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The unlikely war between Egypt and Turkey in Libya

July 14, 2020 at 10:57 am

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) forces in Tripoli, Libya on 27 March 2020 [Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency]

Many countries are engaged in what is a complex conflict in Libya, and so some obvious proxy wars are shaping up. For several reasons, Egypt and Turkey are the most involved due to the profound impact of what is happening in Libya on their national security and vital interests.

The Turkish intervention to support Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) came after the signing of an agreement last year for the demarcation of the maritime borders between the two countries. Turkey wants to secure a greater role for itself in the planned exploration for natural resources in the Mediterranean, and is seeking to weaken the anti-GNA forces of renegade Field Marshal Khalifa, who is backed by Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia, France and even Greece.

The US position on Libya is inconsistent and confused due to the lack of strategic interests. Washington put Libya on the margins of its military and diplomatic efforts, but Russia’s increased involvement in the conflict changed the US position, leading Moscow to impose a limit on its own intervention.

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Italy supports Turkey and the GNA, while France supports Haftar’s forces and Egypt. Greece’s role in support of Egypt and opposed to Turkey is limited to that of a spectator. Meanwhile, the UAE and Saudi Arabia back Egypt but have different perceptions, as Saudi Arabia goes no further than verbal support while the UAE cannot provide more backing to Haftar, and Egypt has exceeded its capabilities and capacity to do anything.

Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, 17 January 2020 [Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Flickr]

Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, 17 January 2020 [Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Flickr]

While Turkey conducted naval exercises and manoeuvres with Italy recently, France concocted an “issue” with a Turkish naval vessel. NATO — Turkey and France are both members — paid no attention to the French incitement.

Haftar’s catastrophic failure to take Tripoli following Turkey’s intervention was a strong blow to his allies, especially the UAE and Egypt. If Egypt decides to cross the border and intervene in its capacity as the most affected by the drawback, the UAE will find itself under pressure from the international community to find a peaceful solution and settle the conflict. Moreover, if Russia becomes more involved, it will face a major response from the US.

In this context, Egypt found itself in an awkward position when President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi threatened last month to intervene directly in Libya if the internationally recognised GNA enters Sirte, which is more than 900 km from the Egyptian border. Al-Sisi described Sirte as a red line, the crossing of which threatens Egypt’s national security. To demonstrate his seriousness, he carried out military manoeuvres on Egypt’s side of the border. Codenamed “Decisive 2020” they included exercises aimed at “eliminating mercenary elements from irregular armies”.

READ: Why is it wrong to share Libyan oil revenue now?

It seems that the Egyptian threats and manoeuvres will not change the new reality in Libya, and it is clear that Cairo’s aspirations have become more realistic. According to the Jerusalem Post, the current conflict in Libya is split along two tracks: Haftar’s control will bring to Libya a kind of conservative military rule that resists change, as in Egypt and the Gulf states. As for the Turkish-backed GNA, it may have a problem regarding the fragile stability after the blows caused by Haftar. Despite this, Turkey has proven that it is more skilful in transferring arms and defence technology to Libya. Its drones defeated the Russian missile defence system that the UAE took to Libya. This is how the Turkish backed forces managed to push Haftar’s militias back.

Given the international politics and developments in the field, will Libya remain physically divided along the red lines that Sisi referred to, and before him Putin, preventing the GNA from controlling Sirte and Al-Jafra Air Base in the heart of the country? Will Egypt interfere in a direct manner in Libya, rather than just providing arms as well as technical and air support? Will Egypt engage in a confrontation with Turkey?

All of this seems unlikely, as any intervention, if it happens, will be limited. Haftar and his supporters’ dream of controlling all of Libya is no longer possible.

On paper, the strength of the Turkish army is more or less the same as its Egyptian counterpart; both have F-16 jets and hundreds of other combat aircraft. The Egyptian army is the ninth strongest in the world on paper, with thousands of tanks. Turkey’s is placed at eleventh, but it is likely that being a member of NATO makes its forces more effective than Egypt’s.

READ: Guterres expresses ‘alarm’ at military build-up around Libya’s Sirte

That’s the theory. In reality, there is a wide gap in ability and effectiveness. Egypt has not been tested in any external confrontation for a long time, and for nearly half a century has been engaged in fighting weak armed groups at home. Its confrontations with the Daesh forces in the Sinai Peninsula for the past seven years have exposed its inefficiency in eliminating a limited insurgency by fewer than 700 fighters.

Turkey has experience and effectiveness in the face of a rebellion; its army has been involved in Syria for years, and deals with the Kurdish PKK forces. Turkish forces also tackled Daesh at its strongest.

The bottom line is that a war between Egypt and Turkey in Libya is unlikely. Such talk is illogical given that Al-Sisi’s “intervention” would be limited if it happens at all. Turkey, however, has shown that it is serious about standing alongside the GNA and committing to its vital interests and national security. Russia is aware that Turkey will not shift from its position in Libya, while the US realises that Ankara is determined to achieve its goals, and Washington is keen to support the Turkish government in order to limit its cooperation with Moscow and Tehran.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 12 July 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.