Despite earlier reports that it has stopped bombing in Sirte, the United States on Monday renewed authorisation to continue air strikes against Islamic State at Sirte, after a three-month blitz failed to finally propel the Government of National Accord’s Bunyan Marsous forces to victory against the so-called Islamic State (IS).
A final round of strikes against Sirte was unleashed by attack helicopters on October 31, after which the Pentagon briefly contemplated suspending the campaign. But ground forces continued struggling to push IS fighters out of their final bastions in the shattered town, and US planners have decided the bombing must continue.
“We are prepared to continue support, including air strikes for the GNA,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said. “There is still a fight going on in this one particular neighbourhood. There’s a small group of [IS] fighters who remain.”
America’s air campaign against IS has been conducted with the lowest media footprint.
One has to navigate carefully through the website of Africom, the US Africa command based in Stuttgart, which is conducting it, to find the latest information. Contrast that with the front-and-centre coverage of the bombing of IS in Syria and Iraq provided by America’s Centcom command, and there is a sense of America’s diffidence over the whole Sirte operation.
This diffidence is understandable: In the US, Libya has loomed large as a stick for Republicans to batter Hilary Clinton in the election run-in. The more America trumpets operations in Libya, the more the Obama administration risks drawing the focus back to what the president admitted in February was his “greatest foreign policy mistake” – the lack of follow up by Washington after NATO bombs helped in the defeat Qaddafi in 2011.
The battle for Sirte began in May, when IS units in Qaddafi’s former hometown, controlling 160 kilometres of their self-declared emirate along the central coast, pushed west, capturing the strategic traffic junction of Abu Grein from Misrata militia.
Misrata quickly struck back. With the creation of the Misratan-led Bunyan Marsous Operations Room, it quickly recaptured Abu Grein, than hurled eastwards, rolling up the most of the “emirate” in days and arriving in the Sirte outskirts.
This was not the plan Western powers had in mind. Crushing IS was – along with tackling migrant smuggling – one of the reasons the West did so much to help construct the Government of National Accord.
The GNA, hampered by almost zero popular support, finally made it to Tripoli in March and the plan among its Western backers was to support its militias in an operation against IS later this year.
Italian and British military trainers were to mould a mostly-Misratan militia force into a new army in Tripoli, and in June a partial lifting of the arms embargo was supposed to give that army more advanced equipment.
Instead, Misratan units were carried by their own momentum into the tight streets of Sirte by the end of May, and into a bloody battle.
Military planners know urban fighting is the hardest form of fighting there is. “Fighting in a Built-Up Area” or FIBUA is a nightmare for any army, because units are compressed into narrow streets, the power of tanks and artillery neutralised. Simply put, all the advantages lie with the defender.
At Sirte, the battle was reaching stalemate by mid-July. Misratan and allied militias continued battering at IS positions, but could not get the gigantic Ouagadougou conference centre, a massive fortified bastion.
Courage is not in short supply among Bunyan Marsous forces, but lack of training, coordination and modern weaponry are big handicaps. Returning veterans say that while IS now holds only one district in the town, its fighters are able to infiltrate through cracks in the cordon to battle in two other districts.
Misratan units have sketchy training. Veterans say that coordination is often lacking, and units are poor at ensuring each one has a joined-up front with its neighbouring units, allowing IS fighters to slip between them.
And then there is the problem of facing a fanatical enemy. There is no easy answer to an enemy willing to put fighters into cars packed with explosives and sortie out of side-streets to detonate.
Hence the US strikes.
The Pentagon was loath to join in the Sirte campaign, with America already fully engaged in Syria and Iraq. But on August 1, planners decided they had no choice. An assault ship, USS Wasp, moved to the coast and began launching strikes with Sea Harriers, drones and attack helicopters.
An accompanying frigate, USS Carney, moved inshore on some nights to fire flares over the city, both to give militiamen “eyes” on IS positions and disrupt the IS fighters themselves, forcing them to stay awake.
The bombing quickly smashed the few IS tanks and armoured vehicles, and provided the impetus to hammer a path for Misrata fighters to capture the Ouagadougou centre.
At the end of September the strikes were extended by US President Obama for two more months, and those strikes rose in intensity. The Africom website lists 367 strikes in the three months since 1 August but that tells only half the story. Closer examination of the strike returns shows that many “strikes” – best understood as sorties – involve multiple strikes, with up to eight or nine separate targets struck.
Some strikes are deep – Harriers drop powerful bombs on grad rockets, headquarters and weapons-storage areas, while helicopters are more often used to hit front-line IS positions with rockets and Gatling guns – a machine gun firing shellls rather than bullets. Strikes are guided in by intelligence reportedly provided by US and British special forces on the ground.
In October USS Wasp and its Harriers departed, to be replaced by USS San Antonio, which is in fact a naval support ship, with a deck able to hold helicopters.
Those helicopters are Sea Cobras, based on a 1960s airframe that saw service in Vietnam. Yet despite its age, the Cobra is a weapons system well suited to the demands of Sirte. It can linger – most often offshore, at night, invisible and out of earshot – like a platform in the air, waiting to hit IS units when they present themselves.
Three months of strikes have been devastating; on the final day of strikes on October 31 there were 33 hits on fighting positions, car bombs, an armament storage base and two control posts.
As Misratans advance through the rubble they have discovered the networks of tunnels that allow IS to both survive the bombing and move unobserved around their shrinking perimeter.
This reality means that, while territory is important, the battle of Sirte is essentially one of attrition. A single sniper can deny Bunyan Marsous a whole street, and with many possible firing positions, the only way of moving that sniper is to kill him. And the Misratans, lacking much in the way of artillery, need air strikes to smash IS out of their redoubts.
The Pentagon remains anxious to underline its victories in Libya, as in Syria and Iraq, which have seen IS pegged back by waves of air strikes.
“It was not too long ago that ISIL (IS) controlled Sirte. And that has changed. That has changed because of the work of the GNA-aligned forces and the support that we’ve been able to provide from the air,” Cook said.
How many fighters IS still has is anyone’s guess. Earlier in the year the Pentagon estimated the number at between 5,000 and 6,000. More recently, planners have said their numbers are in the hundreds.
The more baffling question, for both Bunyan Marsous commanders and US planners, is why IS keeps fighting. Its adventure in Libya has been a strategic failure, because Libya’s population has ignored the IS appeal. Most of its fighters are foreigners, including Tunisians and volunteers from sub-Saharan Africa, and though the battle for Sirte grinds on, defeat is not in doubt.
But the battle has seen high losses. The Bunyan Marsous forces have lost at least 560 fighters killed and more than 2,400 wounded, more than half the total casualties during the town’s eight-month war for survival against Qaddafi in 2011.
For now, that battle will continue, a shadowy adjunct to the massive struggles waged in Syria and Iraq, with America and Libyan forces in partnership in one of the few things both agree on – the need to eliminate IS from North Africa.