United States has beefed up surveillance of IS in Libya, most likely in preparation for air strikes. In the meantime, US special operations forces (SOF) have been stationed at two outposts in the country. SOF teams from other countries have also been deployed. Last month France said three of its soldiers had been killed south of the eastern city of Benghazi, where they had been conducting intelligence operations.British SOF have been fighting alongside the Misrata Brigades against the IS. The Jordanian military has also joined the fight.

The forces allied with the government headed by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, mainly composed of militia from the western city of Misrata, have been battling the Islamic State in Sirte since May, but their progress was slowed by snipers, mines and booby-traps. Libyan fighter jets have frequently bombed Sirte, but they lack the weapons and technology to make precision strikes. Today the militants are besieged in a few square kilometers of the center, where they hold strategic sites, including the Ouagadougou conference hall, the central hospital and the university.

Despite the fact that the US attacked IS targets at the request of the GNA, many Libyans view the attacks as a foreign intervention. The government is still not recognized as a legitimate government by many powerful eastern tribes. Mr Serraj has yet to make peace with the two rival governments that control substantial parts of Libya. The most powerful force since 2014 has been the General National Congress, which includes numerous militias. It opposes the harsh ideology of Islamic State, but also opposes Serraj’s efforts to unite Libya under his authority. Another powerful group, the self-declared National Salvation Government, is based in Tobruk and includes members of the House of Representatives. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls that faction, has signaled that he is not in favor of outside nations meddling in Libyan affairs.

Russia and Egypt have indicated that they will not support arming new government forces until the parliament in Tobruk is brought back to Tripoli as the national legislative body. Russia’s special relationship with General Khalifa Haftar, who has visited Moscow on a number of occasions, is an important factor. It strengthens its role as a mediator between Libyan factions.

Image Source: Surian Soosay, Flickr, Creative Commons Opposition Commander in Misurata, Lib

Image Source: Surian Soosay, Flickr, Creative Commons
Opposition Commander in Misurata, Lib

In a way, the very need for intervention in Libya is a result of the 2011 NATO operation going beyond the UN resolution by picking sides in the Libya conflict and openly backing the opposition – the action that caused chaos and power vacuum in the country. Obama himself admitted in April that “failing to plan for the day after” the overthrow of Gaddafi was the worst mistake of his presidency.

Critics of US military strategy have long-warned that the 2011 intervention would create a power vacuum and inevitably pave the way for an entity, such as the IS, to gain control. All recent military interventions led by the USA have failed, Libya included. Serbia lost its territory with Kosovo becoming a crime affected area, Iraq is divided and extremely unstable, the Iraqi Kurdistan has actually become a separate state, Afghanistan is the place where the Taliban controls a large part of the land.

Guardiancolumnist Trevor Timm predicts that the expanded bombing campaign will only continue the War on Terror Circle of Life, “where the US bombs a country and then funnels weapons into the region, which leads to chaos and the opportunity for terrorist organizations, which then leads more US bombing.”

The United States launched the intervention in Libya at the very same time it called on Russia and the Syrian government to roll back their military operations against Syrian armed opposition groups in Aleppo. US officials say, Syria and Russia have established humanitarian corridors to launch a military offensive.They point out, moreover, that with momentum in the war on the side of Syria and Russia, capturing the biggest remaining rebel stronghold in Aleppo would provide them with a potentially decisive victory. US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that the Russian operation might be a “ruse”, and if it is, that would destroy his ongoing efforts to negotiate a cease-fire and path towards Syrian peace with Russia in his last months in office.

It is critical, obviously, that Russia restrain both itself and the Assad regime from conducting offensive operations,” the Secretary emphasized.

Russia has ruled out any plans to launch an offensive and underscored that its goal in the region was confined to conducting a humanitarian operation only.

At that, if the US can strike the IS in Libya upon the request of the country’s government, there is no reason why Russia cannot act in Aleppo if its activities are coordinated with the Syrian government. The situation in Aleppo is aggravated as a result of US failure to comply with its obligation and make militants split off from the extremist group al-Nusra. US-backed groups keep on breaching the ceasefire agreement in Syria shifting the blame on al-Nusra. That’s the gist of the problem.

In Libya, a UN-supported international operation would have been much more efficient than unilateral actions undertaken by the US. Libya is the place where Russia and the West could join forces and cooperate in the fight against the common enemy.


This report prepared by Peter Korzun for Strategic Culture Foundation.