By Ismail Yasha
The Egyptian parliament agreed on Monday to authorise President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to send the army on combat missions abroad to “defend Egyptian national security”.
The move came as the date approaches for the military operation expected to be launched by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) to liberate the cities of Sirte and Al-Jafra from the forces loyal to renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his mercenaries.
Analysts believe that this strengthens the possibility of a clash between Turkey and Egypt in Libya, prompting speculation about possible scenarios in the event that the Egyptian army does cross into its North African neighbour. How will Ankara respond to Egypt’s intervention targeting Turkey’s military presence in Libya and its GNA ally in Tripoli?
If the Egyptian army does enter Libyan territory to support Haftar’s forces, the crisis would not be between Egypt and Turkey, but between Egypt and Libya. In other words, the confrontation will not be Arab-Turkish, but Arab-Arab.
It will be between forces supporting revolutionaries and mercenaries accused of war crimes and grave violations against civilians, and legitimate forces of a government that represents the Libyan people and is recognised by the UN. Egyptian soldiers will not be facing Turkish soldiers, they will face Libyans, the heirs of the legendary freedom fighter Omar Al-Mukhtar.
Turkey does not want direct confrontation with Egypt, nor with any other Islamic country, regardless of the differences they may have. It believes that this type of confrontation depletes the two sides involved and serves the interests of other powers.
Moreover, the Egyptian army is, after all, the army of the Egyptian people, although today it has become an instrument of the coup leaders who do not represent the will of the people.
Tomorrow, though, the army may belong to a democratically elected government to serve the interests of Egypt and the Islamic nation. Nevertheless, Turkey will not hesitate to respond to any attack against its forces in Libya.
There are constants adopted by Ankara that cannot be abandoned, such as the need to preserve the territorial integrity of Libya and to challenge efforts to partition the country.
It will certainly support the GNA militarily and technically by providing it with weapons, equipment, training and expert guidance within the framework of bilateral agreements and common interests. Its diplomats are also on hand to support the government in Tripoli.
No matter what Sisi and his aides may claim, any Egyptian intervention in Libya will be illegitimate and against the will and interests of the Libyan people. This is one of the reasons for the confusion in Cairo, which said that it was ready to arm and train the Libyan tribes, and then retracted this threat after the criticism of the international community and Libya’s neighbours.
The possible “Somali-isation” of the country in a bloody civil war will not only threaten those neighbouring states, including Egypt, but will also pose a major threat to the security of Europe.
Nobody in Turkey is waiting for it to be dragged into an uncertain military adventure, because it is led by a democratically elected civilian president who has long experience in government, unlike Egypt, which is ruled by a coup-leading general who lacks the lowest level of political, diplomatic and economic skills and experience, and is surrounded by a group of fools, sycophants and reckless princes. Sisi is leading his country from failure to failure.
Furthermore, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reads international and regional balances carefully and uses them successfully in favour of Turkey. He would undoubtedly have no difficulty in turning the tables on Sisi if the Egyptian army crosses into Libya.
Sisi may still take the plunge, though, in the hope of confronting Turkey’s support for the GNA, but he could be surprised by his regime being besieged by European, Arab and even African countries.
Cairo is probably monitoring Turkish diplomacy, such as the tripartite meeting a few days ago that brought together Defence Minister Hulusi Akar with Qatar’s Minister of Defence Khalid Al-Attiyah and Libyan Minister of the Interior Fathi Bashagha; and the latter’s meeting in Ankara with Akar and the Maltese Interior Minister Byron Camilleri. Moreover, Mulatu Teshome Wirtu, the special envoy of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has visited Ankara and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has toured Africa.
A simple comparison between the number of ships, aircraft and tanks that Egypt and Turkey each have in order to predict the likely outcome of a confrontation is likely to be misleading.
Armies depend on political and diplomatic manoeuvres to direct them appropriately and effectively. When all of these factors are considered, then the balance is clearly in Turkey’s favour.
Egypt, Turkey on clash course over Libya
In a sign of hope for peace and stability in Libya, early July Turkey announced its banks and companies’ plans for an assessment trip within two weeks to rebuild post-war Libya and secure its energy infrastructure.
Unfortunately, there has been no follow up of this plan that could help trigger peace and stability in Libya. On the contrary, the North African country can be in the peril of being a battleground between two factions, each supported by outside forces.
On Monday, Egypt’s parliament unanimously approved deployment of troops in Libya after President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi threatened military action against Turkish backed forces in neighboring Libya.
Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK), convened by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, reaffirmed the country’s continued support for Tripoli’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Turkey has helped to repel a 15-month assault on Tripoli by renegade general Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). After sustaining heavy losses Haftar retreated in June and announced a ceasefire in Cairo in the presence of Sisi, declaring he was ready to stop fighting and enter talks.
