Airspace deal with Egypt brings Russia closer to Libya battlefield
Cairo - Egypt turned down a Russian request to establish an airbase in Egypt’s western desert in October 2016 but now the Russians want to achieve the same goal but by different means — using Egyptian bases and airspace.
Russia said it had signed an agreement with Cairo that would give each country access to the airspace and bases of the other. The deal, analysts said, would boost Moscow’s presence in North Africa and invite attention to possible additional Russian military action.
“With most of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) obliterated in Syria and the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad in control of strategic points in the country, Russia is close to finishing its mission in Syria,” said Saad al-Zunt, head of the Political and Strategic Studies Centre, an Egyptian think-tank. “Now, Russia plans to make its next move, which will most probably be to Libya.”
After Moscow disclosed the draft agreement, US Defence Secretary James Mattis was in Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi. Mattis also met with Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of Libya’s internationally backed government.
Egypt shares a 1,200km border with Libya that has turned into a burden for the Egyptian Army to try to protect. Analysts said Egypt has almost no strategic or military interest in using Russian airspace but Moscow stands to benefit from the deal by gaining a toehold near Libya, a country whose military used to be fully equipped by Russia.
Russia is not alone in eyeing Libya. The United States, Italy, France and much of the rest of Europe have expressed alarm at developments in the restive North African state. There are also fears, analysts said, that thousands of ISIS and al- Qaeda-linked terrorists could move from Syria and Iraq to Libya.
Shifting international attention to Libya coincides with developments in the war-torn country. Incidents in the last two months showed the size of the threat Egypt faces. On October 21, at least 16 — some non-government accounts said as many as 50 — policemen were killed 135km west of Cairo as they tried to stop Islamist militants who had infiltrated into Egypt’s Western Desert from Libya in pickup trucks carrying weapons and explosives. On November 24, attackers were said to have waived the black flag of ISIS during an attack on a mosque in North Sinai in which 310 people, including 28 children, were killed.
“It is clear the National Libyan Army cannot control the situation in eastern Libya, let alone the whole country,” said retired Egyptian Army Major-General Talaat Moussa. “This is why potential Russian air strikes on terrorist camps and concentration centres can prevent the terrorist threat from metastasising in Libya and seeping into Egypt.”
Analysts said Russian military involvement could counter involvement by Western powers that support Sarraj, who has been at loggerheads with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army.
“This Russian involvement will serve Egypt’s political and security interests in Libya best,” said political analyst Abdel Monem Halawa. “This involvement will ensure that Haftar will get enough support and that the fight against terrorism in Libya will be more than just putting up a show.”