(TMU) – In alarming developments this week, Egypt and Turkey moved closer to war as Libya has become contested ground between major powers in the troubled region.
The potential widening of a long-seething proxy war into a direct armed conflict between U.S.-allied Egypt and NATO member Turkey threatens to plunge the Middle East and North Africa region into further violence after a decade of instability following the start of the Arab Spring.
On Monday, the Egyptian parliament approved troop deployments outside the country after President Abdel-Fateh al-Sisi threatened to intervene in Libya to support the beleaguered Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan Arab Armed Forces.
In the unanimous vote, Egyptian lawmakers described the potential intervention as a move to stop “foreign-sponsored terrorist groups” and “criminal armed militants,” reports Al Jazeera.
Absent from the Egyptian parliament’s declaration was any mention of Turkey, a bitter regional opponent on several fronts over the past several years. The two have backed rival forces throughout Libya’s proxy war, with Turkey supporting the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
The focal point of recent tensions is Sirte, a central Libyan city that stands as the gateway to the country’s major oil infrastructure in the East.
While Haftar’s Libyan Armed Forces are backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Russia and France, the Tripoli-based government enjoys the backing of Islamist-leaning forces including the governments of Turkey and Qatar.
Egypt’s move toward a direct deployment in the troubled North African country also comes as President al-Sisi spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump in an urgent scramble to convince Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan to back down.
While Turkey remains a longstanding NATO member, relations between Ankara and the alliance have suffered in recent years as Erdogan has turned to authoritarian methods of rule and asserted Turkey’s independent and often aggressive regional policies.
In recent days, Turkey has channeled massive amounts of weapons and war materiel into Libya through the recently-captured al-Watiya airbase, sending transport planes around the clock in a move to circumvent a U.N. arms embargo on the country that has been ignored by all sides, reports The Independent.
“It’s not like anything I have ever seen in my lifetime,” open source intelligence analyst Yoruk Isik said about publicly available data on Turkish ship and air traffic. “This is probably the limit that our planes can travel. It’s not executed just well, it’s executed exceptionally well.”
In footage posted on the internet, large convoys of fighters loyal to the Tripoli government could be seen making their way to Sirte while Turkish media reported the deployment of multiple rocket launcher systems and anti-aircraft systems outside of the strategic city.
While Cairo has launched air strikes on armed groups in Libya since the Gaddafi government was toppled in 2011, placing boots on the ground in any major deployment carries a mush sharper risk. Egypt’s eastern border lies over a day’s drive from the city, reports The Independent, while long-range fighter jets would have a challenge providing any close air support.
Both Turkey and Egypt have powerful allies to back them up in case one side gains a commanding upper hand – potentially signaling that the division of the country continues as both countries and their backers attempt to bleed each other dry until they reach a stalemate.
European powers and international players are now speaking out to deter any potential rekindling of armed conflict in Libya, which could further exacerbate a situation that has hemorrhaged refugees and incurred enormous humanitarian costs in the broader Mediterranean for the past several years.
On Monday, acting head of the UN support mission in Libya Stephanie Williams called for an “immediate ceasefire … to spare the 125,000 civilians who remain in harm’s way and for an end to the blatant violations of the UN arms embargo.”
However, Turkey appears eager to use its advantageous position to finally remove Haftar, who has long prevented the Tripoli-based government from consolidating its rule in wartorn Libya.
“It is essential that all kind of help and support given to putschist Haftar – which prohibits ensuring Libya’s peace, tranquillity, security, and territorial integrity – ends immediately,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Monday.