By Martin Chulov
Diplomatic efforts intensify to avert Cairo’s entry into Libya’s nine-year civil war amid wider tensions.
A standoff on the north African coast between rival factions in Libya’s nine-year civil war is threatening to drag in the powerful Egyptian military and escalate tensions between some of the Middle East’s most implacable foes.
Diplomatic efforts have intensified in Europe and regional capitals this week to avert Cairo’s entry into the conflict – a move that would spark reactions as far away as Ankara and Abu Dhabi.
The clamour over the fate of Libya has intensified since the rapid retreat last weekend of warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) after its failure over the last 15 months to seize the capital Tripoli from the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
The two sides are now squared off on the outskirts of Sirte, where Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed in 2011, after an advance that has shifted momentum in the war and cast doubt over Haftar’s ability to overturn the Tripoli government.
The GNA has now advanced to within 30km (18.6 miles) of Sirte, taking positions near the city’s power station while the LNA, supported by Egypt, the UAE and Russia, has embedded in the urban areas in which the Libyan dictator hid with his entourage in 2011 as his four-decade rule crumbled in the face of a US- and British-led military intervention.
The chaos in the nine years since has drawn in regional states, global powers, tribes, mercenaries and jihadists, all attempting to carve a stake out of potentially the richest state in north Africa.
The country is now split east to west between the two factions and their backers.
The parliamentary speaker of the eastern-based faction – with forces commanded by Haftar – on Wednesday called on the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to follow through on his threat to invade if the forces of the western-based GNA, also backed by Qatar and Italy, advance further towards Sirte.
Sisi’s threats to defend Egypt’s borders have been met by calls from the Arab League for a fresh truce, but at GNA positions west of Sirte there seemed more of a readiness to press on with advances against Haftar’s retreating forces.
“They had been at the gates of Tripoli for a long time and killed people with shells,” said Fawzi Khairallah, a fighter speaking to the Guardian by phone. “And when it came time to move, all they could do was run backwards for 300 miles. They are a broken force.”
Whether Egypt will invade Libya is being hotly debated inside the country. Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a Tripoli-backed thinktank, said: “Sisi will only go in if Russia lets the GNA and Turkey past Sirte and if he has military and financial support from another partner such as the UAE/Saudi.
“This would be a ground offensive towards the border and will try to push the GNA and Turkey away from claiming the oil crescent in Libya stretching from Sirte to the gates of Benghazi.”
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, described the current stage of the Libya conflict as a proxy war on two levels.
“Firstly between Erdoğan and Sisi who are each other’s nemesis in the Middle East.
Sisi is a secularist general who locked up political Islamists and Erdoğan is a political Islamist who locked up secularist generals. They can’t last in the same room together for 20 minutes.”
Secondly, he said, Erdoğan sees it as a proxy war with the UAE, a newer regional foe.
Turkey has also made clear its intent to recoup billions of dollars in Gaddafi-era debts from the construction sector that collapsed when the dictator was ousted.
Part of its deep investment in Tripoli is rooted in the desire for a friendly government to help with that and to benefit from future contracts.
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, a senior adviser to the GNA, said the Egyptian posture could inflame the crisis. “Egypt needs to be part of the solution in Libya and not part of the problem, as it has been the last few years,” he said. “Their proposal as it stands reduces the chance for peace and risks further fracturing Libya.”
GNA control of Libya’s oil fields is viewed as both untenable for Egypt, and for the UAE in its standoff with Turkey. “If that happened, they are both humiliated, and they can’t afford that,” said a regional diplomat.
“Egypt will act belligerent, but Turkey should call its bluff. It’s 800 miles from their border to Sirte. What are they going to do about it? I say they’ll sue for peace.”
HA Hellyer, a aenior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment, said:
“Generally, the Egyptian military is very conservative about engagement beyond its borders – it’s why they haven’t seriously engaged elsewhere in the past decade, such as Yemen or Syria.
“Cairo isn’t about to jettison that kind of attitude, but at the same time, it has a strikingly serious view about security along its border with Libya.
If Cairo decides to move, it would probably do so coordinating with the rest of its own regional axis, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“It’s important to link this to the wider ‘cold-war’ within the broader Arab world, where over the last few years, there have been two coalitions that have coalesced.
Turkey, Qatar and a certain brand of Islamism on the one hand; and Saudi, UAE, and Egypt on the other. The war in Libya cannot be properly understood without appreciating that.”
Martin Chulov – Middle East correspondent. He covers the Middle East and has reported from the region since 2005.