The battle for Libya's Sirte: residents fear return of Turkish-backed militias

On June 6, a day after capturing the city of Tarhuna, militias affiliated with the Government of National Accord (GNA), the United Nations-recognised interim government based in Tripoli, attempted to enter the city of Sirte. The attack was repelled by the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Benghazi-based Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The GNA is supported by Turkey and Qatar. The LNA is supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia.

Sirte is the heart of Libya’s primary oil producing region, and of great strategic importance for Haftar and the LNA. A visit to Sirte in March of this year revealed a city badly damaged by nearly a decade of battles, but one that appeared to be on the path to recovery. The LNA stationed in the city reported that the security situation was fairly good, and there were a number of active construction sites among the scores of bombed-out buildings. 

Abu Bakr al-Sharqawi, a Sirte resident, said that life in Sirte became more stable and earnest attempts at reconstruction began when the LNA took control of the city from GNA-affiliated militias in January. “Until this year, the militias in Sirte stole the money they were given for reconstruction of the city. And they treated the people here horribly,” he said. “And before they were here, we had ISIS.”

In May 2015, ISIS captured Sirte from the Libya Shield Force, a militia now affiliated with the GNA. Al-Sharqawi fled the city with his family. “When ISIS was coming, we left. We didn’t take anything with us besides the clothes on our bodies,” he said. “I moved to Benghazi and worked as a blogger. It wasn’t safe to even visit Sirte.” 

ISIS controlled Sirte until the GNA, supported by U.S. airstrikes, captured the city in December 2016. Al-Sharqawi returned in 2017. “I came back, but the city was still bad. The militias had control of everything. They took control of the banks, and people stopped receiving their salaries. They took control of Sirte University, and they started to harass female students.” 

Al-Sharqawi said the militias in Sirte would arbitrarily arrest critics. “If someone said something negative of the militias on a blog or on social media, they might be arrested and disappear for months or years. And they weren’t holding people in official prisons. There were secret prisons and torture centres.”

At one point, al-Sharqawi could count 40 different armed groups in the city. “Many of them were extremist groups. Then, more and more, they were controlled by the Misrata militia.” The Misrata militia became so powerful in Sirte that even today, locals often refer to all GNA-affiliated forces as “Misrata.”

“The U.N.’s support for the GNA gives the international community the impression that the GNA is a force of good. But it really just means the U.N. supports terrorism,” al-Sharqawi said. “It’s clear. The U.N. and European countries saw Turkey bring thousands of Syrian terrorists to Libya, and they did nothing to interfere or stop them.”

In April 2019, the LNA launched an offensive with the ultimate goal of capturing Tripoli from the GNA. In November 2019, desperate to reverse the LNA’s gains, the GNA formed a security and military agreement with Ankara to allow Turkey to send military reinforcements to Libya. In December, they began transporting members of the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA), factions of the Syrian opposition funded and controlled by Turkey, to Libya. 

To fuel recruitment, the SNA militants were offered salaries of around $2,000 a month. However, in interviews with more than 30 SNA militants over the course of the last seven months, virtually all reported receiving less than the amount they were promised.

Jawad Homsi*, a member of the Sultan Murad faction of the SNA, said that he’d only received one payment of $1,500 despite having been in Libya for more than three months. “Still, this is more than I would get in Syria,” he said. To supplement their salaries, the SNA men began looting. Homsi said he’s spent more time combing abandoned civilian homes for items to steal than he has fighting. 

Husein Ibrahim*, a member of the Hamza Division faction, says that the SNA militants in Libya are worried about what a Sirte offensive will mean for them. “In June, we went near Sirte during the first attack, and the artillery was falling like rain,” he said. “Sirte is the mother of oil. Egypt, and Bashar [Assad, president of Syria], and Russia, and the LNA…all of them are waiting for us to try to enter Sirte and they will stomp our hearts. All the Syrians here are afraid.”

A Turkish air force officer currently stationed in Libya said he wasn’t the least bit fearful. “Turkey will have victory. In Sirte, then in Jufra, Benghazi and Tobruk. Our dead go to heaven. Their dead go to hell,” he said. 

When these comments were repeated to Husein Ibrahim, he laughed. “That’s easy to say, for him, because there are no Turks fighting with us. The Turks stay in the bases and in hotels. The Syrians are the ones sent out to die,” he said. When asked if he’d personally seen combat while in Libya, the Turkish air force officer declined to answer.

Ibrahim doesn’t know when a new offensive to capture Sirte is likely to begin. “It’s always like this in Libya. We have no idea what is happening until it happens. They don’t tell us anything in advance,” he said. “But we have heard that the new men [from Syria] have different contracts than we had when we joined. Our contracts were for the protection of Tripoli. The new contracts are for Sirte.”

On June 20, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said Sirte was a red line for Egypt, and that if the GNA and Turkey attempted another attack, Egypt would intervene. The GNA’s Defence Ministry said al-Sisi’s threat wasn’t a deterrent and wouldn't prevent a new offensive to capture the city.

In Sirte, Abu Bakr al-Sharqawi waits and worries. “On my salary, I can’t afford to leave again, so I don’t have any choice but to stay. We suffered under the militias for so long. I pray they don’t take control of our city again.”

*an alias