June 22, 2020
Warning update: Egypt’s Libya threat risks larger Mediterranean war
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
Egypt is preparing for a military intervention to prevent Turkish-backed forces from advancing into eastern Libya. A limited Egyptian intervention may temporarily freeze the Libya conflict but will not advance it toward resolution. Egypt’s direct involvement also raises the risk of direct confrontation with Turkey—an unlikely but serious outcome that could spark or heighten conflict throughout the region. Meanwhile, Russia is positioned to benefit from both the Egyptian intervention and rising tensions between Turkey and fellow NATO members over its ambitions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi stated on June 20 that Egypt has a legitimate right to intervene in Libya and ordered the Egyptian military to be prepared to do so. Sisi declared the current front line, which lies west of Sirte and Jufra in central Libya, a “red line” in a bid to preserve his Libyan ally’s control of a critical oil-producing region.
Sisi’s threat is an attempt to preserve leverage and secure Egyptian interests after a change in the balance of power in Libya the past month. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia had backed Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar in an attempt to seize Libya’s capital Tripoli starting in April 2019. Turkey intervened in January 2020 on behalf of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and stalled the LNA advance. Turkish military support then helped GNA-aligned forces turn the tide. Haftar’s forces withdrew from the Tripoli front in early June, ending the 13-month effort to seize the capital. Sisi convened eastern Libyan leaders, including Haftar, to announce a unilateral cease-fire on June 6. Sisi’s June 20 assertion that an Egyptian intervention would be legitimate is based on the claim that it would be enforcing a cease-fire.
Sisi seeks to hold the line at Sirte and Jufra to prevent a Turkish-backed advance into the oil crescent region, which Haftar’s forces seized in September 2016. Sisi’s June 20 threat was likely triggered by a Turkish statement earlier that same day that a cease-fire would be possible only if LNA forces returned to their 2015 positions—meaning withdrawing from Sirte and ceding control of oil infrastructure. Losing the oil crescent would severely degrade Haftar’s already shaky position and would weaken other political and tribal leaders through whom Cairo exerts influence. Jufra district is critical as the LNA’s westernmost military position used to support defending Sirte and pressuring Misrata, a key hub for GNA-aligned militias in the northwest. Jufra airbase also houses Russian mercenaries and aircraft that support the LNA. GNA consolidation of the line the Turks propose would give the GNA control over the bulk of Libya’s oil infrastructure, removing a key point of leverage that Haftar has used to shape negotiations. Such an advance would severely limit the LNA’s ability to strike into western Libya while allowing GNA-aligned forces to pressure LNA power centers directly, reversing the westward trajectory of the Libya conflict since 2014.
Sisi is attempting to preempt the destabilization of eastern Libya, which would renew cross-border security threats (likely including Salafi-jihadi militant activity). Sisi is also likely responding to domestic pressure following allegations that GNA-aligned militias tortured Egyptian migrants near Tripoli. The UN is investigating the reported abuses. The Egyptian government secured the release of some workers detained by GNA-aligned militias on June 17.
The situation on the ground is tense. GNA-aligned forces are preparing to launch an offensive on Sirte, and LNA forces have announced a no-fly zone and the *deployment of reinforcements in response. Russian mercenaries have begun flying combat aircraft sorties out of Jufra airbase, according to satellite imagery released by US Africa Command (AFRICOM) on June 18. Egypt had begun to build up additional materiel at al Salloum on the Libyan-Egyptian border as of June 8. There are unconfirmed reports of Egyptian and possibly Emirati aircraft in Libyan airspace as of June 22.
What comes next?
Egyptian leaders likely seek to avoid a full-fledged intervention in Libya, particularly as Egypt faces multiple serious challenges that include rising tensions with Ethiopia over its Nile dam, the ongoing counter-insurgency against Islamic State militants in the Sinai Peninsula, and the economic and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most likely scenario is an Egyptian show of force to persuade Turkey to scale back its support and limit the advance of its Libyan partners, who are reliant on Turkish drones and air defense assets. This scenario would freeze the conflict around the current front line, allowing for a temporary reduction in tensions.
This scenario is possible because Egypt has accepted the Turkish presence in western Libya and possibly the southwest, at least in the near term. Egypt and Turkey’s other opponents, including the UAE, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, are unlikely to mount a significant military operation to dislodge Turkey. They will likely seek to undermine Turkish ambitions over time, particularly if Ankara pursues military basing in western Libya. They would likely do so by exploiting the fragmentation of Libya’s political and security sectors to empower anti-Turkish factions; Sisi in his June 20 speech said that Egypt could potentially train and arm tribal militias to fight “terrorist militias,” referring to Turkish-backed forces.
This de facto partition would set conditions for future rounds of civil war in Libya, echoing Libya’s recent history. As with Haftar’s 2019 Tripoli offensive, external players and Libyan factions would spoil any significant political progress that threatened to undermine their positions.
A worst-case scenario is possible in the near term if key players miscalculate. Egypt, the UAE, and Russia appear to have misjudged Turkey’s willingness to commit assets to Libya. A similar miscalculation could prove disastrous in the current combustible environment. Should Turkey overreach and seek to call Egypt’s bluff by supporting an invasion of the oil crescent, it could incite an unexpected retaliation from Cairo. Such a direct conflict remains unlikely, but it is an extremely dangerous possibility with regional implications that could be set off by mistakes or miscalculations in an already fraught environment.
What are the implications?
Egypt, the UAE, and Russia have scaled down their ambitions in Libya in the near term. The Turkish intervention thwarted Haftar’s backers’ hopes that he could take control of the country by force. They are now trying to secure their core interests—especially Egyptian security—while working to shape political outcomes to preserve their influence. Egyptian and Russian military support continues to bolster Haftar, whose power base is fragmenting. The UAE has tempered its support for Haftar; the Emirati Foreign Minister criticized Haftar’s *unilateral decisions on June 17.
The Turkish intervention in Libya is straining its ties with both Russia and NATO. The Turkish-Russian diplomatic channel is disrupted, likely temporarily. Turkey initially responded to Sisi’s June 6 cease-fire declaration by reaching out to the US and Russia. US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke on June 8 and June 9. Turkey has also sustained direct engagement with Russia, but that channel is temporarily disrupted by disagreements over conditions. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on June 15 that planned talks in Istanbul between the Turkish and Russian Foreign and Defense Ministers have been postponed, adding that talks would continue at the technical level. The dispute reportedly centers on the leadership of a Libyan unity government. Russian officials *offered to replace Haftar with Libyan House of Representative Speaker Ageela Saleh, while the Turks sought to preserve GNA Prime Minister Serraj and subordinate Saleh to him. A Turkish newspaper reported that Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke this *this weekend.
Meanwhile, tensions between Turkey and other NATO countries are rising. Turkey has been inching toward military confrontation with Greece and France in the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey’s interest in Libya centers on establishing a maritime corridor between the two countries that would allow Turkey to exploit lucrative hydrocarbon resources—including in waters claimed by Greece. Turkish frigates intervened to prevent the Greek and French Navies from inspecting a cargo ship suspected of transporting weapons to the GNA three times in May and June, drawing condemnation from France. France has also accused Turkey of repeated radar targeting of French naval vessels. NATO is investigating the incidents. In response, Turkey accused France of violating the UN arms embargo on Libya by arming the LNA.
Russia may leverage Egypt to secure its interests vis-à-vis Turkey in Libya. The Kremlin seeks to avoid a direct confrontation with Turkey and must weigh interests in Libya against higher priorities in Syria and Europe. An Egyptian intervention, likely funded with UAE support, would secure Russia’s interests without a significant financial or military outlay beyond the participation of preexisting mercenaries and aircraft. An Egypt-led intervention would also allow Moscow to continue to cultivate its role as a peace broker and kingmaker in Libya. Russia may have coordinated directly with Egypt on its plans. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with President Sisi on June 8, a week before the Russia-Turkey meeting on Libya was postponed. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov *spoke with the Egyptian Foreign Minister on June 21, the day following Sisi’s statement, emphasizing support for an immediate cease-fire and opposing a military solution. The Kremlin likely seeks to preserve a façade of neutrality to advance its peace broker role. An Egyptian intervention may also present opportunities for Moscow to advance its long-running interest in placing Anti Access/Area Denial systems in either Egypt or Libya, a move that Moscow would likely frame as either support for upholding a cease-fire or counterterrorism.
Russia will benefit from the long-term effects of the Libya crisis even if it cannot secure its first-choice outcomes in Libya. Turkish-French tensions and Turkish efforts to normalize arms embargo violations in Libya advance Russia’s long-running efforts to divide NATO and erode the effectiveness of embargoes and economic pressure.
Russia is trying to broker an agreement that will preserve its interests by placing at least some Russia-backed figures in power in Libya. The Kremlin is willing to preserve the current front line and also seeks to avoid losing the oil crescent. Russian mercenaries flying sorties from Jufra airbase are likely intended to deter an offensive by Turkish-backed GNA forces on Sirte, considered the gateway to the oil crescent.
Russia sustains its contacts with the GNA but is currently focused on a specific grievance related to Russians imprisoned for attempting to meddle in Libya’s elections. The GNA deputy prime minister went to Moscow on June 3 for a *meeting in which Foreign Minister Lavrov demanded that the GNA release prisoners as a condition for cooperation. The dispute focuses on two Russians imprisoned by the GNA on charges of political meddling—a story that has drawn unusual focus as the subject of a feature-length film shown on Russian state television.
Algeria may grow more involved to counter increased Egyptian involvement in Libya. GNA Prime Minister Serraj met with the Algeria president on June 20. This comes as Algeria redrafts its constitution and reconsiders its long-standing non-interference policy to allow the deployment of peacekeeping forces. Algeria seeks to counter-balance Egyptian influence in North Africa and prevent instability on its border with Libya. An Algerian military intervention remains very unlikely, but Algiers will continue to step up its diplomatic efforts to avoid a larger war in Libya.
Persistent conflict benefits Salafi-jihadi groups based in Libya. The Islamic State previously took control of Sirte after Libya’s 2014 civil war froze along a similar front line to today’s conflict. While the Islamic State lacks the capability to seize a population center, it continues insurgent attacks in the country’s southwest and likely has the latent ability to strike politically significant targets in the capital region. The protraction of this phase of Libya’s war will create favorable conditions for the Islamic State to strengthen, particularly if the conflict destabilizes southwestern Libya.