By Mahmoud Gamal
A previous study published by the Egyptian Institute for Studies (EIS) titled, Egyptian Role in Libya: Determinants and Tracks, concluded that the likeliness of a direct and declared intervention in Libya by the Egyptian army started to increase more than ever before.
Confirming that such potential intervention is linked to the failure to find a political track for resolving the Libyan crisis and the outbreak of battles waged by the GNA against the militias affiliated to Khalifa Haftar to control Sirte and Al Jafra, the line at which the internationally recognized GNA forces stopped after liberating several areas in western Libya that had been controlled by Haftar’s militias during the past months.
Following up the ongoing developments in the Libyan file, there have been no serious political activity, whether international or regional, to avoid the state of conflict in the Libyan interior. Also, there have been no political initiatives, whether international or regional, to bring the conflicting parties to the negotiating table, except for the Egyptian initiative proposed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in May 2020, which was immediately rejected by the Government of National Accord (GNA).
The GNA forces are still stationed at the Sirte-Al Jafra line, where they stopped after liberation of several areas in the Libyan West during the past months. However, the Al Watiya base, which is now under the control of the legitimate GNA, was bombed early July by unidentified warplanes, where no party claimed responsibility for the airstrikes that targeted equipment inside the base, including air defense systems.
However, media reports have recently revealed that Russia was behind bombing the Al Watiya airbase, citing a special source in the Turkish presidency, confirming that neither Egypt, nor UAE, nor France were behind the attack. The source stated that the airstrikes seemed to have avoided Turkish equipment, but other reports indicated that the bombing resulted in losses to a Turkish air defense system.
In response to the bombing of the Al-Watiya airbase that falls under the control of the GNA forces, the Al Jafra airbase that falls under the control of the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and Khalifa Haftar’s militias was also bombed, but the GNA forces denied responsibility for the attack.
Anyway, the Libyan crisis has witnessed several new developments since the previous EIS study was published, which will be reviewed and analyzed in this paper, to assess the likeliness of a large-scale Egyptian military intervention in Libya in the next stage, as follows:
First: Developments of positions of Sisi regime and other forces backing Haftar
In the above mentioned EIS study, we stated that there are several determinants that govern the Egyptian policy towards Libya: some of which have been in place since the beginning of Sisi’s support for Khalifa Haftar in 2014; while other determinants have recently emerged based on development of events in the Libyan interior, in light of the Turkish intervention in the Libyan arena. Also, there are determinants related to the two countries (Egypt and Turkey), regardless of their ruling regimes.
Among the most important determinants of Egypt’s policy in addressing the Libyan file, is the determinant of “Egyptian national security” or the “regime security”.
Libya is considered a strategic depth for Egypt due to its geographic location adjacent to Egypt’s strategic western border. Therefore, any state of instability inside Libyan territories is considered a direct threat to the Egyptian national security.
In general, the situation in Libya would concern any ruling regime in Egypt, regardless of its backgrounds and orientations; and therefore any regime in Egypt would support and maintain stability within the complete Libyan territory, for the interest of the Egyptian national security, which some Turkish official statements have recently confirmed that Turkey understands its requirements.
On the other hand, undemocratic countries often confuse between the country’s national security and the security of the ruling regime, and between state institutions and ruler’s persona.
Therefore, the use of the term “national security” extensively in such countries only indicates measures that would ensure the ruler’s survival in power and protect his authority in government even if this leads to the collapse of the State or poses threats to its survival factors, as happens in many Arab countries.
Al-Sisi views Libya from this perspective, by deliberately confusing between Egyptian national security and the security of his regime, which is one of the most important determinants of the current Egyptian policy towards the situation in Libya.
The Sisi regime views the Libyan territories as an environment that embraces armed streams that may threaten the security of his regime in the event Haftar cannot control the entire Libyan territory or even the eastern region only – especially since Hisham Ashmawi and Emad Abdel Hamid, two former Egyptian army officers that led armed insurgency against the regime, had stayed in the Libyan city of Derna for years, which increased these concerns.
