A single air strike by a US Marine Corps Harrier jets hammered Islamic State targets in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte Wednesday, shortly after a 30-day aerial mission was authorized on Tuesday, Aug 2 by President Barack Obama.
The jets were launched from the Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, which too is set to remain off the Libyan Mediterranean coast for the next month, along with its escort, the guided-missile destroyer USS Carney.
Speaking at the White House, Obama explained that he had responded to the “request of [the Libyan] government, after they had already made significant progress against ISIL and had essentially pushed ISIL into a very confined area in and around Sirte…”
“This is a finite period of time and a very finite mission,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters. “We don’t envision this as being something that’s going to be too long in duration,” he added.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and counterterrorism sources find these public declarations from Washington as wide of the mark. There is every indication that, having renewed its aerial campaign in Libya, after a five-year pause from 2011, Washington will be obliged to carry on for longer than the 30 days authorized and expand its air strikes to have any hope of making headway.
However this war is being conducted under five familiar constraints:
- Like in Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration will hold US bombardments in Libya down to a minimum and therefore be short of the fire power necessary to fully defeat ISIS ground forces.
- The USS Wasp is not an aircraft carrier carrying dozens of bombers capable of around-the-clock operations. It is a US Navy multipurpose amphibious assault ship, which carries only six AV-8B Harrier II airplanes and 14 helicopters. This level of air power is too small to cover the broad spaces that ISIS controls in Sirte and its surrounding area.
- The main strength of the USS Wasp is its ability to carry 2,200 Marines and land them on shore. But the participants on both sides of the battle for Sirte know that Obama will never authorize the landing on Libyan soil of a US ground force of this size. Aware of this, the morale of ISIS fighters will not be much affected by the pinprick air strikes.
- The ISIS-controlled area around Sirte is larger than the “very confined area in and around Sirte” described by the US president. It encompasses some 200km east and 200km west of the city. Not all of it is ruled by ISIS; parts are held by rival Libyan militias; and some of the main roads are under the control of the Italian, French, British and US special forces operating covertly in these areas.
But these forces lost much of their operational capabilities in the third week of July, when the death of three French commandos broke their cover, triggering demonstrations in the Libyan cities and boosting the popularity of the pro-ISIS Muslim militias and the opposition Government of National Accord-GNA.
- The small-scale US air strikes are also directed against small targets. For example, two Super Cobra helicopters launched from the USS Wasp used their AGM-114 Hellfire missiles to destroy some ground vehicles and two T-72 tanks. Attacks of this scale are only of limited use. In no way can they determine the battle for Sirte and certainly not the war for uprooting ISIS’ grip on Libya.