Libya conflict: Sirte-Jufra ‘red line’ set to be next major flashpoint

A map showing Sirte and Jufra in Libya.

The Libyan provinces of Sirte and Jufra are a “red line” for Egypt and the Libyan National Army (LNA), said Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and an LNA official on Sunday, as the rival Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) continued to make military advances.

Tensions in Libya have rocketed in recent days as the Tripoli-based GNA, backed by Turkey and Turkish-funded mercenaries, has gained ground against the Benghazi-based LNA, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar and backed by countries including Russia and Egypt.

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GNA forces have repelled the attack on Tripoli and moved toward Sirte, a key coastal city in central Libya, close to major energy export terminals on the Mediterranean seaboard. Jufra, the largely desert province directly south of Sirte home to the strategic al-Jufra air base, has also come under threat.

Now, this strategic line in central Libya appears to be the next flashpoint in the ongoing war for the country.

Read more:

Libyan National Army: Will never give up Sirte to Turkey ‘no matter the sacrifice’

Libya’s GNA should realize its size, who it’s talking to: Egypt official in report

Haftar forces need to pull out from Sirte for Libya ceasefire, says Turkey

A ‘red line’

Khaled al-Mahjoub, an LNA official, told Al Arabiya: “We will not leave Sirte for Turkey, no matter the sacrifices.”

The LNA has closed 200 kilometers of airspace over Sirte and banned any non-LNA military planes from flying over the specified area, LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said on Sunday.

Egypt has also previously said that the Sirte-Jufra line is a “red line” for Cairo, which has become increasingly vocal in its support for the LNA over the previous days.

On the other side, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that any permanent ceasefire in Libya requires the LNA to withdraw from Sirte.

According to a Reuters source, Turkey is also eyeing up establishing long-term military bases at Misrata and al-Watiya, and therefore wants to leverage any deal from a position of strength.

Turkey and the GNA have rejected Egypt’s proposed Cairo Initiative ceasefire and instead continue to press against LNA forces.

Read more: UAE says GNA has refused ceasefire in Libya, rejects ‘false accusations’ in UN letter

Fighters loyal to Libya's internationally recognised government celebrate after regaining control over the city, in Tripoli, Libya, June 4, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

Fighters loyal to Libya's internationally recognised government celebrate after regaining control over the city, in Tripoli, Libya, June 4, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

Why are Sirte and Jufra important?

Sirte and Jufra are located strategically at the center of Libya.

Libya has long experienced division along geographical lines. Since the uprising that deposed former dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, control of the country has been split geographically between different groups.

In the west, the GNA and its associated militias emerged as the main power based in the capital Tripoli, and extending its control over former rebel stronghold Misrata. In the east, the LNA established control based in the other former center of the uprising against Gaddafi, Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi.

Sirte and Jufra fall in between these political centers. They also have strategic value in their own right.

Sirte is the western gateway to the country’s “oil crescent,” the central region that contains over 60 percent of Libya’s oil. The oil ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Marsa al-Brega and Zuwetina can all be controlled from the city.

Read more: Libya’s Sharara oil field shuts down only days after restarting

Sirte is also strategically important for Turkey. Turkey’s support for the GNA is underpinned by a controversial maritime deal that has been rejected by Egypt, the EU, and the LNA. The deal grants Turkey maritime rights over vast swathes of the eastern Mediterranean.

Russia, which backs the LNA, is also believed to want to establish a military base at Sirte to bolster its presence in the Mediterranean, according to al-Monitor.

Egypt also sees the Jufra region as part of its own national interests, Egypt’s Maj. Gen. Nasr Salem told Al Arabiya.

Jufra is home to the al-Jufra air base, the largest in the country, which could be used to pose a direct threat to Egypt’s western border, said Salem.

“For this reason, Sirte-Jufra line is one of the well-known borders in Egyptian national security strategies. The Egyptian military doctrine is to defend the country and face any threats from the farthest point possible, and the farthest point from the western side is Sirte and al-Jufra, and therefore the words of President al-Sisi were clear. Unambiguously, this line is a red line for Egypt,” he said.

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency on June 6, 2020 shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar (R) and the Libyan Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh arriving for a joint press conference in the capital Cairo.  (AFP)

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency on June 6, 2020 shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar (R) and the Libyan Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh arriving for a joint press conference in the capital Cairo. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia, US stances

Saudi Arabia voiced its support for Egypt on Monday.

“Egypt’s security is an integral part of the Kingdom’s security, and the Kingdom’s security is an integral part of Egypt’s security,” said Saudi Minister of State for African Affairs Ambassador Ahmed Kattan on Twitter.

The US National Security Council called for military de-escalation.

“The United States strongly opposes military escalation in Libya – on all sides. We urge parties to commit to a ceasefire and resume negotiations immediately. We must build on progress made through the UN’s 5+5 talks, the Cairo Initiative, and the Berlin process.”

With Agencies. Al Arabiya English's Tuqa Khalid contributed to this report.

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Last Update: Tuesday, 23 June 2020 KSA 09:38 - GMT 06:38
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