By Taylor Luck
A principle of President Trump’s foreign policy is to allow local players to resolve regional conflicts. But with U.S. allies Egypt and Turkey clashing in Libya, could a solution just be a phone call away?
As U.S. attention has drifted from Libya, the threat of war between two of Washington’s longtime regional allies and military partners is rising in the divided North African country.
Turkey and Egypt, whose authoritarian leaders have relatively warm relations with President Donald Trump but have long been at opposing ends of a contest for regional influence, are beating war drums and drawing lines in the sand over their support for rival governments and militias in Libya.
Observers and former officials say each side is hoping the other backs down, but that a diplomatic void left behind by a distracted or disinterested United States and a divided Europe has allowed Turkey’s economic pursuits and Egypt’s security fears to place the rivals on colliding paths.
And a Western diplomatic effort is needed, analysts say, to reach an understanding between Ankara and Cairo that would defuse the crisis and lead to a cease-fire on the ground in Libya.
Tensions have risen since Turkish-backed forces and Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord, or GNA, repelled the Egyptian-backed warlord, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and his self-styled Libyan National Army from the capital of Tripoli in June, ending a yearlong siege.
Analysts say the defeat was a game changer. In a matter of months Turkey had reversed advances that General Haftar and his backers Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France had made in five years.
In the past two weeks, Ankara rejected an offer by Cairo for a cease-fire, and pushed further outside Tripoli to capture airbases and strategic points as part of a move into central Libya, sparking alarms in Cairo.
In a televised speech at an airbase near the Egyptian-Libyan border late last month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned that the central Libyan city of Sirte was a “red line” and that any threat to the 690-mile Egyptian-Libyan border would result in a “direct intervention” in Libya.
“Be prepared to carry out any mission here within our borders or, if necessary, outside our borders,” President Sisi told Egyptian pilots and commandos at the base.
In recent years the Egyptian military has famously refused commitments beyond its borders, rejecting calls by its allies to take part in the conflicts in Syria or Yemen or in airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. Yet Egyptians say Libya is different.
Although Turkey rejected the warnings, observers say that the international community should take seriously a threat that is far from idle.
“Logically, Egypt does not want to intervene, but Egypt may soon be put in a place where it cannot afford not to intervene,” says Mohamed Eljarh, a Libya analyst.
As part of its ongoing saber-rattling, Egypt held surprise drills on the Libyan border Thursday, deploying its air force and ground battalions in what the military described as “training to face mercenaries of irregular armies and target their hotbeds.”
Turkey chose to intervene in Tripoli last November to save the besieged GNA in pursuit both of political opportunity and economic interest.
The GNA coalition includes the Muslim Brotherhood – which has ideological ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party – and other Islamists, the last remnants of the movements Turkey has spent the past decade trying to prop up across the Arab world.
A man and his children pass a destroyed fighting vehicle belonging to the eastern forces led by Khalifa Haftar in Gharyan, south of Tripoli, Libya, June 27, 2019.
In Libya, Turkey also sees as an economic foothold in North Africa that could allow it to extend influence in the continent.
But Libyan observers say its main prize is a maritime border agreement signed with the GNA that gives Turkey exclusive rights to oil and gas exploration off the Libyan coast.
Analysts say Turkey is looking to extend its influence in Libya as far east as possible to have a stronger position in eventual negotiations. Despite their defeat at Tripoli, General Haftar’s forces still retain 90% of the oil and gas fields in southern Libya and a majority of the country’s territory.
With Ankara having invested treasure, troops, and military equipment to support the GNA, it wishes to impose its terms on the rival government in the East in order to secure its interests. It believes this path runs through Sirte.
“Despite their military victories, the GNA and Turkey realize that their negotiation standing is still weak. They want to escalate to test everyone’s resolve and see whether these red lines are real,” says Mr. Eljarh.
For Egypt, the Turkish presence outside Tripoli represents a direct threat to the regime and the nation.
The animosity between Egypt and Turkey stems from then-General Sisi’s 2013 overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt and its allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan have worked for the past seven years to prevent a Turkish or Islamist foothold in the Arab world, banning the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in several states.
Turkey, meanwhile, has declared the Sisi government “illegitimate” and continues to harbor Brotherhood exiles and Egyptian opposition figures.
There are concerns in Cairo that a permanent Turkish presence in Libya will lead to a Muslim Brotherhood hub from which activists and groups will work to undermine Mr. Sisi’s government.
But there is a much deeper and more immediate fear in Egypt: jihadist militants.
Following the 2011 Libyan revolution, a flow of Islamist militants between eastern Libya and the porous western Egyptian desert led to a series of terrorist attacks on Egyptian soil.
Cairo begrudgingly backed General Haftar and his fledgling forces in 2014 to secure the Libyan side of the border.
With covert Egyptian support, over the past four years General Haftar and his forces cleared the eastern region of militants ranging from Al Qaeda to ISIS, forcing survivors to regroup in the deserts of central and southern Libya and giving Egypt a 500-mile-wide buffer.
Cairo now fears that should Turkish-backed forces gain a foothold in central Libya or further east, militants and ISIS fighters will be encouraged to once again head toward Egypt.
Permanent representatives of the Arab League take part in an emergency meeting to discuss Turkey’s plans to send troops to Libya, at the League’s headquarters in Cairo, Dec. 31, 2019.
“Egypt’s security concerns with Libya are legitimate; it has an extremely long border with Libya, and in the past few years we have seen the consequences of that space being not fully under control,” says H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“With Ankara’s ambivalence towards the Egyptian government and support for opposing forces, it is unsurprising that [Cairo] would not rely on Turkey to hold militant groups back from crossing the border.”
To prevent such a scenario, Egypt is exploring options including airstrikes to support General Haftar’s forces, raising a Libyan tribal army, and limited ground incursions in order to repel any Turkish-GNA advance, Arab official sources say.
Rather than focusing on a peaceful resolution, the U.S. has been consumed with Russia and resuming oil and gas production in Libya.
The Pentagon has been vocal in recent weeks over the interference of Russia, which has placed mercenaries in Libya and, it fears, aims to establish a naval base near Sirte, giving Moscow another foothold in the Mediterranean.
Yet no diplomatic push has been made for America’s allies and their proxies to end the hostilities.
“The main reason that the U.S. administration is even paying attention at all is because of the Russian angle, and even that has not convinced them to take real diplomatic efforts to bridge the gaps between Turkey and Egypt and the UAE,” says Ben Fishman, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Libya director at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
“What that means in practice is unfortunately those parties and their local affiliates are doing what they want on the ground.”
Despite boasting close ties and regular phone calls with both Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Sisi, President Trump has yet to use those relationships to call for a cease-fire. Arab and Western sources say those phone conversations leave both sides believing Washington supports their conflicting positions.
“The White House is never going to be interested in Libya in an election year, and it has the unique problem that the closest allies in the region to this presidency are fighting each other in Libya,” says Tarek Megerisi, Libya expert and policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“The fear that Trump may lose the election and we may go back to a state of normal American policy may even encourage the UAE and Egypt to get their punches in before the bell rings,” he says. “We might see a lot of escalations before November.”
Taylor Luck – Special correspondent at CSM.