Predictions on forthcoming developments in the Libyan crisis fluctuate between escalation and de-escalation. In Egypt, the intensive land and naval manoeuvres conducted along its western borders recently give the impression of preparations in advance of an impending storm. But Egypt’s political/diplomatic actions to advance a return to the political process have been no less dynamic and energetic.
The last UN Security Council (UNSC) session on Libya vividly demonstrated Egypt’s preference for a political solution, its desire to defuse the military escalation in Libya by halting the weapons and mercenaries that Turkey has been shipping to Libya, and backing for the peace-making role of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
Among the greatest threats emanating from Libya is the attempt of regional parties such as Turkey to impose realities on the ground that not only alter the military balance but also restructure the Libyan situation in a manner that threatens Egypt’s national security and the vital sphere that Cairo has identified as crucial to its national defence.
If Ankara moves its armies of mercenaries and militias beyond the red line that Cairo has drawn from Sirte to Jufra, Egypt will have every right to act in self-defence.
Informed sources have told Al-Ahram Weekly that because Egypt prefers to avoid “offensive” operations it has adopted a defensive posture conditional on the continual evaluation of developments.
They add that while Egypt needs to consider a variety of military eventualities due to the likelihood of impetuous actions on the part of belligerent forces, it is simultaneously sustaining a focus on promoting the internationally agreed on political process. So far, Egypt’s preparations have remained within its borders even though, in the past, it has undertaken limited missions within the framework of self-defence and the protection of its national interests.
According to the sources, Egypt will not intervene with its military machine outside the parameters which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi underscored when discussing the Egyptian army’s creed during his recent address in the Western Military Zone. Turkey, unfortunately, inclines in the opposite direction. It demonstrates its preference for military escalation with every shipload of weapons and every airplane full of jihadist mercenaries it sends to Libya, and every intimation of its intent to push beyond the Sirte-Jufra line.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has rejected a ceasefire proposal on behalf of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). In an interview with Haberturk TV, he said that the GNA would not benefit from a ceasefire along the current lines of combat and that it should advance to seize control of Sirte on the coast and the Jufra air base to the south before agreeing to a ceasefire.
Libyan observers told the Weekly that militias are advancing from Misrata and Tripoli towards the Gulf of Sirte and towards the Ghardabiya and Jufra air bases. The Libyan National Army (LNA) is reinforcing its positions on its side of the lines.
Libyan sources note that under the contentious agreement it signed with the GNA Ankara backed the GNA call for a withdrawal of the LNA to the 4 April 2019 lines (the date the LNA launched its operation to retake Tripoli) but that now it is speaking in terms of the 2015 lines.
The sources see this as a clear sign that Ankara wants to get its hands on Libyan oil and, most immediately, the reserves and facilities protected by the LNA and Libyan tribes. Both the LNA and the tribes have issued statements last week indicating their willingness to reopen the oil terminals in accordance with a clear set of rules for the equitable distribution of the revenues of Libya’s oil wealth between the three Libyan provinces (Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan).
Although the economic track of the UN-sponsored political process has endorsed the principle of equitable distribution of wealth, Tripoli-based politicians want to monopolise it and distribute the resources in three directions: to Turkish banks (as was revealed recently by Ramzi Al-Agha, head of the liquidity department of the Libyan Central Bank, Al-Bayda Branch); in military expenditures (the GNA militias, arms purchases — primarily from Turkish defence manufacturers — and the mercenaries), and to cover the GNA’s bureaucratic operating expenses, with no oversight mechanisms.
With so much money to gain, what is holding Ankara back from giving the mercenaries/militias the green light?
It has intimated that one reason is the Russian presence in Sirte and Jufra. Although Moscow has claimed it has no military presence on the ground in Libya, Turkish and US reports make frequent mention of the Wagner Group, a private military company they say is associated with the Russian Defence Ministry. Ankara is apparently afraid that the bill for any escalation in Libya will be presented to it in Idlib or elsewhere in Syria.
On the other hand, Ankara has indicated that it is ready to “back” a GNA offensive, as if it had nothing to do with Tripoli’s decision-making processes.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made it clear that Moscow knows where GNA decisions are made when he pointed out that the GNA, not the LNA, is the party that refuses to talk.
Some observers believe Russia is holding its cards very close to its chest on the Libyan crisis. This has led them to predict a repetition of the Syrian situation: indirect escalation between Russian and Turkey using their proxies, after or during which Moscow and Ankara will work out arrangements and accommodations in the manner of the Sochi agreement.
The US, which has grown increasingly ambivalent on the situation in Libya, also now appears willing to heighten tensions. On Sunday, the US Embassy in Libya released a statement claiming that it “regrets that foreign-backed efforts against Libya’s economic and financial sectors have impeded progress and heightened the risk of confrontation.”
It warned of isolation and the risk of sanctions against those who undermine Libya’s economy and cling to military escalation, and denounced incursions by the Russian Wagner Group against the Libyan National Oil Company (NOC) facilities. It added that this, combined with “mixed messages conceived in foreign capitals and conveyed by Haftar’s forces on 11 July, hurt all Libyans striving for a secure and prosperous future”.
Observers have interpreted this as a green light to the GNA to launch an offensive against Sirte if the oil facilities do not restart operations, and say it marks a reversal of the position the US adopted in a meeting with GNA military officials in Zuwara three weeks ago. According to a source familiar with that meeting, the US cautioned against a military operation that would target the Russians.
The UAE stepped in to defuse the situation the day after the US embassy statement. On 13 July the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash underscored the importance of using oil revenues to benefit the Libyan people, and urged the reopening of the oil fields and facilities.
On his Twitter account he stated, “the UAE, alongside its partners, wants to see a return to oil production in Libya as soon as possible, with safeguards in place to prevent the proceeds fuelling further conflict. We continue to work for an immediate ceasefire and return to a political process.”
Despite this, escalation still appears to be winning over peace. Sirte is poised to be the threshold for the next round of warfare that will reshape the situation on the ground in Libya and the international power games and interplay surrounding the crisis. Sadly, it is the Libyan people who will continue to pay the price.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly