Libya’s House of Representatives (HOR) at Tobruk — one of two “governments” functioning in the country — last month passed a resolution calling on Egypt to intervene militarily “to protect the national security” of the two neighbors. A week later, the Egyptian parliament gave President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi full authority “to defend Egyptian national security in the western strategic direction,” setting the stage for a possible regional war.
In April last year, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, backing the HOR, had launched his forces against the other government in Libya: The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which enjoys formal UN recognition. Haftar made rapid progress, capturing territory in central Libya and then besieging Tripoli.
The apparently imminent fall of Tripoli brought in Turkey on the side of the GNA. Through an agreement in November, Turkey boosted the GNA with aircraft, missile systems, military vehicles, armed drones, Turkish advisers and, above all, about 8,000 fighters from Syria. By April this year, the rejuvenated GNA forces had taken seven major coastal towns, the road from Tunisia to Tripoli and the Tripoli-Misrata highway, forcing a discredited Haftar to retreat from the fighting in May.
Haftar offered a Ramadan cease-fire, but the GNA rejected the offer. Turkey’s defense minister said a cease-fire would only be considered after the coastal town of Sirte, the country’s principal oil outlet, and the Al-Jufra airfield come under GNA control. This compelled the HOR to seek a direct role in the conflict for Egypt. Cairo has declared that Sirte and Al-Jufra are a “red line” it will not allow the GNA or Turkey to cross.
Turkey is now the central player in a country 2,300 kilometers across the Mediterranean. Its affiliation with the GNA is based on a shared ideological affinity with political Islam. This has obviously placed it in opposition to Egypt, which has concerns relating to national and regional challenges from the Islamist ideology.
The US has been pushed into taking a greater interest in Libya due to fears of heightened violence.
Ankara also has a broader regional agenda: Perhaps inspired by the Ottoman Empire at its peak, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to make Turkey a major presence on the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean stages. This explains Turkey’s military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Libya, as well as its forays in the Eastern Mediterranean. Last year’s agreement between Turkey and the GNA carved out an exclusive economic zone in the Eastern Mediterranean that encroached on Cypriot and Greek maritime claims and challenged the cooperation in these waters between Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece. Thus, Egypt’s emerging confrontation with Turkey in Libya has both ideological and strategic bases.
Another important external player in the Libyan imbroglio is Russia. Moscow’s interests here are multifaceted; with Haftar in command of Libya, it would be able to revive the energy and investment contracts it had finalized with the former Qaddafi regime. But Russia is also anxious to be an influential presence in both North Africa and the Mediterranean. It sees the latter as a natural space for its naval activities, particularly given its base at Tartus, on the Syrian coast.
Russia is apparently backing Haftar with about 2,000 mercenaries from its private company, Wagner. Surprisingly, both Turkey and Russia have also brought in fighters from Syria to support their respective sides. Turkey has deployed 8,000 militants from the Idlib area who have been lured to the Libyan battlefields by the promise of handsome reward. Russia has brought in Syrian rebels who had surrendered to government forces and have come to Libya to clean their record and for the monthly salaries of $800 to $1,500 that were promised to them.
The US has been pushed into taking a greater interest in Libya due to fears of heightened violence, contentions in the Mediterranean and the increased Russian presence. US officials are now highlighting the dangers posed by Russian mercenaries and threats to free navigation in the Mediterranean, and have called for “a strategic pause in military operations” by all parties. President Donald Trump has also made frantic calls to Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron in a bid to “de-escalate” the situation.
Observers have tended to play down the possibility of actual conflict between Turkish and Egyptian forces in Libya. Turkey, in particular, faces serious logistical issues in supporting its forces. War would also mean a humanitarian disaster, with thousands of refugees potentially seeking sanctuary in Europe, as well as extremist elements proliferating in Libya and finding their way to other conflict zones in the region. Hence, major world powers have strong incentives to prevent a larger conflict involving foreign armies.
An interim arrangement would involve the de facto division of Libya into its eastern and western parts, but this would still throw up issues relating to oil production, oil exports and the sharing of revenues. Perhaps the joint working group that Russia and Turkey are planning to set up will address these matters and achieve a viable national truce. Otherwise, the conflict in Libya will result in a major regional conflagration.
Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at the Symbiosis International University in Pune.