BIN JAWAD/AL-SIDR, Libya—The first artillery rounds landed just as the setting sun threw shadows on this barren stretch of coast. Atop an earthen observation berm, a young fighter in an oversize flak vest peered through a makeshift periscope. Six miles away was the prize: white storage tanks filled with oil.
Over the walkie-talkie came a hurried voice: “Saadun, Saadun, the bird is here, the bird is here!” Saadun was the codename for a portly commander in the Libya Dawn militia and my escort on the frontline when I visited Libya in January. His men—boys, actually—had teased him earlier for struggling to haul his hefty frame up the berm.
The bird was a MiG-21 or MiG-23 fighter-bomber belonging to the rival Dignity forces. An overhead roar gave way to crackling flashes across a cloudless sky—flak from anti-aircraft guns. The MiG dropped its bomb about a mile away. It was the second and final airstrike of the day. Like the other, it did no damage.
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This is the battle for Libya’s two largest oil ports at the towns of al-Sidr and Ras Lanuf. It is but one front of a complex and largely forgotten civil war that, since May of last year, has devastated the country. The fighting has opened deep fissures that regional powers and transnational jihadists like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are exploiting. Over 2,500 people have been killed since last summer. In the grim accounting of the wars in Syria and Iraq, this may seem a paltry figure by comparison. But Libya’s population is three and a half times smaller than Syria’s, and more than five times smaller than Iraq’s. And the war’s persistence is affecting not just Libyans but the security of surrounding African and, increasingly, European nations. “We should have no illusion on the fact that we can stay away from Libya. Libya will not stay away from us,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, said recently.