Six years ago, Libya saw a division in power between two authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk.
The ongoing Sirte-Jufra battle involves fighting between the two authorities, including the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the troops of the Government of National Accord (GNA).
Who backs whom
The LNA and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives developed an alliance, controlling Libya’s oil-rich, eastern regions. Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates back the LNA.
The GNA, backed by Turkish troops, Syrian mercenaries and Qatar, functions in Tripoli and controls Libya’s western and northwestern areas. According to a recent report by the US Defense Department, Turkey sent between 3,500 and 3,800 Syrian mercenaries to Libya in January, February, and March 2020.
Prior to 2014, it was much harder to define the key players in Libya’s ongoing war, for the country saw an armed conflict between a long list of local actors that began after an uprising and loss of power by long-serving leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
How it all started
LNA leader Khalifa Haftar — a former general of the Libyan army — launched a military campaign, including air strikes, against Islamist militant groups in Benghazi in 2014, which he successfully concluded in 2017.
Parliament, established in 2014, did not recognise the GNA. In fact, it was not happy to see Islamist militants controlling both Tripoli and the GNA, deciding to move to the eastern city of Tobruk.
In December 2015, the United Nations (UN) mediated the so-called Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). By virtue of the LPA, the Tripoli-based Presidency Council (PC) leads the GNA, which is required to earn the approval of the parliament in Tobruk. But parliament voted twice against the list of GNA ministers.
The political deadlock led Haftar’s LNA to resume his anti-Islamist campaigns, succeeding in spreading his control over the two cities of Derna and Sirte after defeating pro-GNA local fighters and Islamist, and GNA troops in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
Sirte is located about 230 miles (370 kilometres) east of the capital Tripoli, which is controlled by the GNA, while Derna lies 165 miles (265 kilometres) away from Libya’s western borders with Egypt.
The geopolitical significance of both cities explains the strategic value of such victories by the LNA.
Fight over Tripoli
Meanwhile, the LNA started its offensive on Tripoli in 2019, though — almost one year later — conducting a "redistribution and repositioning in the battle fronts, disengaging from some crowded residential areas." The GNA, in parallel to this development, succeeded in recapturing several territories, including the northwestern town of Bani Walid, Tarhuna city and the western Al-Watiya air base.
The GNA and its Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj could not have managed to make such gains without the military intervention of Turkey. Yet, the Turkish-GNA operations did not go beyond this stage at such point in time, for they were mainly concerned with stopping the military gains made by the LNA. This is why they are now looking forward to establish control over Sirte and Al-Jufra.
By sending troops and mercenaries to Libya, Turkey is providing on-ground backing to one out of few remaining Islamist forces in the region, expanding its regional role — as it is militarily involved in parts of Syria and Iraq — and increasing its chances in having access to natural resources.
Turkey signed an accord with the GNA last year to create an exclusive economic zone from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast. Some of the areas involved are around Cyprus, and the latter accuses Turkey of searching for gas in its territorial waters. This implicitly leads to the conclusion that Turkey and the GNA have concluded an oil-for-protection agreement.
Insisting on moving forward towards Sirte and Al-Jufra, on 14 July, the GNA’s spokesperson Mohamed Kanono stressed that "the time has come for oil to flow once again and to beat the hands messing with the Libyans' troops."
This also explains the significance of Sirte and Al-Jufra for the GNA and the Turks. Sirte, for example, gives whoever controls it access to tens of oil pipelines and gas tubes across the Mediterranean. From Sirte to Benghazi, this is 570-km coastal area.
For the LNA — which controls Libya’s oil crescent — and its backers, especially Egypt, the priority in Libya goes to security considerations.
An alliance of Libyan tribes recently announced the opening of oil fields and the approval for the LNA's general command, in cooperation with the UN and the international community, to ensure that "oil revenues do not fall in the hands of terrorist militias."
Speaking in front of Zueitina Oil Company in Tripoli, leading tribal figures and sheikhs said they previously "stopped [oil] production and export to call on the international community and the UN to develop a mechanism" that guarantees that oil is not controlled by militias. This led to an increase in food prices and the US dollar exchange rate and an inability by the state to pay the salaries of citizens, they added.
"We willingly allowed the flow of oil and we will shut it down if the oil is used again to kill and intimidate us," the tribal leaders warned. The LNA, which has the same position on the oil issue, also called for developing a mechanism through which Libya’s oil revenues are fairly distributed across the North African country.
In June, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi called on Libyan parties “to respect the current lines and start negotiations. ”El-Sisi said that Sirte and Al-Jufra are "considered a red line for Egyptian national security." He also said that Egypt has called for a comprehensive settlement in Libya that involves the elimination of terrorist militias and has participated in Libya-related international conferences and supported crisis-resolution efforts.
On 14 July, the Libyan parliament authorised an Egyptian military intervention if need be to protect Libya's "national security" amid the ongoing "Turkish occupation.”