Turkey crosses Russian red lines in Libya, LNA awaits Egypt’s ‘Plan B’

Bashagha is known as one of Ankara’s major proxies in Libya and his attitude may open the gate for a direct Russian military intervention in Libya.
Monday 08/06/2020
Tripoli’s interior minister Fathi Bashagha speaks during an interview in March. (AFP)
Tripoli’s interior minister Fathi Bashagha speaks during an interview in March. (AFP)

TRIPOLI–The Minister of the Interior in the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Government of National Accord in Libya, Fathi Bashagha, has rejected international calls for an immediate ceasefire.

This means that Turkey has yet to absorb the Russian message that came with the Libyan National Army’s success to thwart the GNA militias’ attack on Sirte, whereby the militias sustained heavy losses in lives and equipment.

The message is that there are certain red lines on the ground not to be crossed, including the invasion of Sirte by GNA forces.

The attack on Sirte is being led by the Misrata Militias. Misrata lies at 270 km west of Sirte. Bashagha, who hails from Misrata, said that the GNA government will not take part of any political negotiations with the Libyan army until after the recapture of the city of Sirte and al-Jafra base, in defiance of the Cairo initiative, which was welcomed by the United States, Russia and France.

Bashagha, who is accused by Libyan citizens of having instigated and led the military coup carried out by the Dawn of Libya militia against the will of voters as expressed by results of the 2014 legislative elections, has resorted to using the scarecrow of the “Russian presence”, as evidenced by his declarations to the US news agency Bloomberg, to persuade Washington, which is now leading settlement efforts in Libya, to side with the GNA forces.

The West, led by the United States, is betting on a political settlement to withdraw the Libyan file from the under the feet of Russia and Turkey, but Bashagha’s insistence on pursuing the military option is jeopardising this strategy. Bashagha is known as one of Ankara’s major proxies in Libya and his attitude may open the gate for a direct Russian military intervention in Libya.

Bashagha insisted that the ground military operations of the GNA forces will continue until the complete recapture of Sirte and al-Jafra, and “preventing Russia from establishing a base in the country.”

He also tried to win over American public opinion by saying that the city of Sirte has a special importance to the United States. “It (Sirte) has a symbolic value for the Government of National Accord because that’s where a US-led coalition helped defeat ISIS in 2016,” he said.

“There will be political negotiations with the East, but Sirte and al-Jafra must be recaptured first… We need to prevent Russia from establishing bases in Sirte and al-Jafra,” he went on to explain.

Previously, the United States had issued satellite images of al-Jafra base showing the presence of MiG-29 fighter jets and SU-34 bombers, which Washington says are Russian but painted in the colours of the Libyan Air Force.

By inflating the Russian threat, Bashagha is hoping to persuade the decision-making circles in Washington of the need to nip in the bud any potential American anger at frustrating the US-led international efforts to return to the political track.

Bashagha’s boldness and defiance of the international community can be explained by his good relationship with decision-making circles in the United States, especially within the State Department, which condones Turkey’s violation of the international embargo on arms to Libya, and its dispatching of Syrian mercenaries, including extremist elements, in exchange for amplifying Russia’s role there.

The US diplomats who have been assigned missions in Libya since 2014 until now are accused of siding with the Islamists, which raises questions about whether the US State Department will risk continuing to support Turkey and the Islamists to thwart Russian ambitions in Libya. The move is risky because if those attempts fail, then the whole process for a political settlement in Libya will come crashing down.

The US embassy in Tripoli was the first to welcome the Cairo initiative, which was also approved by the Libyan army and Libyan parliament. This means that the US silence on Turkey’s military intervention was most likely aimed only at balancing power on the ground to force the LNA’s commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, to give up the military option and accept to negotiate.

Weeks ago, Western started focusing on how Russia had recruited Syrian mercenaries for the war in Libya. The focus covered up the fact that the military situation in Libya had radically changed following Turkey’s injection in the battlefield of Syrian mercenaries, Turkish drones and Turkish special forces and experts to manage ground operations and jam the radar signals of the LNA’s drones.

On Sunday, the city of Sirte was subjected to another attack by Turkish drones. This development came less than 24 hours after the Misrata militia suffered heavy losses that forced it to withdraw from the battle and return to the Abu Qurain area, about 138 km west of Sirte.

The Libyan army’s success to repel the attack on Sirte confirms its claim that its withdrawal from the vicinity of Tripoli and western Libya came in response to pressure from its allies to start the 5 + 5 talks sponsored by the United Nations Mission in Libya, and refutes the frequent reports that it has been abandoned by its allies, especially Russia.

Air raids on Saturday by LNA fighter jets on militia positions near Sirte have basically demarcated the red lines not to be crossed by Turkey and its proxy in Libya, the Islamist GNA. It is likely that those fighters were the ones that Washington accused Moscow of sending to support the army.

The Libyan National Army is still awaiting the Egyptian “Plan B”  in the event Turkey rejects the proposal of a ceasefire and immediate resumption of negotiations between the rival sides. The deadline given by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ends on Monday at 6:00 pm.

Vice President of the Presidential Council for the city of Misrata, Ahmed Maiteeq, who has excellent relations with Washington and who was in Moscow recently, is aware of the risk involved in persisting to attack Sirte, which prompted him to issue orders to the Misrata militia to halt their attack on the city.

On Sunday, local media quoted the spokesperson for the Military Information Office of the so-called Volcano of Rage Operation, Abdel Malek al-Madani as saying that there were pressure on their forces not to storm the city of Sirte.

Al-Madani said, “Maiteeq contacted the commander of the operations command for the liberation of Sirte and Jafra, Brigadier General Ibrahim Beit Al-Mal, and informed him of a message from the Russians telling him that ‘Sirte was a red line’and you have to withdraw to the village of Bouirat Al-Hassoun.”

Maiteeq was in Moscow early last week and the media talked about him offering the Russians lucrative deals in Libya, in a move to persuade them that there was no need for their military presence in Libya since their interests would be guaranteed. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the continued detention of Russian citizens by the Tripoli government hindered any cooperation between the two sides.

On Sunday, the GNA brought back to the surface the case of the two Russian “spies” in its custody, accused of collecting information about the military and political situation in Libya, as a veiled threat to Moscow.