The ongoing civil war in Libya has now reached a critical stage. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has threatened military intervention if there are any attacks by Turkish-backed forces on Sirte or the airbase at Jufra. Sisi stated that any move against either of these locations would amount to crossing a “red line.” The United States is calling both sides to pause military operations and return to negotiations.
Turkey is backing the UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli while the Egyptians, Russia, and the U.A.E. are behind the Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar’s LNA had moved to the outskirts of Tripoli and was threatening to conquer the Libyan capital after years of civil war. But an influx of Turkish-backed militias and drones supplied by Ankara have turned the tide. Haftar’s forces have been pushed all the way back to Sirte, and despite the presence of a large group of Russian Wagner mercenaries and an influx of Russian aircraft, the LNA is in danger of losing the valuable oilfields where most of the country’s oil is produced and exported. The Jufra airbase, itself, is a key cog in the fight: From there Haftar’s allies have been flying in weapons and equipment.
Haftar’s supporters are calling for a truce now as his troops have been forced back and are in danger of losing the “oil crescent.” Turkey has pointed out that Haftar resisted and dismissed all talks of any ceasefire when his troops were marching across the country.
Egypt’s threat of intervention has led the Arab League and several nations — including the United States, Italy, Germany — to call for a ceasefire as the fighting nears the rich oil fields of Libya. Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a released statement that, “Libya is passing through a dangerous turn in the course of its conflict.”
“The military option will not achieve victory for any side… and the military action will not bring peace or establish stability on the Libyan soil,” Gheit said during an online emergency meeting of the League’s foreign ministers. “The political solution is the only way to settle the Libyan crisis,” he added.
The government in Tripoli said that the announcement by Sisi was tantamount to “a declaration of war” and rejected Egypt’s invitation to hold a meeting, calling Egypt an ally of General Haftar.
In response to Sisi’s announcement, the U.S. Embassy released a statement that AFRICOM Commander U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend and U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland met with Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli on Monday. Norland called on countries supporting the LNA to stop “fueling the conflict, respect the UN arms embargo, and uphold commitments made at the Berlin Summit.” While Townsend added that, “All sides need to return to UN-led ceasefire and political negotiations because this tragic conflict is robbing all Libyans of their future.”
Sisi told the army to “be prepared to carry out any mission here within our borders, or if necessary outside our borders.” Yet, Sisi’s announcement rings hollow.
In truth, Egypt’s army is not suited for that kind of scenario. The fighting right now is about 1,000 km (600 miles) from the Egyptian border. The Egyptian army is designed for protecting the country and is not suited for campaigns far from its border. Sisi added that a military intervention has been legitimized by this point in the conflict.
Additionally, Egypt could risk losing aid from the United States if it were to intervene: In 2021, Egypt is set to receive $1.4 billion dollars in military aid from the U.S. Would he be willing to risk that? Most analysts think not.
Therefore, Sisi’s threat that Egypt could launch “external military missions” into Libya if “required,” is considered a bluff by most military analysts.
Others believe Sisi is making a calculated gamble by hoping that if the GNA forces stop their advance on Sirte, he can claim that his threat of military intervention is the reason behind it and boost his image (which is flagging badly in the entire Middle East) as a power-player in the Libyan war without having risked anything.
Both the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, which support the LNA, have publicly come out and supported Egypt’s decision to use troops. The U.A.E. has been pushing Egypt to get involved, but many in Cairo worry that they will fall into the same quagmire that the Saudis have in Yemen.
But if Egypt is bluffing, it is a very dangerous one. Sisi is close to painting himself in a corner. If he were to commit troops to Libya, it could prolong the civil war for years to come.