So far, neither the United States nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) nor the European Union have shown any political will to restrain Turkish adventurism in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly after the major reinforcements that Turkey has been sending to Libya. On Saturday, 20 June, press reports indicated that the Turkish government is deploying 1,800 Syrian mercenaries to Libya. The purpose is to beef up the forces of the Tripoli government poised to attack Sirte and Al-Jafra. On the same day, a Turkish official said that the withdrawal of forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar from Sirte is a condition for the ceasefire in Libya. A condition that Haftar will probably reject. If this is the case, then we should expect a fierce battle around the city. An advance towards this city to retake it would present a major escalation in the Libyan conflict, and could lead to a direct confrontation between the Egyptian and Turkish armies on Libyan soil. If this scenario materialises, the likelihood of the internationalisation of the war in Libya should not be discounted. Egypt will not fight alone, and Turkey will most likely find itself fighting a war it could never win.
On Saturday, 20 June, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited the headquarters of the Western Military Command where he reviewed the troops. Speaking to them and representatives of some Libyan tribes, he raised, for the first time, the prospect of deploying Egyptian forces in Libya if need be. He pointed out that Egypt considers the city of Sirte as well as Al-Jafra a “red line”, hinting directly that Egypt would defend them so that they don’t fall to the forces of the Tripoli government.
He referred to Egyptian efforts during the last nine years to bring security and stability to Libya, while defending its 1,200-kilometre-long border with Libya against the infiltration of terrorists coming from across the border. He pointed out that Egypt refrained from intervening in intra-Libyan affairs out of respect for historical bonds that have bound the Egyptian and Libyan people. However, he stressed that recent military developments in Libya have changed the equation from the point of view of Egyptian national security. He emphasised, repeatedly, that the main objective of Egypt is to push for a political solution in Libya in accordance with the Berlin Declaration last January, as well as US Security Council resolutions related to the situation in Libya, in addition to the disbanding of militias and defeating terrorist groups operating in Libya.
He added that the security and stability of Libya impact on Egypt’s security and stability. Furthermore, foreign intervention in Libya (most probably speaking of Turkey) had developed in such a way as to threaten neighbouring countries, including Egypt. In the meantime, he said that if foreign (read Turkish) intervention is not checked, that would undermine Arab national security.
He enumerated five objectives for the next moves that Egypt would decide. First, the protection and defence of the western borders of Egypt with Libya. Two, the restoration of security and stability within Libya. Third, to end the ongoing bloodshed throughout Libya. Fourth, the implementation of a ceasefire. Fifth, to push for the implementation of Security Council resolutions on Libya and the Berlin Declaration of January. In this context, the Egyptian president has reiterated Egypt’s support for the resumption of inter-Libyan talks on the three Berlin Conference tracks; namely, the financial-economic, the security-military and the political tracks. He brought up the Cairo Declaration of 6 June concerning the Libyan initiative reached between the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk, Mr Aguila Saleh and Haftar.
The remarks of the Egyptian president took almost everyone by surprise. Analysts agreed that the prospect of a major military conflict between Egypt and Turkey, unlikely a month ago, has become possible, with all its consequences on North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. This escalation comes at a time where Arab countries are divided as to how to rein in Turkey — in particular Algeria and Tunisia. The United Arab Emirates was the first Arab country to support Egypt, immediately, after the president’s remarks.
I personally believe that President Al-Sisi, by raising the prospects of direct military intervention in Libya, wanted his remarks to act as a deterrence and as a warning on the gravity of the Libyan situation amid deep and growing involvement of the Turkish military in the Libyan conflict. Deterrence for Turkey not to advance eastward towards Egyptian borders with Libya. And a warning to the international community that if it does not act forcefully to rein in the Turks, then the situation could get out of control throughout the region and the Mediterranean.
Such a war between Egypt and Turkey would cause divisions within the European Union and would push both the United States and Russia to try to restrain Turkey and find a face-saving formula for Turkey to drop the military option in Libya, and work for a ceasefire in Libya without prior preconditions.
The most dangerous thing about a military confrontation between Egypt and Turkey is it would be very difficult to control how it develops. Will the leading international powers with a direct stake in the security and stability of the region — and for that matter international peace and security — watch the conflagration with its grave repercussions far beyond the shores of Libya? It would be highly risky not to try hard to prevent such a confrontation from happening.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly