CAIRO -- Egypt’s president Saturday warned that an attempt by Turkey-backed forces in Libya to attack the strategic city of Sirte would cross a “red line" and trigger a direct Egyptian military intervention into the conflict.
Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, in televised comments, said Egypt could intervene in neighboring Libya with the intention of protecting its western border with the oil-rich country, and to bring stability, including establishing conditions for a cease-fire, to Libya.
El-Sissi warned that any attack on Sirte or the inland Jufra air base by forces loyal to the U.N.-supported but weak government in Tripoli would amount to crossing a “red line.”
“Let’s stop at this (current) front line and start negotiations to reach a political solution to the Libyan crisis,” he said.
Calls seeking comment from a spokesman for the Tripoli-based government went unanswered. But Mohammed Ammry Zayed, a member of the presidential council, an advisory body for the U.N.-supported government, said they reject el-Sissi’s comments as a “continuity of the war against Libya’s people.”
El-Sissi spoke while inspecting Egypt’s air force and commando units stationed in the Sidi Barrani air base in the country’s western region along the porous desert border with Libya.
He said Egypt is ready to provide arms and training for Libyan tribes to “defend their country.” He told tribal representatives attending his speech that if Egypt were to intervene, its forces would advance with tribal leaders at the vanguard.
El-Sissi's strong comments come after Libyan fighters allied with the Tripoli-based government earlier this month advanced toward Sirte, a move that ignored an Egyptian initiative, backed by the east-Libya camp, to stop fighting and embark on peace talks.
Taking Sirte would open the gate for the Tripoli-allied militias to advance even farther eastward, to potentially seize control of vital oil installations, terminals and oil fields that tribes allied with Hifter shut down earlier this year, cutting off Libya’s major source of income.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Eastern-based forces under Hifter launched an offensive to try to take Tripoli in April last year. The chaos has steadily worsened as foreign backers have increasingly intervened, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
Hifter’s forces are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Qatar, Italy and Turkey.
Tripoli-based forces with Turkish support gained the upper hand in the war earlier this month after retaking the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns near Tripoli. Turkish air support in the form of armed aerial drones in particular proved vital to turning the tide. Turkey has also sent Syrian militias to fight for the Tripoli government.
The withdrawal of Hifter's fighters was painted by his commanders as a tactical measure to give a U.N.-backed peace process a chance.
But Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday that Hifter's forces have lost the chance to engage in a political solution to the conflict because Hifter ignored previous calls for a peaceful solution.
“On the contrary, he increased his aggression,” Cavusoglu said in a televised news conference.
“He’s losing, he’s doomed to lose," he added. “It’s impossible for him to win. He had an opportunity for a political process. He lost that as well.”
Turkey, in addition to providing military support, signed a maritime deal in November with the Tripoli-based government that would give Ankara access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean, despite the objections from Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Turkey has said it will begin exploring for natural resources there within months.
Last weekend, a summit between Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which was to have focused on Libya, was postponed at the last minute.
Wilks reported from Ankara, Turkey.