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Liberating Sirte from Islamic State

Sirte, a Libyan city on the Mediterranean, on the Gulf of Sidra, has a very deep history and is mentioned, for example, in both John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Virgil’s The Aeneid. Americans may know Sirte because its where, in 2011, former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was captured and killed after the Libyan people, with support from the US, stood up and deposed him.

Today, Sirte is controlled by the Islamic State – IS.

With a population of about 80,000 Sirte is roughly the size of Newton, Massachusetts but in the context of the US population, losing Sirte to IS would be like the United States losing Los Angeles to terrorists.

In response, the Libyan people have once again taken up arms to win liberty and democracy and are fighting to dislodge IS from Sirte and all of Libya.

But unlike the 2011 Libyan revolution, which was conducted with much fanfare and support from the west – and even with United States weapons and soldiers targeting and killing IS fighters in Syria and Iraq – American support for the Libyan fight against IS is absent. Moreover, US policy is actively undercutting the fight.

Libya is in the middle of an ongoing war for control of the country – two governments are vying for power and favorable reconciliation terms. One government (the GNC) is based in the historic and modern capital, Tripoli. The other (the HoR), is farther east, in Tobruk.

The US and Western allies clearly favor the Tobruk (HoR) faction which has asked the international community for access to weapons to fight IS even though it’s GNC military forces which have turned their guns on the Islamic State. Early on, the GNC forces found success. Colonel Mahmoud Zagal, Commander of the GNC forces in the region stated that the first day of fighting saw the liberation of the major Sirte power plant as well as some sections of the city.

But that early optimism stalled. IS fighters took the initiative and, not coincidentally, executed almost sixty young men in public. As if to underscore the point, the US and western quickly condemned the executions but offered not a word of support for those giving their lives to stop them.

Silence is one thing. But by continuing to favor the HoR government, the US is actively supporting military forces which are killing the people killing IS. So, it appears, the enemy of your enemy is your friend everywhere except when it comes to US foreign policy in Libya.

The US silent treatment is not only weakening the fight against IS, it’s opening the door to the very Qaddafi loyalists the US invested in deposing not four year ago.

One example is General Khalifa Haftar (Hifter) who served under Qaddafi and supported his rise to power. Now he is officially in charge of the HoR forces and leading the fight against the GNC. Every inch of ground General Haftar captures for the HoR government not only continues to destabilize Libya, it is a win for the remaining Qaddafi supporters and directly empowers the Islamic State.

It’s true that words of encouragement from the White House are unlikely to determine the outcome on the ground – based on what they’ve said and already done, the GNC and the people of Libya will wage this war regardless of who says what. They believe beating IS is the right thing to do for Libya and the world.

But while this fight continues, it does not feel like too much to ask that the United States consider anyone who fights IS as allies in a cause. Nor does it feel like too much to ask that American leaders say so. It meant a great deal when the US praised the Libyans fighting to remove Qaddafi – which makes the silence in the fight to topple the Islamic State all the more powerful.

What’s really needed is western technical and military support for GNC forces fighting IS – like is being provided elsewhere. But given what the US policy has been to date, that may be too much to expect.

At a minimum, the US could call for a unified show of support for all those in this common fight. Proposing a UN resolution to support the GNC fighters in Sirte would do the trick. So would a few well-chosen words from the President’s Press Secretary or Secretary of State.

Without at least a word of encouragement, Libyans in the fight, and those watching from afar, may be right to wonder how committed the US is to defeating the Islamic State there. Or why the US is supporting a former Qaddafi general in the first place.

They may also wonder how committed the US is to really bringing peace, stability, democracy and the rule of law to Libya. The Islamic State is just as much a threat to those values as Qaddafi was. Having strongly supported a better future for Libya during the 2011 revolution, it’s a strange time for the US to walk away from those who are still fighting for it.