File picture shows fighting near Sirte. The GNA forces have been gathering personnel for weeks near the city. Image Credit: REUTERS

Abu Dhabi: As the battle for Sirte is looming between the forces of the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), with possible support from the Egyptian army, the position of the United States is pivotal in terms of launching or avoiding the battle.

Despite the criticisms levelled at the US administration regarding what is described as “turning a blind eye” to Turkish military engagement in Libya, their recent official statements suggest tendency to stop the upcoming battle by stressing their refusal to “offensive” fighting, and the return of the Libyan-Libyan dialogue.

US political and military officials answered questions from Asharq Al Awsat on their Libyan policy. But they were determined not to address the Turkish role specifically, but only referring to it through general talk about all external parties that interfere in Libya.

Sirte and Al Juffra battle

The GNA forces have been gathering personnel for weeks, in preparation to move east of the city of Misrata towards the coastal city of Sirte and Al Juffra, approximately 270km south of Sirte. These deployments came in the wake of the GNA forces’, backed by Turkish air force and thousands of Syrian mercenaries, control of the entire western region after the national army had to withdraw from it.

After completing control of the western regions, the GNA forces moved quickly, taking advantage of the setbacks of the national army, and tried to advance towards Sirte, and took control of its power station (30km west of the city). But its attack failed after it was subjected to air strikes, reportedly killing dozens of people from Misrata, which is the spearhead of the GNA forces and a main source of Islamists supported by Turkey.

Who bombed?

It is not entirely clear. The Libyan National Army says its air force is carrying out the missions required of it, including providing air cover to protect Sirte. But other reports say that it is the pilots of the Russian “Wagner” group.

According to the American Command for Africa (Africom), warplanes belonging to this Russian group participate in the combat operations currently taking place near Sirte (where the huge air base of Qardabiye is located), as well as Al Juffra, where another huge base is located between Wudan and Hoon in the Libyan desert.

Africom recently distributed pictures confirming that at least 14 MiG-29 and Sukhoi 24 warplanes arrived in Libya, from Russia via Syria, where they were repainted to “hide” the truth of their source.

A spokeswoman for Africom told Asharq Al Awsat that the American leadership “does not currently have evidence that Russian aircraft in Libya are flying (pilots from) the Russian armed forces”.

But there is concern that Russian planes are being driven by inexperienced mercenaries to do the job.

“Africom can confirm that there are about 2,000 people working for (Wagner) in Libya,” she added.

But the spokeswoman declined to say whether Africom believed that the Wagner Group could deploy in Libya, if it had not received approval from the highest authority in the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed repeatedly that his country’s government does not interfere in Libya, noting that if there are Russian citizens already, they do not represent his government.

What does Russia want?

The US recently warned repeatedly against allowing Russia to establish a base in Libya, considering it a potential threat to the security of Nato. Russia “continues to press for a strategic foothold on the southern flank of Nato, and this comes at the expense of innocent Libyan lives”, said Marine Corps Brigadier-General Bradford Gering, director of operations for Africom.

And if Russia sets up a base on the Libyan coast, it will be the second base on the Mediterranean after Tartous in Syria, and it will be able to deploy a long-range missile system in a “strategic location close to Europe”, something that US military officials describe as “a change in the rules of the game”.

A spokeswoman for Africom said: “We believe that the Russian intervention in Libya is just delaying the political solution.”

The GNA has revealed a few days ago what it described as “confessions” made by social researcher Maxim Shogali, who was presented as a Russian spy arrested last year in Libya.

The alleged confessions included that his country was working to set up a base in Libya. The company that Shogali worked for denied the Tripoli government’s accusations and launched a media campaign to press for securing his release.

But if the so-called “confessions” about Russia’s pursuit of a base in Libya, are confirmed, the Americans certainly know better about the potential threat to Nato from the southern shore of the Mediterranean. However, any statements attributed to Shogali may have been extracted under duress by armed militias in Tripoli, which was the focus of the propaganda film broadcast in defence of him in Moscow recently.

What does America want?

A spokesman for the US State Department told Asharq Al Awsat: “The United States opposes the escalation of foreign military intervention in Libya from all sides.

It is necessary to have a ceasefire immediately and respect the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations on all parties. We urge all parties to abide by the ceasefire and to resume negotiations immediately. We must build on the progress achieved through the (5+5) talks, carried out by the United Nations (between the soldiers of the GNA and the LNA) and the Berlin process.”

Despite this clear expression of the refusal of the “offensive” fighting, the statements of GNA and Turkish officials later confirmed their refusal to stop the fire before the National Army withdrew from Sirte and Al Juffra.

The Egyptian redline

Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah Al Sisi, has set a redline for Turkey in Libya. The Egyptian position was to start with a call to resume the political settlement talks between the Libyan parties and commit to a truce. But Turkey and its allies continued to threaten to go east, take control of Sirte and Al Juffra, amid reports of a new air bridge for Turkish aircraft to Misrata and move more weapons and reinforcements.

This apparently necessitated Al Sisi visiting the base of Sidi Barani in western Egypt, where he told his soldiers to prepare for military action in Libya, clearly declaring that Sirte and Al Juffra constituted a redline for his country’s national security.

Egypt refuses to allow the situation to return to its former era, when Egyptian militants were taking Libya as their base (Hisham Ashmawi’s group in Darnah is one of the most prominent evidence of this).

France vs Turkey

The French position is very clearly opposing to the Turkish role in Libya, and it was publicly expressed by President Emmanuel Macron. The French fear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will use Libya to blackmail Europe as he did previously with the migrant card, who opened his country’s borders to them to “invade” Europe, according to critics of his policies.

The French also fear that Erdogan will succeed in establishing a base for the currents of radical political Islam in Libya, noting that the Turks transferred to this country up to 10,000 Syrian mercenaries from militant groups, including Daesh and Al Nusrah terrorist outfits.

The Turks, on the other hand, argue that the French were supporting the ‘National Army’ led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who they considered “illegal”, while they came to Libya at the request of the “government recognised by the United Nations”, in reference to the government of Fayez Al Sarraj emanating from the Skhirat Agreement in Morocco in December 2015.

Lacking legitimacy

The UN does recognise the Sarraj government, but critics say that this government lacks legitimacy because it did not gain the confidence of the Libyan parliament and that its shelf-life stipulated in the Skhirat agreement speaks for only a year-and-a half — a period that passed long ago.

Although France’s contacts with the Sarraj government are continuing, there is a possibility that Paris will withdraw its legal cover and become closer to the Egyptian position, which talks about one party that has legitimacy in Libya — the parliament elected by the people (2014 elections).

Point of contention

The Speaker of the parliament, Aqila Saleh, announced his clear support for the Egyptian position, including the possibility of intervening militarily if Turkey attempted to control Sirte and Al Juffra, and move east towards the oil crescent.

Another point of contention between the Americans, the eastern Libyan government and its National Army is that Libyan oil exports stalled since the end of last year. Proponents of the Eastern government and Field Marshal Haftar prevented the export of oil from the oil ports and oil fields in the country to pressure the Sarraj government to stop financing Turkish intervention, including paying the salaries of Syrian mercenaries from the Libyan state’s treasury. The National Oil Corporation of Libya said on Friday that Russian mercenaries and other nationalities entered the Sharara oil field, south of the country, to prevent the resumption of oil exports.