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U.S.-Backed Libyan Forces Take Islamic State Strongholds in Sirte

U.S. special operations assisted by calling in airstrikes.

GettyImages-585743626
GettyImages-585743626

Government-backed Libyan forces fighting the Islamic State in the strategically important coastal city of Sirte said Wednesday they captured the University of Sirte and the Ouagadougou Convention Complex, a location the terror group had been using as a base.

The Libyan forces were assisted by U.S. special operations personnel, who have been inching closer to the front line of the battle for Sirte, a longtime ISIS stronghold in the north African country. Recent reports indicate elite U.S. forces have been calling in airstrikes in support of troops backed by Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord.

"Our forces have complete control of the whole of the Ouagadougou (convention) complex -- they even advanced some distance beyond the complex," Rida Issa, a spokesman in the forces' media office, said Wednesday.

Government-backed Libyan forces fighting the Islamic State in the strategically important coastal city of Sirte said Wednesday they captured the University of Sirte and the Ouagadougou Convention Complex, a location the terror group had been using as a base.

The Libyan forces were assisted by U.S. special operations personnel, who have been inching closer to the front line of the battle for Sirte, a longtime ISIS stronghold in the north African country. Recent reports indicate elite U.S. forces have been calling in airstrikes in support of troops backed by Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord.

“Our forces have complete control of the whole of the Ouagadougou (convention) complex — they even advanced some distance beyond the complex,” Rida Issa, a spokesman in the forces’ media office, said Wednesday.

Taking the center of Sirte marks a rare but significant victory for the forces loyal to the fragile GNA. Earlier this year, U.S. defense officials estimated that there were as many as 6,000 ISIS fighters in Libya, crowded around Sirte, which sits on the country’s Mediterranean coast. Over the past week, those estimates have dwindled to just several hundred.

Libyan forces began their siege of Sirte in May, with the U.S. beginning airstrikes on targets in the city on Aug 1. American drones have since carried out 29 attacks there, according to U.S. Africa Command. U.S. special operators have been seen on the ground near the battle, but are not thought to be directly engaged in the fighting.

Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned that the immediate impact of the gains was likely to be limited — and that the advances could quickly be reversed if Islamic State loyalists weren’t converted or killed, or if basic government services weren’t restored soon.

“The difficulty that you have is you defeat the structure of the Islamic State inside the city, but the fighters and elements of resistance don’t go away,” he told Foreign Policy Wednesday. “You get an ongoing state of urban warfare, and it just lasts and lasts and lasts, because you can’t get to all of the elements involved.”

“You aren’t repatriating people, the city isn’t functioning economically, and there are still no safe transit routes,” he added. “Liberation reports often turn out to be a 24-hour developments and then we’re back to where we were.”

The Sirte gains come as Islamic State casualty figures mount in several countries. General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that Afghan forces and U.S. airstrikes, and American special operations have killed 300 Islamic State members in Nangarhar province over the past few days. Gen. Sean Macfarland, the U.S. commander in Iraq, also said Wednesday that the United States has killed 45,000 ISIS members in Iraq and Syria since August 2014.

Still, Cordesman cautioned, mounting ISIS casualties don’t bring what’s most needed in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq or Syria: stability.

“If you do defeat ISIS, what happens next? It’s very unlikely to be stability,” he said.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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