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Egypt and Turkey head-to-head in Libya, stalemate looms

Osama Mohamed
By Osama Mohamed

Independent policy analyst and former researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project (ACLED)

Posted on Monday, 29 June 2020 13:17

A member of the Libyan internationally recognised government forces is seen during a fight with Eastern forces, in southern Tripoli
A member of the Libyan internationally recognised government GNA, forces is seen during a fight with Eastern forces, in southern Tripoli, Libya June 22, 2019. REUTERS/Yosri al-Jamal

The weekend of 20 June witnessed a sharp escalation in tensions between Egypt and Turkey over Libya. In a speech near the Egyptian-Libyan border, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed his full intentions to fully involve Egypt’s military in Libya. But with each country armed with similar military capabilities, such a scenario would likely lead to a long-lasting standoff.

President al-Sisi warned of Egypt’s involvement in Libya if the Turkish-backed Government of the National Accord (GNA) continued to advance to the strategic city of Sirte and the airbase in Jufra. 

READ MORE Egyptian dilemma in Libya increases as GNA advances

Despite al-Sisi’s warnings, the GNA has vowed to continue its advance into eastern Libya, making a confrontation between Turkey and Egypt a very likely outcome. But with their very similar military capabilities, a confrontation would turn into a long-lasting standoff and both countries would emerge as losers.

Similar military power

Both Egypt and Turkey boast different military advantages with neither country having clear strategic superiority over the other that would shift the balance of power should the two go  head to head in a conflict.

While Egypt has a lead over Turkey in naval capabilities, the latter has a technological advantage in airpower, especially with the introduction of Turkish Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Globally, Egypt and Turkey have similar military ranking: grabbing 9th and 11th place, respectively.

Allies make the difference

Military power is most effective when complimented by powerful allies who can provide political cover. In this vein, both Egypt and Turkey have allies who would have their backs in case the tides of conflict turned against them.

READ MORE Crisis in Libya: Egypt turns to Arab League for support of its peace deal

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and France  are allied with Egypt in regards to Libya.  The UAE and Saudi Arabia are providing Egypt with the necessary financing to maintain the Egyptian war-machine in Libya, while Russia and France provide arms. Russia also has its own military bases in eastern Libya, a point that could deter Turkey from advancing too far into Egypt’s sphere of influence.

Turkey, on the other hand, is a NATO member, which could deter Egypt from pressing too deeply into Turkey’s sphere of influence in western Libya. More importantly, both countries maintain a close relationship with the United States, which, in order to preserve the balance of power in the Middle East, will not allow one side to achieve a decisive victory.

A long conflict between Egypt and Turkey would be good news for domestic insurgencies in both countries.

Based on the above evidence, should active military conflict commence between Egypt and Turkey in Libya, both countries will simply end up draining their resources without winning any advantage, resulting in the conflict dragging on over many years.

Who are the Winners?

Neither Egypt nor Turkey could claim a victory should they engage in a conflict, but those fuelling their fight would be victorious. The potential drain on resources in both Egypt and Turkey would be of great interest to several parties, namely: arms exporters, insurgent groups in both Egypt and Turkey, and regional powers in the Middle East. These are all players who would be the first to benefit from a prolong stalemate in Libya between Egypt and Turkey.

Arms Exporters

Egypt and Turkey have both in the recent past imported weapons from the US, Russia, China, Germany, and France. In a prolonged conflict in Libya, they would continue to replace battle losses through the same means. These five countries are among the top ten arms exporters in the world in the last decade, and can be expected to happily supply the warring parties with more arms, especially after the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as these sales stimulate their domestic economies.

The Libyan people would be the biggest loser in a situation of stalemate between external forces within its borders.

Another reason arms exporting countries would watch the conflict between Egypt and Turkey closely is to examine the effectiveness of their weapons in practice against each other. This harkens back to the Cold War era when the US and the Soviet Union would supply opposing parties in a conflict to observe the efficiency of their respective arms during battles in order to close any technological gaps in the arms race.

Insurgent Groups in Egypt and Turkey

A long conflict between Egypt and Turkey would be good news for domestic insurgencies in both countries. Egypt has been engaged in intense fighting against the Islamic State in Sinai since 2011. Currently, most Egyptian military resources are allocated to fight the extremist group in Sinai, located on the other end of the country from the Libyan border. Yet, even with this large resource allocation, the Sinai threat persists.

Should the Egyptian military engage in a resource-demanding military campaign in Libya, the Islamic State would likely take advantage of the moment to further invest in its efforts to gain a strategic advantage over the Egyptian military.

Similarly, Turkey faces the threat of Kurdish separatists in the northern part of the country, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has struggled for a long time against the strength of the Turkish military. If Turkey engages in a full-scale conflict in Libya, this would likely relieve the pressure exerted on the PKK, to its advantage.

Regional Powers

In the Middle East and North African region, there are five major regional powers competing for influence: Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. A decline in the power of any one of these five countries is a win for the others.

Armed conflict in Libya between Egypt and Turkey would compromise not one but two regional powers and likely result in a major shift in the balance of power in the region that would improve the chances for Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel to assume a  leading role.

The biggest loser

The Libyan people would be the biggest loser in a situation of stalemate between external forces within its borders. Already, there are 1.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance with 217,002 internally displaced peoples, and more than 43,000 refugees according the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Should the conflict in Libya continue and become a contest between major regional powers, these figures in Libya will increase significantly.

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