Egypt’s military threats add another dangerous layer to the war in Libya – Trump could face a disaster if he doesn’t wake up

As Cairo, Moscow and Ankara all seek strategic gains in Libya, the US president – and the rest of the world – cannot ignore the conflict any longer

Fighters loyal to the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), south of Tripoli
Fighters loyal to the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), south of Tripoli

The conflict in Libya has taken a new turn. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi‘s threat to take military action if the city of Sirte or the strategic Jufra airbase fall to Turkish-backed forces adds another dangerous layer to a conflict already beset with outside powers seeking influence.

Sisi’s announcement happened in the Egyptian city of Sidi Barrani (less than 100km from the Libyan borders) where nascent Libyan military units once fought their first battles alongside the British against the Italians in 1940. Most of the fighters that made up these troops came from Barqa, a vast land swath covering the east coast has always been seen in Egypt as a strategic buffer zone.

Recent gains by the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) against the warlord Khalifa Haftar have forced the hands of a number of countries. Egypt sees an imminent threat to its interests in this region. This threat is primarily driven by talks between Russia and Turkey to be the nations that help broker the end of the conflict (and divide the spoils that will no doubt come with that) and the huge vacuum created by the indifference from the White House and Donald Trump’s administration.

While Turkey is backing the GNA and Russia is on Haftar’s side, the two countries are in a marathon to establish military bases, put their hands on oil production operations and likely set the course for further expansion in Africa. And, just like in Syria, they seem ready to strike a pragmatic agreement to help achieve that.

The GNA’s recent military gains, including stopping Haftar in his tracks in his attempt to capture Tripoli, have sparked talk of them pushing towards Sirte. Capturing this area means controlling a significant proportion of Libya’s energy output. It also provides an important military presence 200km south of the Italian coast. The race for power projection by any foreign country in this area means inforcing influence over any future political settlement.

Egypt is watching the Russian–Turkish positioning with great concern. Egyptian officials know well that both the Turks and the Russians are in Libya to stay. Any Turkish-backed military bases in Jufra or around Sirte poses a great threat to Egypt, not least politically..

Although France, Italy, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are all involved in their own way in Libya, the conflict is increasingly being drawn around Turkey, Russia and Egypt’s moves. No one in this The Good, the Bad and the Ugly-like tripartite trusts the others and everyone is out for themselves.

On Saturday, during a huge show of military power, Sisi threatened an “advance” if Sirte or Jufra fall. However, despite puffing out its chest, bellicosity has not been Egypt’s way with foreign policy for years – this suggests that the Egyptian intervention (if any) is likely to be limited and defensive in nature, and will aim at triggering peace talks.

But the change of emphasis in Cairo signifies concern at Turkey’s aggressive intervention and the absence of any active American role. The US inaction is sowing anarchy in Libya. It is not only encouraging all players’ quests to maximise their gains, but there is no clear diplomatic path that could satisfy all parties.

American diplomats are nervous that the new Egyptian belligerency could trigger a long-term proxy war in Libya. This is more than likely to be the case. But the Egyptians seem to have become desperate after seemingly mistakenly relied on US leadership that is not there.

Instead, President Trump, who is fighting for his badly damaged ratings, is not interested. After driving Haftar back to Sirte, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed in an interview that “some agreements” have been reached with Trump that could herald a “new era” in the conflict in Libya – though he offered no details. Twenty-four hours later, Sisi said that Trump supports an Egyptian peace initiative opposed by Turkey.

“He is a transactional negotiator who will keep telling Sisi and Erdogan whatever they like as long as it won’t cost him anything. He is an agent of chaos without realising what he is doing”, as Jonathan Winer, the former US Envoy to Libya, told me. He added: “The US won’t have a coherent solid policy in Libya unless [Joe] Biden gets elected in November.”

Celebrations as Libya town seized from rebel warlord

Now, France, which stands on Haftar’s side, seems fed up with the Americans and decided to walk its way in trying to deter Turkey. President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that France will not tolerate Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, and accused Ankara of playing “a dangerous game”.

The US has repeatedly hit out at presence of Russian Wagner mercenaries in Libya – something Moscow has denied having any connection with. This focus on Russia has also included sometimes throwing its weight behind the Turkish-backed GNA.

On Monday, Commander of US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend – who met with GNA officials about the need for a “strategic pause” in the fighting – again stressed “the dangers posed by Russia’s support for Wagner operations and the strategic importance of ensuring freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean.” Foreign ministers from the Arab League also held an emergency meeting today to try and find a diplomatic solution.

The circling around Libya from a number of nations is becoming a case study in what can happen when the US isolates itself and retreats from global diplomacy.

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