Obama Holds Back the Extra Air Support for Fully Liberating Libyan Sirte
US President Barack Obama early this week rebuffed urgent appeals from the US military, Rome and Paris to ramp up US military input – especially air force support – in a final, decisive push to drive Islamic State forces out of their Libyan stronghold in the port town of Sirte.
US, British, French and Italian special operations troops have been fighting relentlessly to liberate the town for many months, together with Libyan National Accord Government (NGA) loyalist forces and their ally, the 235 militia brigades of Misrata, the most powerful force in the country.
Finally, in early August, they announced they had captured Sirte from ISIS.
Nonetheless, Islamist forces scattered inside and outside the city continued to attack and terrorize the pro-government allies, so delaying the final push to liberate the city until now.
According to previous DEBKA Weekly reporting, while the pro-government offensive did make substantial strides into the city, the jihadists continued to hold onto areas to the south between Sirte and Misrata and Tripoli and to the north, up to the Ras Lanuf oil and refinery city and Benghazi.
Ahead of the combined US-led Libyan offensive to free Sirte, the ISIS planted clandestine networks outside the town for launching a string of terror attacks against the conquerors.
This week, the jihadists pounced on coalition forces on the 150-km stretch of highway between Sirte and Abu Grain outside Misrata.
Last Thursday, Sept. 8, Libyan troops thwarted a suicide attack on a checkpoint outside Misrata, after failing to prevent an ISIS bombing two weeks ago on a Libyan position on outskirts of Sirte – an area liberated months ago
Brig-Gen. Mohammed al-Qhasan, the Sirte Operation spokesman, admitted this week that the final push to recover the town had been delayed until ISIS forces were completely rooted out of its surrounding areas. The US had authorized another 30 days of air strikes, he said, because “although ISIS is confined to one-and-a-half square miles of Sirte, some elements have spread to the peripheries. If we liberate the center now, the residual Daesh fighters remaining on the peripheries will send more suicide vehicles and more IEDs, unless we can secure the whole area.”
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources describe the current situation for Sirte as a military standoff. After months of ferocious combat, the pro-government Libyan army, combined with the special operations forces of four Western countries, has proved unable to shift ISIS out of the Bay of Sudra (Sirte) or capture the city.
The US Operation Odyssey Lighting bombing mission in Libya, launched on Aug. 1, sent US Harrier jets on 124 sorties against ISIS in Sirte and US Cobras on 31 missions. Yet the jihadists are still around and doing their worst.
The Pentagon and French and Italian general commands this week put before President Obama a new plan of operations for crushing the Islamic State in Sirte once and for all. It hinges on a massive aerial blitz by large-scale American air forces from NATO bases in Europe, to be joined by French, British and Italian warplanes.
In some respects this plan resembles the 2011 US operation for the ouster of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi, except that this time it would be confined to aerial bombardment and exclude major naval offshore vessels firing cruise missiles, as they did five years ago.
However, the US president took one look at the plan and rejected it out of hand. He said all American air strength in the Middle East will now be dedicated to conquering Raqqa and Mosul from the Islamic State, with no planes to spare for Libya.
This decision leaves the war against ISIS in Libya up in the air.