As Libya's putschist Khalifa Haftar grows weaker and weaker, his sponsors have threatened to intervene in the conflict if cities like Sirte and Jufra are attacked by the UN-backed government.
With the UN-backed government of Libya increasingly reversing the gains made by warlord Khalifa Haftar’s militias, the coastal city of Sirte with major oil facilities has now become a major point of contention.
A strategic gateway to oil reserves, Sirte is also called "oil crescent," as it connects with the ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf along with Marsa al Brega and Zuwetine where 11 oil pipelines and three gas conduits reach the Mediterranean coast. It means that the one who can take control over Sirte would be able to take control of over 350 km of a coastal stretch all the way to Benghazi. The entire area is full of oil refineries, terminals and storage centres.
Haftar’s seizure of the "oil crescent" emboldened him to keep fighting against the UN-backed government as it accounts for 60 percent of Libya’s hydrocarbon resources.
In the pre-war period, 96 percent of public revenue was coming from hydrocarbons. Thus, taking control over Sirte would mean managing the overwhelming number of oil resources and facilities.
Following the UN-backed Libyan government's military advancements against Haftar, several militias loyal to Haftar as well as Russian mercenaries linked to Putin's pet Wagner Group pulled back to Al Jufra in central Libya, making Sirte free from violent groups and accessible to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
So for Russia and other supporters of warlord Haftar, Sirte has become a red line which the GNA must not cross.
When the GNA captured Al Wishka on June 6, Haftar's backers, particularly Russia, wasn't happy about their advance. Moscow is reportedly working on establishing a naval base in Sirte and Al Jufra with an aim to connect them with its bases in Syria's Tartus and Latakia. Regional experts say it will allow Russia to create a power axis across the east of the Mediterranean, which would eventually pose a security threat to NATO.
But NATO is caught up with internal differences over how to handle the Libyan conflict. France, one of its key members, has violated the UN's approach toward the conflict and openly sided with Haftar, even disregarding the security concerns that stem from Russia's growing clout in the country through Haftar as its proxy.
In Al Jufra airbase, which was captured by Haftar’s militias in 2017, Russian aircrafts are already docked under the supervision of Wagner mercenaries. The latest data provided by the US Africa Command revealed that there are still Russian-made fighter jets in addition to Sukhoi-24 bombers stationed there.
In addition to it, the Russian-made air defence systems called Pantsirs are located at the airbase. Apart from Wagner, mercenaries from Ukraine, Serbia and African countries are also deployed in the region. Africom’s commander Brigadier General Bradford J Gering said that Russia has been seeking to surround European countries and the only way of doing it is to deploy long-range rockets and establish military bases in the Middle East, and Moscow’s actions in the east and south part of the Mediterranean is part of the plan.
Another country that recognises Sirte as a red line is Egypt as its putschist leader Sisi, a close supporter of Haftar, considers the city as a strategic front in light of Egypt’s "national security concerns."
Following the GNA's advances close to Sirte, Sisi was quick to stress that Egypt is fully equipped to provide support to Haftar’s militias.
After facing a series of setbacks from the GNA, Haftar's supporters, Russia, Egypt and the UAE started talking about setting up a political process led by Moscow's favourite Aguila Saleh Issa.
Saleh, who is a jurist, has been unabashedly asking Egypt to send its troops to Libya. His periodic calls to Sisi for military help reveal how broken Haftar's resolve is to continue with his aggression.