Gaddafi’s hometown may decide fate of Libyan war

The battle for Sirte, the hometown of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, may decide the fate of the Libyan war, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday.

Located on the Mediterranean coast midway between Tripoli and Benghazi, Sirte is the gateway to the largest oil reserves in Africa - and the site of a military standoff between Libya’s warring sides and their foreign backers. 

The city is currently under the control of rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), backed by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among others.

But Turkish-backed forces loyal to the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) - which is based in Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj - are preparing to take it back, building on momentum after rebuffing Haftar’s 14-month siege of the capital.

With the fighting at a stalemate, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi warned on Saturday that Sirte was a “red line,” signalling a possible military intervention if the Turkish-backed GNA mounted a full offensive on the city. 

Control of the city of some 85,000 people will be decisive for the oil industry, as it is the gateway to the central and eastern oil crescent where much of Libya’s 1 million-plus barrels a day of output were once shipped to world markets, Bloomberg reported. It currently produces just 90,000 barrels a day.

Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, told Bloomberg that Egypt does not have many options left after el-Sisi’s threats to intervene. 

“The question is what type of intervention this will be, who will support Egypt in this effort and if they can match Ankara’s military power.”

Haftar this month called a unilateral ceasefire and committed to resuming an Egypt-backed political initiative. But the GNA rejected it, saying it would capture Sirte and Jufra airbase first.

Bloomberg cited Brigadier Abdul-Hadi Dara, a military spokesman for the GNA, as saying that whoever holds Sirte “controls half of Libya”. Dara said his forces are awaiting al-Sarraj’s command to launch a full assault.

He also said that two cargo planes carrying support for mercenaries loyal to Haftar landed south of Sirte on Saturday; the eastern commander has fielded hundreds of paid fighters from Russia and Syria, Bloomberg said.

While Turkey has marked al-Sarraj’s victory over Tripoli with visits by top officials, the UAE and Russia have hinted at dissatisfaction with Haftar. 

“Haftar is a spent force, he’s of no use anymore,” Andrei Chyprygin, a Middle East expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told Bloomberg.

But Mohamed Anis Salem, an analyst at the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and a former ambassador, said that Haftar’s rivals may have an interest in pursuing peace with him.

“I wouldn’t try to change my opponent at the beginning of the process; if you try to change your opponent, you may end up having people who are much less capable of honouring the agreement you’re signing,” Salem said. “This is a moment for wise men.”