The Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk this week passed a motion approving Egyptian military intervention, should this prove necessary in the fight against the rival Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
On Friday, Egyptian forces entered Libya backing up the war-torn country’s warlord General Haftar Khalifa’s forces (Libyan National Army). Turkey, which supports the rival forces of UN-recognised Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, slammed the intervention in the country’s civil war as ‘illegal’. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Steps taken by Egypt here, especially their siding with the putschist Haftar, show they are in an illegal process,” he said. He also called the United Arab Emirates approach as “piratical”.
Libya is currently racked by a civil war, with Egypt and Turkey backing the opposing sides. Ankara is the main supporter of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj. Egypt, meanwhile, supports the rival Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, based in the oil-rich east of the country. A cluster of additional international players are gathered around the two warring sides. The GNA has the additional support of Qatar and Italy. Haftar, meanwhile, enjoys the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Russia, France, Saudi Arabia and Bashar Assad’s Syria. And Greece supports Egypt.
Egyptian intervention occurred a day after the country’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met Libyan tribesmen who asked for Cairo to intervene in the civil war. During a media briefing on Thursday, El Sisi made it clear that Egypt would not stand idle in the face of a direct threat to Egyptian and Libyan security.
In an message to Libyan tribal leaders, El Sisi said, “We will not go into Libya unless you ask us to and we will leave when you order us to.” He added that in Libya the Egyptian forces would be led by Tribal forces.
He said, “The declaration of the Sirte-Jufra line as a red line is essentially a call for peace and an end to the conflict in Libya… Egypt would not stand by and watch in the face of any movements that pose a strong and direct threat not just to Egypt’s and Libya’s national security, but those of the Arab world, the region and the world.”
Gen. Haftar’s forces asked Cairo to intervene. Besides, last week the Libyan parliament granted permission to the Egyptian military to intervene in the country’s ongoing conflict to safeguard both the nations’ national security.
Turkey officially joined Libyan civil war in January after sealing a military agreement with Sarraj’s Government of National Accord. Many criticised Erdogan’s Libyan deal as a means of taking advantage of the country’s vulnerability just as he did in case of Syria.
Erdogan denouncing Egypt’s actions appeared ironic for it was Ankara which did the same a few months ago. Last month, the Libyan Review revealed that Libya PM, Al-Sarraj, paid 12 billion USD to Turkey for military assistance in order to gain control over Tripoli. The Libyan Review in its investigative report mentioned that the Sarraj’s government deposited 4 billion US dollars in the Central Bank of Turkey, while it gave Ankara another 8 billion USD for its ‘recent military intervention in Libya’.
The Libya Review added, “Turkey has sent over 70 Turkish UAV drones to Libya, which cost over $5 million US dollars per unit, hundreds of Armoured vehicles (KIRPI) and thousands of Syrian mercenaries who are paid approximately $1500 US dollars a month”. The website also reported the Turkish news channel (TRT) quoting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan boasting about his country’s rising foreign exchange reserves, which are now over $93 million.
Over the recent months, Libyan crisis escalated as GNA pushed back eastern forces using war drones, offences and Turkish military along with Syrian mercenaries deployed by Erdogan. “Turkey’s main motivation has been to prevent Libya from falling under the sway of Egypt and (the) UAE, which would have been a blow to Ankara’s geostrategic and economic interests not only in Libya itself but also in the East Mediterranean,” Nigar Goksel, Turkey director at the International Crisis Group, told VOA.
The Egyptian military has for years been waging a bloody insurgency against Islamist militants in Egypt. Violence escalated in 2013, following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi by the army. Scores of Egyptian security personnel have been killed in attacks, primarily by militants from a local affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS).
During the past few years, the Egyptian armed forces have destroyed about 10,000 four-wheel drive vehicles on the Egyptian-Libyan border, according to an announcement by Presidency Spokesperson Bassam Rady. The vehicles, Rady added, carried more than 40,000 terrorists and foreign fighters.
NATO DIVIDED Many countries are engaged in what is a complex conflict in Libya, and so some obvious proxy wars are shaping up. For several reasons, Egypt and Turkey are the most involved due to the profound impact of what is happening in Libya on their national security and vital interests.
