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.
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.
Watch: The elders’ council of #Sirte reaffirm their support for the Libyan National Army against the “barbaric Turkish and treacherous militant invasion” of #Libya, backing Egypt’s initiative for a peaceful solution to the conflict.https://t.co/Cb9rMsMkmd pic.twitter.com/IXcvx2IXHa— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) June 21, 2020
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.
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.
#OOTT #Libya The Red Line: Turkey says Libyan forces it backs will cross it, Egypt says it may send its army to hold it. East of the line is Sirte Basin, two thirds of Libyan oil production. Libya has Africa's largest oil reserves. (Military/oil map: Petroleum Economist) pic.twitter.com/oMiFwiPeYT— Chris Stephen (@reportingLibya) June 21, 2020
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.
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.”
Watch: A Libyan extremist imam issues a fatwa that allows the Libyan Government of National Accord to kill prisoners of war from the rival Libyan National Army.#Libya https://t.co/UesAwOL9dd pic.twitter.com/HhjXa9NNMH— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) June 20, 2020
With Agencies. Al Arabiya English's Tuqa Khalid contributed to this report.