Over the weekend, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a backer of eastern Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, threatened to deploy troops to halt an advance by fighters loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli on the coastal city of Sirte as well as a key airbase in the southern town of Jufrah.
“The preparedness to fight has become inevitable and necessary amid the prevailing instability and turmoil in our region,” Mr Sisi said in a speech to military officials.
The GNA, backed militarily by Turkey, called Mr Sisi’s threat a “declaration of war,” and refused to halt its offensive. “We reject this, condemn it and consider it an act of aggression, a blatant intervention, which amounts to a declaration of war,” the GNA said in a letter Sunday.
The Arab League is scheduled to discuss the confrontation in Libya during an emergency session on Tuesday, but Tripoli is boycotting.
“We urge parties to commit to a ceasefire and resume negotiations immediately,” the US Embassy declared in a tweet, but efforts at diplomacy appeared to be failing.
Turkey and its allies appear confident of a win and in no mood for a deal. , and Mr Haftar and his supporters abroad, humiliated in weeks of battlefield advances, are reluctant to give any concessions from a position of weakness.
“The Turks had a point,” said one western diplomat involved in Libya affairs. “They had to establish deterrence. Now they are acknowledging that they want to take control of the whole territory. They are saying Haftar has to go.”
Libya’s civil war has been deadly, disruptive and gruesome. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and hundreds killed. Last week came the discovery of mass graves filled with scores of bodies in the city of Tarhouna, where a militia loyal to Mr Haftar was pushed out last month by GNA forces.
“Civilians in Libya continue to suffer disproportionately,” Stephanie Williams, the acting UN envoy to Libya, said last week in a presentation. “One million people are now in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.”
Sirte, a city of some 50,000 people, is significant as the last major urban cluster before a set of crucial Libyan oil facilities and depots located on Libya’s eastern Meditarranean shore and controlled for now by forces loyal to Mr Haftar. It is home to a local population filled with supporters of Gaddafi who are allied with Mr Haftar and remain intensely hostile to the Islamist-tinged government in Tripoli.
It was controlled by militias loyal to the GNA until earlier this year, and both Ankara and the Tripoli government have said they would halt their offensive and be open to peace talks once it and Jufrah are under their control.
Egypt boasts significant air and ground forces which could boost Mr Haftar in the battlefield and challenge any forces Turkey and the GNA could muster.
But Marsa Matrouh, the last city at the Egyptian border where its troops are garrisoned, is some 15 hours away from Sirte. Meanwhile, Turks and allied GNA militias have a strong presence in Misurata, which lies less than three hours from Sirte, and Ankara has been flooding western Libya with military material and personnel for months.
“Egypt’s political will to enter a physical contest with the Turkish-backed GNA coalition is not big,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a north Africa specialist at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands. “Turkey and the GNA forces are ready to move forcefully into both Sirte and Jufrah any day now.”
Mr Sisi has appeared disappointed in Mr Haftar’s failures but is also under pressure from financial backers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who are hostile to the GNA’s inclusion of populist Islamist factions and see Turkey as a strategic threat. Egypt also views events in Libya with grave concern, worried troubles could spill over into its borders.
“I believe the assertive language is serious and could lead to some form of action or military deployment even if largely symbolic,” said one Egyptian military analyst. “It appears Egypt’s intent is to force ceasefire negotiations by acting as counterbalance to Turkish and GNA strength on the ground.”
The conflict in Libya has drawn in various international powers and their local backers. On the one side is Mr Haftar, the eastern commander and former CIA asset who is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and France.
On the other side is the GNA in Tripoli, which in addition to Ankara has begun to receive the implicit blessing of Italy, Germany and the UK.
Backed by UAE air power and Russian and Sudanese mercenaries, Mr Haftar launched an ill-fated offensive to take control of Tripoli last year. All of his gains were wiped out in a few extraordinary weeks after Turkey forcefully intervened, dispatching drones, anti-aircraft machinery, military personnel, and Syrian mercenaries to back the GNA forces.
After initially supporting Mr Haftar, the White House under President Donald Trump appears to have settled into indifference. On Monday, GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj and high-profile interior minister Fathi Bashagha reportedly received a delegation of US military commanders from Africom, the US military force in Africa, amid concern about the deployment of Russian fighter jets in Jufrah.
“I don’t think the Trump administration is willing to be associated with someone who’s losing and also a war criminal,” Mohammed Ali Abdallah, a GNA envoy to the US, said in an interview.