[ by Manish Rai ]
Turkey is increasing its military involvement in Libya with each assing day in support of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al Saraj. GNA, now backed by the Turkish air-force and thousands of Syrian mercenaries, is eager to challenge General Khalifa Haftar in central Libya.
After gaining control of the western regions, the GNA forces moved quickly. Taking advantage of the setbacks to Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), GNA allied forces tried to advance towards Sirte, and took control of its power station (30km west of the city). But this initial momentum quickly met with stiff resistance from LNA forces that are controlling the strategic coastal city 500 km east of Tripoli since January this year. Now the two sides are poised to square off near Sirte, where some of its largest oil fields and export terminals are located.
Also, another most contested area between the two warring sides is Al-Jufra airbase. Not only GNA and LNA but also their main backers, i.e. Turkey and Egypt respectively, are ready to confront each other for controlling Sirte and Al Jufra, with speculations running high that talks for a ceasefire have collapsed and a major conflict can break out any time now.
Both Sirte and Al-Jufra are so important for both warring sides. Sirte is the key to controlling Libya’s “oil crescent” region, which contributes 60% of Libya’s oil exports. Sirte, which has crucial oilfields and tanker-loading facilities, is of military significance as well, being a garrison city that allows control of the Libyan coastline between Tripoli to the west and Benghazi to the east.
In addition to this, the oil ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Marsa al-Brega, and Zuwetina can all be controlled from the city of Sirte.
Al-Jufra, for its part, is home to an airbase that allows domination of the entire Libyan airspace, in addition to being a key route linking the country’s south to the coastline. In sum, controlling Al-Jufra means having a say over the whole of Libya. In addition to this, Al-Jufra is also a major train-and-equip base for Haftar’s LNA. African mercenaries from countries — such as Sudan and Chad — are recruited by Haftar’s forces and undergo brief training at the base before heading to the front lines in the westward to fight the Tripoli-based GNA forces.
Furthermore, Al-Jufra has the largest Libyan airbase, and it is characterized by its strong infrastructure that has been modernized in order to accommodate the new and latest weapons. Hence both sides are putting all efforts and resources towards Sirte and Al-Jufra.
The two main external forces in Libya — i.e. are Egypt and Turkey — have their own vested interests in controlling these two cities of strategic importance. For Cairo, Sirte’s fall is a looming threat that Turkish-backed GNA forces should use the city as a launching point for further incursions into the east, inching ever closer to Egypt’s porous western border.
Libya is, of course, Egypt’s backyard, and because Cairo believes that Tripoli-based GNA has radical elements that have to be kept away from Libya’s region of Cyrenaica where Egypt holds considerable influence.
For Turkey, controlling the largest oilfields of Libya in and around Sirte will be like gaining a cash cow that will compensate Turkey handsomely. Moreover, Al-Jufra is the best place for Ankara to station its fighter jets to ensure air dominance of the Libyan air space.
According to reports, Haftar’s LNA moved their SCUD-B missiles to Sirte. Moreover, Russia, which is backing Haftar, has recently transferred 14 (fourteen) MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets and Su-24 Fencer bombers to Al-Jufra airbase. LNA has also deployed at the same base the Russian-made Pantsir air-defense-systems and mercenaries of the Russian Wagner group.
On the other hand, the GNA forces have been gathering fighters for weeks now to march towards Sirte and Jufra. They are also counting heavily on the Turkish air-force and Syrian mercenaries for this campaign.
While all these parties are gearing-up for a major military campaign, it is the ordinary people of Libya who are paying the price of this conflict. Crime, insecurity and corruption have been on the rise across the country. Living conditions have markedly worsened as the local economy has struggled and the provision of social and health services has nearly collapsed. This is despite the fact that Libya has the wealth, educated populace and strategic location to succeed.
Hence, both parties should realize that they have a responsibility towards the common people of Libya. Stability and peace are the only things Libya need to stand on its feet once again. For that, a comprehensive political settlement that includes participation from all Libyan political parties, tribes and important forces on the ground is required.
Only after achieving any durable political arrangement, either or both of GNA and LNA can claim any complete victory in real sense. Libya is truly the linchpin to any comprehensive strategy to bring stability to the region. Hence, every stakeholder in the region should contribute towards stabilizing the war-torn nation.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.