Cairo assesses its options as Turkey deal ramps up Libya conflict

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - An ominous showdown is quickly building in the east Mediterranean over Libya, with an escalation of hard-line rhetoric that could lead to even more violence in the troubled North African country.

The latest chapter in the bloody and chaotic history of post-Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya began with the leader of the government in Tripoli led by Fayez Al Sarraj signing joint defence and maritime demarcation agreements with NATO-member Turkey. But the deal has sparked consternation across the Mediterranean from Athens to Cairo, and has angered Libyan Speaker of Parliament Aqilah Saleh who said the deal is “unacceptable”.

Egypt, Libya’s neighbour to the east, accuses Turkey of supporting militant Islamic groups and fomenting unrest in the region.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that his country could send troops to fight alongside the Tripoli government’s allied militias as early as January in the battle for the capital.

The Libyan National Army, backed by the eastern administration in Benghazi, launched an offensive in April to capture Tripoli and end what it called the rule of the militias. However, bogged down on the outskirts of the capital, the fighting has become a lengthy standoff with neither side being seen as having the military clout to win decisively.

There has been a flurry of media reports that Turkey will transfer Islamist militants from Syria to fight alongside the Tripoli militias. Bloomberg reported on Friday that Ankara would deploy an ethnic Turkmen rebel group from Syria’s north-east as well as the Turkish navy to defend the Libyan capital while the Turkish military would provide support and training.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he addresses the members of his ruling party, in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019. Erdogan says Thursday his government will submit a bill to parliament that would allow Turkey to send troops to Libya, in support of the U.N.-backed government there. Erdogan said the Libyan government, which controls the capital, Tripoli, has
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says on Thursday that his government will submit a bill to parliament that would allow Turkey to send troops to Libya. Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool

Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Egypt’s president who led the 2013 removal of a Turkish-backed and divisive Islamist president, has repeatedly made it clear in recent weeks that his country would not tolerate “illegitimate foreign interference” in Libya. He has pointed out that what happens across Egypt’s 1,200-km border with Libya directly impacts his country’s national security.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says on Thursday that his government will submit a bill to parliament that would allow Turkey to send troops to Libya.

The Egyptian leader says that he has no intention of sending troops to bolster the LNA, saying earlier this month that “we will not directly intervene in Libya.” But his comments leave the door open to Cairo ramping up its existing logistical and training support for the LNA and possibly increasing aerial support.

Elaborating on the president’s assertion, Imad Hussein, editor of Al Shorouk, an independent Cairo daily that is close to authorities, sounded a stern warning about military involvement in Libya. Any military, boots-on-the-ground involvement by Egypt in Libya, he wrote, would create a quagmire similar to Cairo’s intervention in Yemen in the 1960s.

But the threats for Egypt remain.

In recent years, Libyan-based militants have waged a series of deadly, cross-border attacks against Egyptian security forces and minority Christians travelling to remote monasteries near the Libyan border.

Already fighting a years-long insurgency by Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, the cross-border desert attacks have prompted Egypt to commit vast resources to police its porous border with Libya and seek US help to bolster its technological capabilities for more efficient surveillance.

On several occasions, Egypt has announced that it carried out airstrikes against militant positions in eastern Libya. One of those airstrikes was in response to the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in 2015 by ISIS.

But, short of direct military involvement to stop Turkey from gaining a foothold in Libya or importing militants to the energy-rich nation, Egypt could use other means.

Libyan protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand an end the battle for Tripoli, in Martyrs' Square in the centre of the capital. Reuters

“Regardless of Turkey’s goals and justifications, Erdogan’s latest moves have doubled the chances of military operations and clashes,” Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister who now heads a prestigious Cairo-based think tank, wrote over the weekend in the Cairo daily Al Masry Al Youm.

“Egypt … may find itself forced to carry out specific and targeted military operations to deter Erdogan or confront any additional escalation by him.”

Libyan protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand an end to Khalifa Haftar's offensive against Tripoli, in Martyrs' Square in central Tripoli, Libya December 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Libyan protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand an end the battle for Tripoli, in Martyrs' Square in the center of the capital. Reuters

One scenario that Egypt must avoid, said Mohammed Anis Salem, a retired UN diplomat and now a member of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Relations, is a drawn-out conflict in Libya similar to that tearing Syria and Yemen apart.

“It seems that, when it comes to Libya, the focus is exclusively on the prospect of a military conflict. There has to be a diplomatic initiative that engages and contains Turkey and the National Accord government in Tripoli,” he said. “But there are red lines, too. Egypt cannot allow a significant Turkish military presence in Libya that upsets the military balance in the area or negatively impact on Egypt’s security.”

Whatever course of action Egypt chooses, Mr El Sisi has been investing time and effort in recent weeks to rally support to contain the issue. Over the past week, he has discussed Libya on the phone with some half dozen foreign leaders, including US President Donald , Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Presidential readouts on these talks say little on the substance, but their language clearly suggests Egypt is prepared to take action to prevent Turkey from gaining ground in Libya.

Egypt has another key interest in foiling Turkish plans in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara’s maritime agreement with Tripoli’s government, dismissed as illegal by Cairo and others, significantly expanded Turkey’s continental shelf, thus infringing on Egypt’s ambitious plans with Cyprus, Greece and Israel to turn the region into a global energy hub following the discovery of natural gas there in massive quantities.

Turkey has been unhappy that it was left out of these plans and has been trying to force itself into the scheme, exploring for gas off the shores of Cyprus, an island nation that Turkey has occupied a third of since 1974 when it invaded following a short-lived, Greek-inspired coup. The European Union slapped sanctions on Turkey for drilling for gas in the waters off Cyprus, an EU member.

Updated: December 29, 2019 09:24 PM

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