Therefore, Al-Sisi does not seem to be giving up the Haftar project in Libya, even if the latter cannot fully control the Libyan territory. At that point, Sisi is not likely to mind dividing Libya in order to maintain the security of his regime although the true requirements of Egyptian national security, the complete Libyan territories must be united under a central leadership.
However, if the Haftar project fails in Libya, Sisi will prioritize the security of his regime at the expense of the interest of the Egyptian national security.
At the present time, there is no sign of a political solution to the Libyan file, and based on the military developments in Libya during the past few days, it seems that the likeliness of outbreak of military operations between parties to the conflict is increasing; which justified the Egyptian army’s military exercises on the western and northern regions near the Egyptian-Libyan border during July 2020, most notably the “Decisive 2020” drill, in which all branches of the Egyptian army participated “land-air-sea”.
In addition, as quoted by private military sources, there is an intensive Egyptian military, land and air, buildup towards the western and northern strategic directions near the Libyan border at the present time, whether in the Mohamed Naguib military base in the city of Hammam, or the Sidi Barani base near the border, in anticipation for any emergency that may push the Egyptian army to a declared intervention in Libya.
As reported by private sources, large quantities of air defense systems have been transferred to the Egyptian army towards the Egyptian-Libyan border, as well as information about the presence of non-Egyptian units in these sites.
As the activist and war correspondent Ebrahim Gasuda revealed in July, that the Egyptian military forces arrived on the morning of Monday, 12 July 2020, to the former Al-Qatei border camp and the Gulf military region in Ajdabiya. According to Gasuda, another batch of Egyptian forces was sent to Sirte.
Also private sources told EIS that some Egyptian officers and soldiers affiliated to Group129-thunderbolt “B. 13”, that are basically stationed in in Alexandria, the northern Egyptian strategic range, crossed the Egyptian-Libyan border into Libyan territory during the past few months to provide some form of military support to the Khalifa Haftar’s militias.
During July 2020, the Libyan GNA forces monitored the arrival of military supplies coming from Egypt to the city of Tobruk, northeast of Libya. The Libyan Army Media Center, affiliated to the GNA, released pictures of transport vehicles intended to carry weapons and military equipment.
Not only did the Egyptian army intensify its presence near the Egyptian-Libyan border, but other countries supporting Haftar also mobilized their forces in Sirte and Al Jafra in anticipation of the upcoming battles in the event of failure of a political solution between parties to the conflict.
Also, Colonel Mohamed Qanunu, the spokesman for the GNA army, has revealed that there are military supplies provided by Russia to Haftar’s militias. On Friday, 26 June 2020, Qanunu announced “arrival of six anti-aircraft Pantsir air defense systems to the city of Sirte, coming from Russia,” noting that “more than 11 Russian cargo planes landed at the Qardabiya Base, south of Sirte days ago, carrying mercenaries from Syria, weapons and ammunition on board”.
Some sources also reported that Haftar militias were gathering mercenaries from Sudan and Chad in southern Ajdabiya in preparation for sending them to Sirte, while other sources reported on 28 June that Wagner and Syrian mercenaries were installing Scud missile platforms in the Jarif area in Sirte, expecting that these missiles would target the city Misurata to the west.
Also, recent media reports confirmed supported by clear satellite images that June saw the arrival of Russian Sukhoi 24 and MiG-29 aircraft, military Ilyushin 76 cargo planes and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as the modernization of air defense units at the al Jafra airbase.
In another context that might indicate that the coming days will witness military developments on the ground, Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Beit Al-Mal, the commander of GNA Army’s operation in Sirte and al-Jafra, confirmed that GNA forces have completed all preparations for the operation to liberate the city of Sirte, only pending orders from the GNA to start.
Earlier, the GNA-led Volcano of Rage operation room released pictures it said were for crowds of Haftar forces with armed vehicles and two Russian-made anti-aircraft Pantsir air defense systems, adding that these military reinforcements of Haftar’s forces were heading to the city of Sirte , controlled by the forces of Haftar supported by the mercenaries of Russian Wagner Group, the Janjaweed and Syrians.
Mahmoud Gamal is a researcher and director of the Monitoring and Documentation Unit at the Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies (EIPSS).