Libya’s post-Gaddafi crisis may soon enter a new chapter that would internationalize the conflict to a whole new level. In light of Operation Volcano Rage, the ongoing campaign led by Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord to push General Khalifa Haftar’s forces in an eastward retreat, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is threatening to deploy Egypt’s military into the fray. According to the Egyptian president, forces aligned with the Tripoli-based government capturing Sirte or Haftar’s base in Juffra is his “red line.”
There are now valid reasons for Libyans and the international community at large to fear a dangerous scenario whereby Egypt and Turkey clash with each other. Concerns about an Egyptian-Turkish military confrontation in Libya come after seven months of bold actions taken by Ankara in defense of the GNA, which denied Haftar the opportunity to achieve his objective of “liberating” Tripoli from the GNA. The deployment of Turkish drones proved to be a major game-changer that not only enabled the Tripoli-based government to survive Haftar’s onslaught, but also raised the specter of pro-GNA militias moving east to crush their enemies in Benghazi.
The GNA’s recent gains have left officials in Cairo and some other Arab capitals worried about Turkey establishing itself as the “kingmaker” in Libya. Questions about what has motivated Turkey to intensify its military intervention in Libya have spurred much debate across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Europe. The Turks are unquestionably driven, at least in large part, by their energy interests in the gas-rich eastern Mediterranean. Also, following the Egyptian coup of 2013, which transformed Egypt from a Turkey-friendly Arab country to an anti-Turkish one, officials in Ankara do not want to see Haftar dominate Libya, which would only push Turkey into more of a state of relative isolation in the eastern Mediterranean.
Yet as many Arab actors see it, Ankara’s decisive actions in Libya factor into the Turkish leadership’s purported quest to re-establish the Ottoman Empire. Like other parts of the Arab region where Turkey has recently sent its military forces, or made plans to do so—including Iraq’s Sinjar, Syria’s Idlib, Sudan’s Suakin Island, and Qatar — Libya is a regional hotspot that the Ottomans once controlled. To many in the region, this fact of history cannot be ignored when assessing Turkish interests in Libya. Whether or not it is fair to argue that Turkey’s foreign policy is “Neo-Ottoman,” this is the perspective of many Arabs, including those who govern Egypt as well as Sissi’s patrons in the Gulf: the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
It is a safe bet that if Egypt’s military enters Libya to push back against Turkish-backed GNA forces, Cairo will receive high levels of support from its backers in the Gulf. Already, officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have declared their support for Sissi’s “red line” comments. In the event that Egypt enters Libya to fight against the pro-GNA forces, which Turkey sponsors, such an Egyptian military campaign would probably receive high levels of backing from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. As Samuel Ramani explained, the Saudis would likely give Sissi substantial financial backing while also bringing Saudi-backed Salafist forces in Libya to Cairo’s side in order to defend Haftar and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives from Operation Volcano Rage. Also, the Emiratis can be expected to lend support to Sissi in terms of logistics and air cover.
Dangerous game of chicken
There are no signs that Sissi’s threats are deterring the GNA-allied forces from continuing their eastward push. From a position of strength and with much momentum behind them, they are not seeking to enter round table talks with Haftar. The pro-GNA forces believe that Libya’s U.N.-recognized has the right to govern every inch of Libyan soil and that Haftar is a war criminal who must be defeated at all costs. From the GNA’s perspective, Sissi telling Libya’s internationally legitimized government what constitutes a “red line” is unacceptable.
On June 22, the GNA’s Defense Ministry issued a statement declaring that “it serves the interests of all brothers and friends to return Sirte and al-Jufra to the control of the state… We expect from all brothers and friends to support the legitimate government to achieve stability on the entire Libyan territory.”
Egypt, for its part, perceives a grave threat from the Muslim Brotherhood-linked factions and other Islamist actors who belong to the GNA and the militias that are loosely allied with the Tripoli-based government. As Sissi put it, an Egyptian military operation in Libya to push back against the GNA would “have international legitimacy” because his country would be fighting “threats from terrorist militias and mercenaries.” Like Abu Dhabi, the leadership in Cairo wants to see the Arab world as a Muslim Brotherhood-free region. Thus, Sissi’s regime does not want to have to live with a Turkish-friendly Islamist government in Libya that controls land along the Libyan-Egyptian border.
Implications for the West
Where is NATO amid this potential military confrontation between one its members and Egypt? The actors within this Western alliance are not at all on the same page.
France and Greece are sympathetic to the UAE and Egypt’s agendas in Libya. Both Paris and Athens have major problems with Ankara’s designs for the eastern Mediterranean. France has been a major sponsor of Haftar throughout the Libyan crisis, which has fueled significant friction between the French and Italians. Greece is supporting Haftar too, which fits into the country’s strategy for countering Turkish influence in the region, as does the recent Greek-Syrian rapprochement.
Italy is supportive of the GNA, which has contributed to a strengthening of Italian-Turkish relations. Rome’s perspective is that France has been totally misguided and reckless in backing Haftar, whose agenda in Libya is a major threat to Italy’s vital interest in stemming refugee flows across the Mediterranean. Like Qatar, Italy can be expected to give support in various forms to the GNA and, by extension, Turkey. However, one cannot expect the Italian military to enter the fray in order to boost Libya’s U.N.-recognized government if an Egyptian campaign against the GNA ensues amid the struggle for Sirte and Jufra.
Many are wondering if President Donald Trump’s administration would stand by America’s NATO ally, Turkey, or Egypt, which is ruled by his “favorite dictator.” The chances are good that Trump would not decisively side with one or the other. As is the case with countless international files, the Trump administration’s foreign policy is all over the map. Shortly after Haftar launched his westward offensive in April 2019, Trump spoke to Haftar by phone and congratulated him on his efforts to eradicate “terrorism.” Yet the administration has subsequently stressed its position that the GNA is Libya’s legitimate government and that Haftar is not a legitimate leader. Probably, the U.S. would give rhetorical support to the GNA, but not join Turkey in terms of giving arms to forces loyal to the Tripoli-based government.
An important Turkish objective in Libya has been to rally its NATO allies behind a pro-GNA agenda. In this regard, officials in Ankara may find themselves disappointed with a lack of support from the U.S. and other NATO members. At the same time, Egypt will likely receive strong support from many Arab League members, which the UAE will work hard to unite against Turkey’s actions in Libya as Abu Dhabi has done vis-à-vis Turkish military intervention in Syria and Iraq.
But the Egyptian military’s top brass is aware that entering Libya could easily lead to a nightmare. Turkey’s military has demonstrated its capabilities earlier this year in Idlib, and Turkish drones have also proven to be a huge factor turning the tide against Haftar in Libya beginning in late 2019 and early 2020. Egypt would likely find it difficult to decisively reverse the pro-GNA militias’ successes that have put Haftar on retreat. Additionally, against the backdrop of major terrorism and security challenges in the Sinai, an economy in horrible shape, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Sissi would be wise to reconsider his threats to intervene militarily in Libya.
Given these facts, the Turks and others in NATO must be hoping that Sissi is simply blowing hot air and sabre rattling. But if the Egyptian leader is not, the world may need to prepare for an Egyptian-Turkish war in Libya.