New Unity Government in Libya Overly Optimistic in Claiming an Offensive Against ISIS in Sirte

Historian Vijay Prashad says it would be “overly optimistic” to claim that the offense against ISIS in Sirte is undermining its power in Libya.

“I think it’s important to recognize that ISIS is not precisely a territorial group. It doesn’t rely on Sirte. Its fighters have already begun to spread out all over the place. So it’s very hard to say that this particular offensive against Sirte is the end of ISIS in North Africa,” says Prashad.

“Unfortunately beneath the Government of National Accord, there’s still a create deal of discord in Libya,” says Prashad. It “has not yet been able to pull the Libyan people together. And in the middle of this is the war against ISIS.”

Prashad also says that the facts regarding the relationship between international special forces and government forces remain “quite foggy.”

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Libya, just 200 miles from Europe, is home to an estimated 4,000-6,000 ISIS fighters, according to the outgoing commander general of AFRICOM, General David Rodriguez. He said that the number of ISIS fighters in Libya has roughly doubled in the past 12-18 months. ISIS has flourished amid a permanent state of chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. This week, Libya’s recently installed Government of National Accord, or GNA, made a surprisingly rapid advance on the coastal city of Sirte.

Joining me now to talk about all of this is Vijay Prashad. He is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. Vijay, good to have you with us.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks so much.

PERIES: So, Vijay, let’s begin by describing who this UN-backed unity government is, and how is it constituted?

PRASHAD: Well, the UN had struggled for several years to bring together warring parties. In fact, for a time there were two governments in Libya. One government had rooted itself in Tripoli, which is in the West of the country, and the other had basically decamped to the town of Tobruk, or [inaud.] in the east of the country. So the UN worked through a very long process of pressure from regional allies and others to create this Government of National Accord, with Fayez al-Sarraj as the head. He comes from a very distinguished Libyan family, and was seen, in a sense, as a conciliatory figure to head this government.

So either way, this is a major advance, at least for the UN’s agenda, and perhaps toward creating some kind of peace in Libya, stability in Libya. Unfortunately, beneath the Government of National Accord, there is still a great deal of discord in Libya. The stresses of the fragmented country continue. So what we see at the surface, which is this Government of National Accord, has not yet been able to pull the Libyan people together. And in the middle of this, of course, is the major war that it’s in the midst of against ISIS.

PERIES: Vijay, the Independent in London is reporting that the advancements that the unity government forces are having is having an impact, that they are seeing signs of withdrawal of ISIS. Is that so?

PRASHAD: Well, you know, this is a very long, drawn-out process. It’s true that the Government of National Accord has been able to encourage one section of the militias, particularly the militias from Misrata and elsewhere, to band together to go after ISIS. There is, there are many reports that there are other special forces from European countries, perhaps from Britain, on the ground helping them. The fledgling Libyan air force has been providing air support to these fighters moving towards the center of Sirte.

So this is indeed what is happening. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that ISIS is not precisely a territorial group. It doesn’t rely on Sirte. Its fighters have already begun to spread out all over the place. Many of them, at any rate, came from Eastern Libya and from Tunisia. They are not necessarily from Sirte, you know, as native to Sirte. They have come from elsewhere to Sirte. Sirte became their bastion. Now that Sirte is taking heavy fire, they are scattered once more.

So it’s very hard to say that this particular offensive against Sirte is the end of ISIS in North Africa. I think one would be, I think, overly optimistic to say that. And I think even the Libyan government is being very cautious while they are celebrating the advance of this group of militias into Sirte. They are not claiming this as victory.

Meanwhile, of course, they have their own problems in Eastern Libya, where the renegade general Khalifa Haftar is playing his own games in a battle inside Benghazi, a city which was the opening of the rebellion against Gaddafi, but is now essentially wrecked.

PERIES: And who is assisting the unity government forces in Libya? There was some reports that some British journalists were actually surprised that Britain was actually at war in Libya.

PRASHAD: Well, over the course of the last few months there have been reports that special forces troops have been on the ground in Libya assisting the development of something like a proto-Libyan army. You know, it’s a very curious thing. You can call, say, the militias that are fighting now inside Sirte with the Libyan army. On the other hand, of course, their own allegiance may not be to the Government of National Accord. It’s just that they now have a common interest.

But at any rate, it appears that special forces have been on the ground training them, providing some kind of support. The governments of these special forces have not been publicly open about what they’ve been doing, and at the same time, the Government of National Accord in Libya has said that it is the only one on the ground. So things are quite foggy. It’s of course the case that there is some support coming from outside. But I think it should also be emphasized that there are militias on the ground that had previously held Sirte and had been ejected from that city by ISIS, and they are now fighting to reclaim the city.

PERIES: All right. Vijay, I thank you so much for joining us today, and hope to have you back, because I think the situation is going to only intensify in Libya.

PRASHAD: Thanks.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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