Egypt’s Sisi Warns of Intervention in Libyan City of Sirte

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi warned that his country could intervene in Libya if regional rival Turkey and its allied forces followed through on threats to seize the strategic city of Sirte.

Sisi commented after inspecting his troops in the country’s west, where Egypt shares a border with Libya. His remarks are the most direct warning yet after Egyptian officials had privately told international diplomats that they were prepared to militarily intervene in Libya if Turkey and its ally in Libya, the Government of National Accord, pushed further east toward the Egyptian border.

Turkey’s intervention in Libya on the side of the United Nations-backed government turned the tide against a 14-month offensive by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar to capture the capital, forcing his troops to retreat to the Mediterranean city of Sirte east of Tripoli. The city has become the dividing line between Turkish-supported government forces in the west, and in the east the Russian-backed Haftar, who had also been aided by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

Sisi had announced a ceasefire and political initiative earlier this month that was accepted by Haftar, who’d spurned previous calls to end the fighting. But the UN-recognized government in Tripoli said it would take Sirte and the central Juffra airbase before accepting a ceasefire and any political talks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to push even further east of Sirte and into Libya’s oil crescent.

Strategic depth

“Some think of using force. Let me say that they will advance neither east nor west by the force of weapons. The line that we have now, let us all respect it and hold talks to end the crisis,” Sisi said. “If some think they can go beyond this line, Sirte and Juffra, this is a redline for us.”

He said that from this point, “any direct intervention by the Egyptian state now has international legitimacy.” He said his military does not seek war but was prepared to defend Egypt “internally and externally.”

Mired in conflict since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising ousted dictator Moammar Qaddafi, the oil-rich North African state has drawn in regional and international powers along with thousands of mercenaries. Turkey, which has dispatched naval frigates, armed drones and Syrian militiamen, is also facing off with Russia, which has backed Haftar with mercenaries and a fleet of jet fighters that the U.S. military says have begun flights near Sirte. Both countries are positioning themselves for billions in oil and gas contracts and reconstruction when the fighting ends.

Russia officially denies it is actively backing either side in the conflict, but talks between the Kremlin and Ankara for an end to the fighting in Libya broke down last week, raising the prospects of a bloody confrontation in Sirte, where both sides have been amassing forces.

U.S. President Donald Trump has held phone conversations with both Sisi and Erdogan to avert a clash between the two U.S.-armed regional powers. Diplomats say that Turkey has continued to insist that the UN-backed government retake Sirte despite Egypt’s warnings.

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