After pushing General Haftar from Tripoli and key surrounding areas, Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) thought it was game over for the general, but now it finds itself describing the latest Egyptian move on this venue a "declaration of war." As Haftar's allies are forced to respond after largely waiting things out on the sidelines, the battle for Libya is now entering the next phase of far-reaching geopolitical consequences.
Last week, diplomatic activity in Libya hit fever pitch with Turkish officials visiting Tripoli for talks with the GNA, Russia contacting Washington to step into the ring on Haftar's behalf, and France blasting Turkey for meddling in a NATO mission in the Mediterranean to stop arms from reaching Libya.
Then, on Saturday, Egypt really stepped up to the plate with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warning that if any pro-GNA forces advanced on Sirte - another Haftar stronghold the GNA is trying to take - Egypt would find it necessary to respond militarily.
In a televised address, the Egyptian president said Sirte was a "red line" for Egypt, citing the need to protect its porous border as grounds for "direct intervention" in Libya.
"If the Libyan people asked us to intervene, it is a signal to the world that Egypt and Libya share … common interests, security and stability," Sisi said on Saturday.
The GNA called this a "declaration of war."
"We strongly reject what was said by al-Sisi and consider it a continuation of the war on the Libyan people, interference in Libyan affairs and a dangerous threat to national security," said Mohammed Amari Zayed, a member of the GNA's presidential council.
"There can be no 'red line' within our borders. We reject any bid aimed at dividing the Libyan people or their territory… (and) we categorically reject any bid to impose guardianship on Libya," he added.
If you were to believe the Turkish media over the past two weeks, the pro-GNA forces (which include Turkish military and its Syrian mercenaries) have taken over Sirte from Haftar.
Related: Oil Prices Will Hit $50 Before The End Of The Year But that battle is still ongoing.
Sirte is about 280 miles east of Tripoli, and it is a key strategic city for Haftar, who is under attack but who has dug in and not withdrawn. Turkey is urging Haftar's forces to pull out of Sirte as the only move that could lead the GNA to agree to a ceasefire.
This isn't just a Haftar stronghold - it's the key to controlling Libyan oil.
Sirte is on the coast, and it is largely the gateway to the country's massive oil facilities. All the external forces in this battle are lining up now, around Sirte.
It was also off the coast of Sirte last week that the French attempted to uphold an arms embargo.
While a French navy vessel was inspecting a vessel cargo suspected of containing embargoed arms to Libya, Turkish frigates targeted them with radar, suggesting an imminent missile strike - which Turkey denied.
Haftar has held Sirte itself since June 2019, and the neighboring Al-Jufra district since 2017.
In May, when the GNA and its Turkish (and Qatari-backed) allies pushed Haftar out of areas around Tripoli, they assumed that the General would fall back and give up Sirte easily, and that the Russians would strike a deal with the Turks and it would all lead to an end to the conflict in the GNA's favor.
That has not happened because too much oil is at stake.
The GNA and Ankara should have known this would not happen when Russian mercenaries deployed to al-Jufra. The message was clear: The Turks would not be allowed to take al-Jufra.
Indeed, Russian officials postponed a meeting in Turkey on June 14th after the Turks rejected an Egyptian-initiative ceasefire deal in Libya.
And now Egypt is declaring Sirte a red line.
This strategic gem along Libya's coast is the entry point for the "oil crescent" and it's also the only point from which you can control the route to the key ports: Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Masra al-Brega, and Zuwetina
Finally, it's the gateway to eastern Benghazi, and with the Russians and Egyptians now fully on board - the new name of the game is to control everything from Sirte to Benghazi. That means controlling all the main pipelines, refineries, terminals, and storage facilities. The revenues are controlled in Tripoli, and Haftar has failed at that ploy. But if he now, with Russian and Egyptian help, manages to control this coastal stretch of territory, he will have so much leverage that he could force a deal with the GNA on his own terms.
The bottom line is this: Turkey thought it won, but it hasn't. Sirte is the strategic key to this conflict at the moment, with Haftar having failed to take Tripoli. Now, the game is to control the gateway to all of Libya's oil facilities, including its key export terminals.
By Charles Kennedy for Oilprice.com
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