By Vijay Prashad
Two major Arab cities fell on Tuesday – Aleppo (Syria) to the Syrian Arab Army and Sirte (Libya) to the militia armies of Misrata. One of the common features of these battles is the sheer destruction of the cities.
Sirte, which was under siege since May, is rubble. Its infrastructure – including hospitals and mosques – is gone. Aleppo’s main bazaar and many of its residential areas have simply been erased. These cities resemble Fallujah (Iraq) after the United States twice razed large parts of it the ground. There is much here that resembles Kobané (Syria) after ISIS had been chased out of this city by US airstrikes and Kurdish militia ground operations. Great cities reduced to ruin. It is as if the Mongol Horde or the Crusades had returned. ‘All cities must be razed,’ said Genghis Khan. His commandment echoes from North Africa to West Asia.
The Syrian Arab Army, as I noted last week, will consolidate its hold on Aleppo before making a gradual pivot eastwards toward Raqqa. It is clear that the government in Damascus wants to move towards that ISIS stronghold before the Iraqis, backed by the West, take Mosul (Iraq). The Syrian government fears – as I am told – that the West, perhaps with Turkish military forces, will turn their attention to Raqqa after Mosul. If the West and the Turks move on Raqqa, it would mean the formal dismemberment of Syria, something that the Damascus government opposes. If there is Turkish military involvement, it would mean the end of any Kurdish ambitions to maintain the Rojava enclave of Kurdistan. The race for Raqqa will come within the year. Mosul – a city with a million people – will take time to conquer. Portents of great devastation are already apparent. For every news story on atrocities in Aleppo, there is one that is not written on what is happening in the march into Mosul.
Meanwhile, celebrations in Libya over the defeat of ISIS in Sirte are premature. ISIS took that city – Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown – in early 2015. Many of the ISIS fighters had fled Syria, where they had gone from Northern Africa to join the Caliphate. The moment the United States began to bomb ISIS targets in Syria, many foreign fighters returned home. They brought with them their commitment to their cause. Some went back to Europe, where a few conducted terror attacks. Others returned to Tunisia and to Libya, where they both conducted terror attacks and helped ISIS seize tracts of territory in both countries. It was these returnees, joining with fraternal extremists from Derna and Benghazi, who marched into Sirte in 2015. Defeats are never merely defeats. When the al-Qaeda’s Mujahideen Shura Council expelled ISIS from Derna (in eastern Libya), these ISIS fighters and activists of the Islamic Youth Shura Council moved towards Sirte. A few ISIS fighters remain in Sirte’s al-Ghiza Bahariya neighborhood. No-one knows how many civilians are held hostage in that area.
Since August, the United States has bombed Sirte 490 times. This was aerial bombardment to assist the Misrata militia. As these aerial attacks and ground forces moved in, ISIS fighters slipped away from the city. This has been the modus operandi of ISIS – not to remain and fight against the odds, but to shift the focus of operations elsewhere. ISIS fighters went back to Benghazi, where the unending battle in that city has now picked up with the increase of these gunmen. They have also fled south, deep into the Libyan Desert to the town of Sabha – the town that links Libya to Algeria, Niger and Mali. It is through the town of Sabha that ISIS and Boko Haram fighters moved back and forth between northern Nigeria and Sirte, and where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has one of its bases. Sabha is a smuggler’s paradise – where human traffickers and arms dealers gather alongside extremists. It is a town ruined, since 2011, into the dangerous trades, a town that is a parking lot for well-used Toyota Hilux trucks. The ISIS fighters have also moved to Sabratha on the coast and to Bani Walid in the west, as well as into the slumlands of Tripoli. What will come out of this dispersion is hard to say. What is important to recognize is that ISIS has not been vanquished with the fall of Sirte.
In fact, the battle for Sirte has already opened up the surface wounds on Libya’s society. The NATO war of 2011 delivered Libya not to one government with a monopoly over violence, but to a chessboard of competing militia groups who have allegiance to regional powers. Politics is merely from the gun. These militia groups were either rooted in their cities, in their tribes or in an extremist world-view. One of the most powerful militia armies was from the city of Misrata. It is the one that has led the fight to remove ISIS from Sirte. As this group made gains in Sirte, it found that other militia groups began to made strides against its presence in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Last weekend, dangerous gunfights took hold of the city. Sections of the Misrata militia had backed the former Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghwell, who had attempted a coup this October, as I reported. That coup failed. But the underlying tensions that provoked it remain. Fierce gun battles between the forces of Abdul Ghani al-Kikli (who is known as Ghneiwa) and those of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Misratan forces wracked the Abu Salim neighborhood. I heard from people who live nearby that it felt like a full-scale invasion – reminding them of the sounds of 2011. It is hard to piece together who is fighting whom, and to understand the objectives of the battle. On its Facebook page, the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades of Haithem Tajouri apologized for the battle, suggesting that it did not want this inevitable conflict. Libyan officials would not say that the fracas in Tripoli is linked to the operation in Sirte.
Along the coastal highway, near the oil installation, more battles are ongoing. The Petroleum Guards of Ibrahim Jadran are once more in open conflict with the military forces of General Khalifa Hafter over the oil installations in Ben Jawad and Nawfaliya. Battles at the oil terminal in Sidra are ongoing. Miftah Magariaf of the Guards says that some extremist groups, perhaps retreating ISIS fighters, have launched rocket attacks on the oil facilities. Expectations that Libya would double its oil output – as mentioned in the recently concluded OPEC meeting – should now be taken with a grain of salt. It was General Hafter’s control of the ports that allowed the Libyan National Oil Chairman Mustafa Sanalla to make this claim. But now with the fight over the oil installations back, it is unlikely that any easy compromise could be found. Jadran’s brother remains an ISIS member. There has long been a fear that Jadran might deliver his Petroleum Guards to the extremists.
The United Nations’ Martin Kobler quite rightly said, ‘It is completely unacceptable for armed groups to fight to assert their interest and control, particularly in residential areas, terrorizing the population.’ Of course, this statement was not made in 2011, when the NATO countries egged on these very armed groups to do exactly that – fight in residential areas and terrorize the population. Many of the most extreme militia groups – those who pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and to ISIS – had received arms from Qatar and the United States. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was later killed in Benghazi, was the US liaison with the Libyan rebels, including these extremist groups. Arms dealers such as Marc Turi provided a ‘zero footprint’ for the United States, so that these extremists could get weapons but not directly from the US government. In Benghazi, there were reports that the CIA directly provided arms to various groups, including extremists. It is these very people now who are emboldened in Libya, and continue to wreck that country.
During the Republican primary, Senator Ted Cruz said he’d like to ‘carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion, testing if sand can glow in the dark.’ The sands of North Africa are already glowing in the dark. Its people shudder for the future.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.