Libya’s eastern-based parliament approved a motion authorising neighbouring Egypt to directly intervene militarily in the country’s war if needed to counter Turkey’s support for the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
The body in Tobruk backs renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, who fought a 14-month, ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to seize Libya’s capital, Tripoli, from the GNA.
After months of impasse, Turkish military support helped the GNA to turn the tide of the conflict in recent weeks and drive Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia – from Libya’s northwest.
The battle lines have now solidified near Sirte, a central coastal city seen as the gateway to Libya’s main oil export terminals.
In a resolution passed late on Monday, the Tobruk parliament authorised “Egyptian armed forces to intervene to protect the national security of Libya and Egypt if they see an imminent danger to both our countries”.
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Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said last month that Egypt could send troops into Libya, warning GNA forces not to cross the current frontline between them and LNA. In response, the GNA said it considered el-Sisi’s comments a “declaration of war”.
On Tuesday, Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, wrote on Twitter: “The drums of the war raging around Sirte in Libya threaten serious developments and dangerous humanitarian and political consequences.
“We in the UAE call for an immediate ceasefire and for wisdom to prevail,” he added, calling for inter-Libyan dialogue “within clear international frameworks”.
GNA spokesman Mohamad Gnounou vowed on Tuesday its forces would advance toward the “cities taken hostage” and “eradicate all outlaw groups”, an allusion to pro-Haftar forces.
Egypt’s military has said it had carried out exercises involving navy, air force, and special forces near the Libyan border in response to the “severe and rapid changes” in the region.
Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui – of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague – said despite the rhetoric, he did not see the imminent risk of a major military escalation.
“The military reality around Sirte has not changed significantly in the past two weeks,” said Harchaoui.
Sirte remained well-defended by pro-Haftar Russian and Syrian mercenaries with UAE logistical support, as well by dangerous minefields to the west of the city.
“Cairo’s political desire for a visible and official Egyptian intervention remains very tenuous,” he added.
At a time of regional economic and coronavirus pandemic woes, he said, “Egypt has other problems at the moment”.
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The comments came a day after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu dismissed prospects of any imminent ceasefire in Libya, saying Sirte and the Jufra airbase further inland needed to be turned over to the GNA before it agreed to a truce.
“There are preparations for an operation, but we are trying the [negotiation] table. If there is no withdrawal, there is already a military preparation, they [GNA] will show all determination here,” Cavusoglu told state broadcaster, TRT Haber.
Libya, a major oil producer, has been mired in chaos since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
Since 2014, it has been split between rival factions based in Tripoli and in the east, in a sometimes chaotic war that has drawn in outside powers and a flood of foreign arms and mercenaries.
Control over oil, the main source of state revenue, has emerged as the biggest prize in the current conflict, with eastern forces having imposed a blockade on production and exports since January.
Under international agreements, only the National Oil Corporation (NOC) based in Tripoli has the right to produce and export oil, while revenues must flow to the Central Bank of Libya, also located in the capital.
On Friday, international diplomacy led by the United Nations and the United States appeared to have ended the oil blockade when a first tanker was allowed to dock at Es Sider and load with oil from storage.
However, the LNA on Saturday said it was reimposing the blockade, a decision that the NOC blamed on the UAE.
The UAE said it wanted a swift resumption of Libya oil exports but only if some conditions were met.