On the one side the Authoritarian regimes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, backed by Russia and France support the 76-year-old Libyan born Haftar’s siege of Tripoli. On the other Turkey, Qatar and GNA have teamed up in defense of the capital city.
Officials in Ankara have been negotiating with Moscow for a withdrawal of suspected Russian mercenaries deployed in Mediterranean city of Sirte and the inland Jufra airbase. Russian and Turkish delegations met Wednesday in Ankara and released a statement agreeing to press ahead with efforts to create “conditions for a lasting and sustainable cease-fire” and agreed to work towards a political dialogue.
Turkey and Russia will consider creating a joint working group on Libya and were scheduled to hold more consultations in Moscow “in the near future,” according to the statement.
The LNA suffered a blow last month when GNA forces – with air and logistics support from Turkey – pushed it back and gained the upper hand in the fighting. Armed with sophisticated domestically-made Turkish surveillance and combat drones, Tripoli forces retook the capital’s airport, all main entrances, and exit points to the city.
GNA has vowed to retake Sirte, which Haftar captured earlier this year. In televised remarks after inspecting military units in an army base near the border with Libya, Sisi warned that the fall of Sirte or the Jufra airbase would be a “red line” for Egypt. The GNA denounced Egypt’s military threat, calling it a “declaration of war”.
As the battle for Sirte was shaping up, the acting head of the UN support mission for Libya, Stephanie Williamson Monday called for “immediate ceasefire” and “an end to the blatant violations of the UN arms embargo.”
Sirte, hometown of Muammar al-Gaddafi, is the last major urban outpost before Libya’s “oil crescent,” which includes refineries, storage facilities and export terminals of Ras Lanuf, Brega and al-Sidr.
With 46.4 billion barrels as of 2010, oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa. Much of Libya’s oil wealth is located in the east but the revenues are channeled through Tripoli-based state oil firm National Oil Corporation (NOC), which says it serves the whole country and stays out of its factional conflict.
According to Libyan Herald, an independent online daily, NOC confirmed on July 12 that Libya’s oil exports and production have been blockaded again condemning the UAE for being behind it.
NOC had reported that potential lost revenues in the past 175 days have reached $6.74 billion due to the blockade.
Prior to the 2011 overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, Libya produced over 1.5 million barrels a day. As a result of the blockade of export terminals by LNA the production level on March 17 was declared at 91,221 barrels a day.
French President Emmanuel Macron insists France no longer backs Haftar while Turkey has announced that there will be no ceasefire unless Haftar retreats. However, this doesn’t mean France and Turkey, both NATO members, see eye to eye on Libya. France’s growing spat with Turkey over the Libyan civil war has exposed cracks in the NATO military alliance.
Macron accused Turkey of importing large number of fighters reportedly from Syria into Libya and lambasted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambivalence over his country’s mercenaries operating in the oil rich North African state. However, Macron said Putin had told him that private contractors fighting in Libya did not represent Russia.
Ties between the two NATO allies have soured during the summer over Libya, northern Syria, and drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean by Turkish firms. Tensions further escalated following a June 10 incident between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean Sea.
Turkish builders had worked projects in Libya before Ankara officially threw its support behind the GNA in November. The backlog of Turkish contract works amount to $16 billion, a sector official said in January.
Turkey’s Karandeniz Holding, which runs a fleet of 25 power ships (with a combined output of 4,100 megawatts) or floating power generators plans to send its team to Libya within weeks and could start supplying power to western Libya, Chief Commercial Officer Zeynep Hazeri told Reuters.
Floating generators plugs into electricity grids after berthing. The company says the plants could use Libyan-produced diesel or natural gas, delivering as much as 1,0000 MWh, ending power cuts in areas supplied via the ports.
The Turkish firm specializes in producing and selling electricity from ships anchored off the coast. It sells electricity to more than 10 countries, including Lebanon and several African nations, that cannot meet the demand with onshore plants.
France has played a critical role in the rise of warlord Haftar. Under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris led NATO military intervention in 2011 toppled Gaddafi’s regime, killing the dictator in the process.
Cairo has flown airstrikes in Libya since the overthrow of Gaddafi and supported the ex-Gaddafi general Haftar since 2014. Last month Cairo announced a proposal, dubbed the Cairo Declaration, that included ceasefire and a new elected presidential body representing the Libyan factions. How will Turkey react to Egypt’s military intervention in Libya remains to be seen.
The United States has said Moscow sent warplanes to al-Jufra via Syria to support Russian mercenaries fighting alongside Haftar-led LNA. Russia and LNA both deny this.
In this dangerous cocktail of foreign forces, how will different parties react to each other’s moves remains to be seen, especially Turkey’s reaction to possible Egyptian deployment of troops.