Egypt’s Sisi threatens to strike Libya if Turkey captures Sirte

Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has threatened to intervene militarily in neighbouring Libya if Turkish-backed forces capture Sirte, a strategic city and gateway to important oil terminals on the Libyan Mediterranean coastline.

The warning adds to tensions in the war-torn Northern African country that has been a proxy battleground for regional and international powers vying for its hydrocarbon resources. Weapons and mercenaries have poured in to all sides stymieing United Nations efforts to forge a negotiated settlement and ensure international compliance with an arms embargo. 

In televised remarks after inspecting military units at an army base near the border with Libya, president Sisi warned that the fall of Sirte or the inland Jufra air base would be a “red line” for Egypt.

Any Egyptian action in Libya would “have international legitimacy” because it would be self-defence against “threats from terrorist militias and mercenaries”, he told soldiers. 

“If the Libyan people . . . asked us to intervene, this would be a signal to the world that Egypt and Libya are one country, one interest,” he added.

Cairo backs Khalifa Haftar, the eastern military strongman whose 14-month offensive to seize Libya’s capital Tripoli was thwarted largely because Ankara helped his opponents. Gen Haftar had to pull back from Tripoli’s outskirts after losses on the battlefield inflicted by Turkish drones backing up militias aligned with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord.

Mr Sisi also said hostilities should cease on current battle lines and called for “talks and negotiations” to reach a solution to the Libyan crisis.

The Egyptian president’s tough talk is “a message to Turkey that there are regional powers opposed to its intervention in Libya”, according to Ziad Akl, Director of North African Studies at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, an Egyptian think-tank.

“The aim is deterrence; Egypt does not want a single Turk to cross the line into eastern Libya,” he said. “It wants to relaunch negotiations. If Egypt intervenes, I think the last option would be boots on the ground.”

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi © John MacDougall/Pool/Reuters

Mr Sisi urged Libyan tribal leaders attending his address on Saturday to send their youths to Egypt where “we would train them, prepare them and arm them”. Cairo has also asked for an Arab League foreign ministers meeting to be held on Monday to discuss Libya.

Egypt has been alarmed by the intervention of Turkey, which it considers a regional foe because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood group, which Mr Sisi ousted from power in Egypt in 2013.

Another concern for Cairo — and the main reason it has supported Gen Haftar — was weapons and armed religious extremists pouring across its western border from mostly-lawless Libya, Mr Akl said.

Turkey has sent its GNA allies weaponry including drones and anti aircraft batteries. It has also dispatched military advisers, personnel to operate the drones, military advisers and Syrian mercenaries to beef up anti-Haftar forces.

Gen Haftar’s side has benefited from extensive arms transfers and diplomatic support from the UAE, Egypt, Russia and France. Moscow has supplied mercenaries and stationed sophisticated fighter jets in Libya after Gen Haftar’s defeats, in a warning to the Turks to limit their advance to northwestern Libya.

Analysts say that a ceasefire in Libya will depend on whether Russia and Turkey can reach an agreement first. Mr Sisi’s warmongering might reflect concern that Russia would accept a takeover of Sirte, said Wolfram Lacher, senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“Threatening intervention is also a way for Egypt to get back into the game to prove it is still a relevant actor and prevent Turkey and Russia from dividing it up between themselves,” he said.