The Turkish intervention to support Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) came after the signing of an agreement last year for the demarcation of the maritime borders between the two countries. Turkey wants to secure a greater role for itself in the planned exploration for natural resources in the Mediterranean, and is seeking to weaken the anti-GNA forces of renegade Field Marshal Khalifa, who is backed by Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia, France and even Greece.
The US position on Libya is inconsistent and confused due to the lack of strategic interests. Washington put Libya on the margins of its military and diplomatic efforts, but Russia’s increased involvement in the conflict changed the US position, leading Moscow to impose a limit on its own intervention.
Italy supports Turkey and the GNA, while France supports Haftar’s forces and Egypt. Greece’s role in support of Egypt and opposed to Turkey is limited to that of a spectator. Meanwhile, the UAE and Saudi Arabia back Egypt but have different perceptions, as Saudi Arabia goes no further than verbal support while the UAE cannot provide more backing to Haftar, and Egypt has exceeded its capabilities and capacity to do anything.
Egypt vs Turkey
Libya is currently racked by a civil war, with Egypt and Turkey backing the opposing sides. Ankara is the main supporter of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj. Egypt, meanwhile, supports the rival Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, based in the oil-rich east of the country.
A cluster of additional international players are gathered around the two warring sides. The GNA has the additional support of Qatar and Italy. Haftar, meanwhile, enjoys the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Russia, France, Saudi Arabia and Bashar Assad’s Syria.
The present crisis was triggered by Turkish intervention in April to prevent the successful conclusion of a yearlong offensive by Haftar’s forces which had brought them to the gates of Tripoli. Without this intervention, it is likely that the war would have concluded in the Libyan capital with an LNA victory. The entry of Turkish air power and Syrian proxy forces under Turkish direction rapidly turned the tide. The GNA/Turkish side then counterattacked, driving the LNA east. The key Watiya air base fell on May 18
As Turkish-backed forces pushed toward the town of Sirte, an alarmed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi laid down a redline. On June 20, Sisi declared in a televised address that Sirte would not be permitted to fall to the Turkish-backed forces.
The events in Libya reflect the depth and intensity of one of the key strategic rivalries in the Middle East. This is the contest between the camp consisting of Turkey, Qatar and a variety of Muslim Brotherhood-associated forces in the region, including Hamas’s Gaza fiefdom, and the rival gathering of Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. There are, of course, other elements engaged in the complex Libyan strategic space. But these two camps are the central players. Serraj’s GNA in Tripoli and Haftar and his allies in the east are their respective proxies.
The geopolitics of the Arab world has long mainly consisted of a battle between military and monarchical regimes on the one hand, and Islamists on the other. The clash between Turkey and Egypt in Libya is at root the latest iteration of this long struggle, the difference being that the Sunni Islamists now have a powerful, ambitious and militarily capable state (Turkey) at the head of their camp.
As of now, it is Turkey’s move. Ankara has climbed up a high tree with its declarations that an offensive into Sirte remains an obligation if Haftar and his allies refuse to quit the area. Ankara needs, however, also to consider the broader diplomatic picture before attempting any such move.
There appears to be little support from the European Union or United States for aggressive moves further east into Libya, given the incendiary potential of an offensive toward Sirte and the oil fields, and taking into account that Turkey, while still a NATO member, makes no serious pretense of acting in defense of, or in accordance with, Western interests.
Conversely, and perhaps most importantly, Russia is engaged in Libya and has Mig-29 aircraft stationed at the Jufra air base. Fighters from the Russian Wagner company were also deployed with the LNA and had to retreat across the desert after the fall of the Watiya air base.
Moscow appears to have abandoned the notion of an absolute victory for the LNA. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Haftar’s forces would be willing to sign an immediate ceasefire. But this conciliatory attitude might well not extend to toleration for a Turkish push further east. This would raise the possibility of Turkish forces facing a Russian retaliation, without US or EU support. Such a prospect is likely to give Turkey’s president pause for thought.
Still, the Turkish-Egyptian standoff before Sirte indicates that the old divide that has dominated Middle East politics for so long – between generals and Islamists – remains pertinent. Now, however, this contest has moved from the public squares of the Arab Spring to the state-to-state level.