Egypt ponders response to Turkish military role in Libya conflict

The showdown between Turkey and the Libyan National Army has become more direct and pronounced following the June 30 arrest of six Turkish nationals.
Saturday 06/07/2019
Critical juncture. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, last April. (DPA)
Critical juncture. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, last April. (DPA)

CAIRO - Turkey’s open war against the Libyan National Army is giving rise to calls in Egypt for involvement to help the Libyan forces defeat Islamist militias controlling parts of Libya, including Tripoli.

The showdown between Turkey and the Libyan National Army (LNA) has become more direct and pronounced following the June 30 arrest by the LNA of six Turkish nationals.

The LNA also shot down a Turkish drone over Mitiga International Airport, near Tripoli. LNA spokesman Major-General Ahmed al-Mesmari said the aircraft was en route to an attack on the airport and LNA troops. Turkey vowed to retaliate.

The LNA has complained that Turkey provided Islamist militias with armoured trucks and unmanned aerial vehicles. Istanbul reportedly sent military commanders to train the militias and help them stop the LNA’s campaign to capture Tripoli.

These are serious developments for Egypt, where political and military analysts called on authorities to increase support to the LNA.

“The Turkish presence in Libya primarily aims at inflicting harm on Egypt’s national security,” said retired Egyptian Army General Gamal Eddine Mazloum. “This is why Egypt should not leave the Libyan army alone in this battle.”

Egypt has had its fill of Libya-induced turmoil. A branch of the Islamic State is active in Sinai and Egyptian authorities say the group gets its arms and explosives smuggled from Libya.

Militant groups in Libya have infiltrated the Egyptian border and attacked civilians and military personnel.

Libya is a national security issue for Egypt, which is why it features highly in talks between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and world leaders, including during the recent G20 summit in Japan where Sisi met with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Russian President Vladimir Putin and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Through its involvement in Libya, Turkey has again stepped into Egypt’s immediate vicinity, a worrying development for Cairo.

Cairo and Istanbul are at opposing ends of the ideological spectrum. Egypt has launched its own war against political Islam by cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. The administration in Turkey is a staunch backer of political Islam.

This is why it supports Islamist militias controlling Tripoli and is ready to fight the LNA.

“Turkey works hard to reserve a spot for itself within the regional political balance,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “It also wants to use Libya as a springboard for destabilising Egypt.”

Turkey has tried in recent years to rein in Egypt and punish it for causing the collapse of the aspired Muslim Brotherhood regional dominance when its army backed a popular uprising in 2013 against former Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

In late 2018, Turkey agreed with then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to take control of the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suakin, a few kilometres from Egypt’s Red Sea coast. Turkey has also been trying to stop Egypt’s efforts to create alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean region based on natural gas reserves.

Turkish military involvement in Libya is probably the closest it is approaching Egypt, which is why Cairo is watching events in Libya closely.

Egypt does not hide its support for the LNA and its commander, Khalifa Haftar. Sisi told Conte that Cairo’s support to the LNA is meant to help it fight terrorist groups so there could be elections that allow Libyan citizens to express their will.

The LNA ran into a major strategic loss June 26 by losing control over Gharyan, a city south of Tripoli.

The LNA captured Gharyan two days before it started its march towards Tripoli April 4. The city was a forward base for the LNA in its operations against terrorist militias in Tripoli. Some observers expect Gharyan’s loss to slow the LNA’s advance. The unleashing of Turkish hostilities would decelerate the advance more, the observers said.

On July 1, the Benghazi-based House of Deputies asked the Arab League to convene an emergency meeting on Turkish interference in Libya.

“Moderate Arab states have an obligation to support the LNA,” said Muftah al-Qilioshi, an adviser of the Supreme Council of Libyan Tribes and Cities. “If the LNA is defeated in this battle, Libya will turn into another Afghanistan, which will be a doomsday scenario for the whole region.”

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