Cairo: Emboldened by Turkish military support, Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) has spurned calls for observing a ceasefire to relaunch long-stalled peace talks. In recent weeks, the GNA fighters have gained ground against east-based forces led by Khalifa Haftar, thanks to an influx of foreign warriors and weaponry dispatched by Turkey that is increasingly establishing a foothold in oil-rich Libya. Ankara also eyes an access to gas wealth off East Mediterranean via Libya.
The lavish Turkish support has proved a game changer in Libya’s long-running conflict. Turkish involvement has also raised concerns about Ankara’s agenda in the North African country that could also evolve into a wider regional confrontation. The GNA fighters have recently reversed a 14-month assault by Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) to capture Tripoli and extend their control over western Libya.
Eyeing oil prize
Now the GNA militias shift their sights to Sirte, a strategic city regarded as a gateway to the so-called Oil Crescent region, which boasts about 80 per cent of Libya’s oil wealth. Sirte is strategically located between Tripoli and Benghazi, an LNA stronghold. The Tripoli government, also supported by Qatar, has recently vowed to bring all Libya territories under its control, igniting fears of a longer military face-off in the country that has descended into chaos since the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.
‘Legitimate’ Egyptian intervention
Should the GNA forces recapture Sirte from Haftar’s forces, the road would be clear for them to move on towards the Egyptian border, a prospect that has sounded the alarm in Cairo.
Earlier this week, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi warned that his country, sharing a 1,200km-long border with Libya, has a “legitimate” right to intervene in the troubled neighbour. “Any direct intervention from Egypt in Libya has now international legitimacy,” he said in televised remarks on Saturday after inspecting army troops near the border with Libya. “There are foreign powers supporting terrorist groups in Libya,” he added, implicitly referring to Turkey that has reportedly about 9,000 allied mercenaries from Syria to Libya to fight along the GNA militias.
The Egyptian leader warned that Sirte and the Libyan town of Jafra, home to a large airbase, are a “red line” for Egypt’s security that will not be allowed to be crossed. He significantly told the army troops to be ready to carry out any missions inside the country or beyond, if the need arises. Al Sissi also said that potential Egyptian intervention would also be aimed to restore stability to strife-torn Libya and establish a ceasefire there.
Egyptians are worried that the GNA government, manipulated by Turkey, would tamper with Egypt’s security should Turkish allies reach the Egyptian border. Ties have strained between Cairo and Ankara since the Egyptian army’s 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood from power following mass street protests against Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, a senior official in the now-banned group. Turkey is a staunch backer of the Brotherhood and shelters several Islamist fugitives wanted in Egypt for involvement in different cases of post-Mursi violence.
Likewise, the Tripoli government comprises members known for Brotherhood and militancy links whom Egypt is worried will imperil its security.
GNA militias: The Tripoli Protection Force, an alliance of militias, control the eastern and central parts of Tripoli; the Abu Selim Battalion militia controls the Abu Selim district in southern Tripoli; and the Deterrence Forces, a militant Islamist militia acting as police in eastern Tripoli. The GNA is also supported by fighters from Libya’s western city of Misrata and thousands of Turkey’s allied mercenaries transferred from Syria.
Arab, home backing
Several Arab countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have voiced backing for Egypt’s right to protect its security.
“The great Arab support for President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi’s address regarding Libya is a clear indication of the Arab world’s rejection of violating its sovereignty and borders by regional states,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash said this week.
Dr Gargash has accused Turkey of taking advantage of the Arab regional system’s “temporary” weakness to expand its influence in the region and warned of the consequences.
“Over years, relations of good neighbourliness, respect, non-existence of problems as well as economic and political links were enhanced between Turkey and its Arab surrounding,” said the minister on his Twitter account. “Regrettably, they have been replaced by a scheme of expansion and leadership that sees the Arab world as a strategic space for historical dreams. It’s an unwise policy that will drag Ankara and [harm] its interests in the period ahead,” he added.
Last November, Turkey and the Tripoli administration sealed contested deals on military cooperation and maritime boundary demarcation. Ankara’s meddling in Libya has since been unmistakable and a cause of concern.
Al Sissi’s warnings have generated overwhelming support at home, too.
Al Azhar, Egypt’s influential Islamic seat of learning, said it backs all Egyptian steps to preserve national security.
“Al Azhar backs Egypt’s invariable keenness on a peaceful solution to the Libyan crisis and President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi’s serious call for a ceasefire across all Libyan lands and resuming negotiations under the UN auspices,” the prestigious institution said in a statement.
Earlier this month, Al Sissi called for a ceasefire in Libya as part of a peace plan that also envisages restarting UN-sponsored peace talks, expelling foreign fighters from Libya and disbanding armed militias there. The plan, officially dubbed the Cairo Declaration, has won backing from leaders in eastern Libya, while the GNA rivals have ignored it, apparently at Ankara’s behest.
“Al Sissi’s address [on June 20] carried a message to the warring sides in Libya about importance of stopping at the Sirte-Jafra line and not to cross it,” Egyptian MP Kamal Amer, the head of the parliament’s Defence and National Security Committee, said.
“It’s a red line for Egyptian security that is inseparably linked to Libyan security,” he added in media remarks. “Egypt and its army are not invaders. Our aim is to protect Egypt’s security and that of Libya,” Amer said.
In 2015, Egypt unleashed airstrikes against Daesh operatives in Libya after the terrorist group had executed 21 Coptic Egyptians there.
Turkey’s dangerous game
Al Sissi’s latest threat of military intervention in Libya has prodded international efforts for peacemaking in the country. The US National Security this week expressed opposition to military escalation in Libya and supported the ceasefire call.
France, meanwhile, echoed Egypt’s concerns over the Turkish acts in Libya. “France will not tolerate Turkey’s military intervention in Libya,” French President Emmanuel Macron said. “I believe today that Turkey is playing a dangerous game in Libya,” Macron said after talks with his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied in Paris on Monday.
While Egypt appears keen to bring Libyan turmoil into global spotlight, Cairo’s moves to derail Turkish ambitions strikes a chord with the West, according to some analysts.
“Al Sissi’s address does not aim at controlling Libya. It is an attempt to set new red lines for rules of a game that was based on support offered by regional and international powers to both sides of the conflict in Libya without direct intervention, but Turkey changed this by bringing in terrorist militias from Syria and seeking to set up military bases there. It [Turkey] is now directly talking about occupying oil and gas areas in eastern Libya,” said Amr Al Shubki, an expert at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies.
“Many major countries such as Russia and France want to bridle Erdogan in Libya,” he argued. “Even the US does not want to see him extending his influence. Moreover, Italy, which Turkey tried to win it over, is unlikely to go along with Ankara at the expense of its ties with the European Union.”