Earlier this week, the European Union announced its intention to form a maritime and aerial monitoring program to enforce the United Nation’s renewed arms embargo on Libya. There has been such an embargo in place for the past 9 years, the problem is that nobody enforced it.
Just one month ago, Germany and the EU managed to bring together major regional and international powers to Berlin to jump-start political talks between the GNA and LNA, the two warring sides in Libya. One week before that, Russia and Turkey announced a truce they were brokering, having brought Serraj and Haftar to Moscow with short notice. This was no coincidence.
We observed at the time that Europe’s renewed engagement in the Libya crisis had much to do with a wake-up realisation that they were soon to be edged out by Russia and Turkey, two powers vying for regional influence, energy resources, an access point to Africa and a way to leverage Europe. France and Italy, Libya’s former coloniser, have long had interests in Libya, each for different reasons, and were seen to be among the backers of the rival sides. France has long supported Haftar, especially due to his anti-Islamist stance, while Italy backs the GNA, primarily to halt the flow of migrants into Italy. However, the EU has long been busy with itself, Brexit and other challenges that loom, and ignored the brewing challenge just across the sea. Until now.
The Berlin conference, the Geneva meetings and most recently the announcement of the naval and aerial presence on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, all involved commitments to uphold the ceasefire and arms embargo, as Turkey, Russia, the UAE and others continue defying it. This led the UN Deputy Envoy for Libya to note the “arms embargo has become a joke”.
Europe knows and now admits that the only way to stop the fighting is to stop the foreign intervention. This is beyond arms, Tripoli’s front-lines now have a significant presence of Russians fighting Syrians sent by Turkey, while the UAE and Turkish soldiers are fighting a drone war and Russians and Turks operate air defence systems. The war is quickly being overtaken by foreign parties for foreign interests. Surely Europe has its own interests in Libya – oil, gas, stopping migrants and preventing terrorism from spreading to the continent. However, for the most part, Europe wins when Libya re-emerges as a stable and sovereign country that helps ensure its own stability along its southern shores.
Therefore, Europe has stepped up its efforts and has launched this mission. Ending the fighting and drying up the foreign support will do much to facilitate a political process. The timing has much to do with the emergence of Josep Borrell as the new EU foreign policy and defence chief, who seems intent on reasserting Europe in a meaningful way. “Europe must develop an appetite for power” Borrell said in Munich. He clarified this was not necessarily only military power, but that Europe must be able to act forcefully in securing its interests.
The agreement to launch the naval mission is a victory for Borrell, who did not wait for unanimity among the 27 EU member states. We note that some of the more nationalist countries, like Austria, Hungary and Italy, objected to the mission as the ships could become a magnet for migrants, who could purposefully put themselves at risk near the ships in order to be rescued and taken to Europe. The compromise was a promise the vessels would operate further to the east, and away from human trafficking routes. This rejection is what brought and end to the previous EU Operation Sophia, which focused on rescuing migrants and refugees. Borrell further acquiesced to this pressure, saying the operation would stop if it was seen to be attracting migrants rather stopping the flow of arms.
We have a lot of questions however. The step not only to back the UN arms embargo in word but in deed is a welcom step. But what is next? What happens when an EU vessel or satellite or radar picks up a Turkish vessel or Russian or UAE arms shipment or planeload full of mercenaries? Will the EU risk a military escalation with Turkey or Russia? Just how far is Europe willing to take this? Europe certainly won’t want to risk open conflict with its regional rivals, and Putin, Erdogan and others must surely be aware of this.
Of course, between physically stopping those violating the embargo and allowing shipments to pass, the EU could run to the Security Council and play “name and shame”. Will that be enough? Or will this too simply be a “joke”? Looking forward, the success of this operation will also have a lot of influence on whether the EU becomes less or more assertive in regional security matters. Much is riding on this, and time will tell.
senate dems call on white house to sanction haftar - washington has a major opportunity to unite over libya and play major stabilising role
Leading Democrats in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee are pressuring the White House to leverage existing Russia Sanctions legislation from 2017 in order to sanction Haftar.
Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-CN) at a senate testimony delivered by Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, David Schenker, pressed the administration as to why they weren't applying the mandatory legislation on Haftar. Wagner Group, a main private military contractor reported to be operating in Libya, was sanctioned in 2017 under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act - CAATSA. The sanction's language "mandates secondary sanctions on those who conduct significant transactions with the Russian defence and intelligence sectors". Wagner is believed to have close connections to the Kremlin. Murphy also wrote to Secretary of State Pompeo requesting a "comprehensive summary" of US efforts to counter Russia in Libya, and a "detailed analysis" of Haftar's relationship to Wagner, and whether this triggers CAATSA sanctions.
Schenker deflected the inquiry, noting Haftar was participating in the UN peace talks, and the White House did not want to discourage him. New Jersey Senator (D) Robert Menendez, who drafted the legislation, shot back that "CAATSA, it is not voluntary... it is not discretionary. It is mandatory." Menendez also pushed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who enforces sanctions, on the matter. Mnuchin replied that the decision to activate sanctions is a foreign policy one that must be made by the president, and that he only executes the directive.
Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine accused the administration of sending "mixed messages" on Libya.
Al Monitor reports that Congress' new and aggressive focus are the result of a major GNA PR push in Washington to pressure Russia and Haftar. Mercury Public Affairs, the group leading the lobbying efforts, is placing a spotlight on Haftar's connections to Wagner Group, and pointing to legislation that instructions the Director of National Intelligence to report on Wagner's role in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.
Republican Lindsey Graham (SC) also included Wagner Group in a new sanctions bill on Russia.
Al-Monitor points out, that the Trump Administration has also resisted pressure to sanction Turkey under CAATSA for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system. The report claims that Secretary of State Pompeo essentially "moved the goal posts further back" in activating the sanctions from Turkey's purchase to when it decides to "operationalise" the system.
The US has been wary to get dragged into Libya, save for efforts to push back ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Ironically, this is one issue that seems to have Democrats and Republicans united, even if they do not yet realise it. With Democrats pushing for pressure on Haftar and Russia, even if it is due to GNA lobbying efforts, and Republicans working to sanction Turkey, there is a rare opportunity for a divided Washington to come together, and help stabilise Libya in the process.
Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, should demand the White House investigate and sanction any outside actor providing mercenaries to the Libyan conflict. From a variety of international media reports, this most certainly includes the Russians with Wagner Group and others on Haftar's side, but also Turkey's introduction of Syrian militants in the past two months on the GNA's side. Both efforts are egregious violations of UN resolutions and US law.
We have seen from other instances, Iran being the best known, that US financial sanctions can be quite effective. As destabilising regional and international actors aggressively stake their claim on Libya, a stabilising American presence would be more than welcome, especially as the Europeans seem to be faltering in pushing back the Russians and Turks from overtaking the Libyan conflict. Moreover, at a time of great divisiveness in Washington, this could be a foreign policy issue that unifies both sides of the aisle, showing American leadership without dragging the US into another unnecessary conflict.
Algeria and Tunisia seek to exert a greater stabilising influence in Libya. Unlike Libya’s other neighbour Egypt, who has clearly chosen sides, Algeria and Tunisia have chosen a strategy of neutrality and working to limit foreign interference in the ongoing civil war. Tunisian president Kais Saied, meeting his Algerian counterpart Abdelmjadjid Tebboune, stressed the need for a political solution driven by Libyans themselves, and the need to fend off “foreign interference and weapons flows”. According to Tebboune, "Tunisia and Algeria want to make a solution for Libya with meetings in Tunisia or Algeria, to start a new stage there by building institutions and holding elections".
Both countries have stayed out of Libya until recently due to their own economic and political challenges. Tunisia has struggled to find stability after it overthrew its long-time dictator in 2011. Algeria remained largely sidelined as its long-time leader suffered a stroke in 2013, who only recently forwent reelection due to growing public pressure. It may be that Haftar took advantage of Algeria’s internal challenges to launch assaults on Fezzan and later against Tripoli.
As we have mentioned on this site, Algeria has a long political tradition of prioritising diplomacy and opposing foreign intervention. It recognises the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government, but at the same time recognises Haftar as a legitimate stakeholder. Until now, Algeria attempted to support bottom-up political dialogue in Libya, but this has failed to win the backing of Libyans.
Tebboune has described “Tripoli” as a red line that “no one should cross”, concerned that if Haftar breaks into the city, he will fail to hold it and only cause destruction, leading to instability that will spill over into his country. Algeria recalls a 2013 Al-Qaeda attack on its oil facilities carried out by Libyan extremists. Therefore, already in his first two months in office, Tebboune has made Libya priority. He has already organised the foreign ministers of North Africa to meet regarding Libya, and attained meetings in Berlin with Turkey’s Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Bin Zayed.
Tunisia holds similar views to Algeria, and the two are intricately linked in each other’s security space and thinking. Tunisia is even more at risk from Libyan instability, fearing an influx of refugees. It’s economy is also heavily reliant on tourism, and was hit hard in 2015 when an Al-Qaeda attack killed 60 at a beach-side resort. Thus, Tunisia as well places a heavy emphasis on maintaining stability.
Neither country wants or will allow a large-scale foreign military involvement in Libya. For now, they will push forward using the leverage of Algeria’s large military and their geographic positioning to “double down on diplomacy”.
Why is the Arab world becoming more involved in Libya? Because the Libyan conflict is increasingly becoming a showcase for the two competing visions of governance in the Arab world, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Libyans and the Arab world are caught between a vision of illiberal democracy, in which Islamists use democratic tools to reach power and gradually overtake various institutions of governance, or autocracies led by military strongmen. One model resembles Turkey, the other Egypt.
According to Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh, the Libyan conflict was initially an internal Libyan conflict. But as “regional powers (are) sending foreign fighters to settle scores on Libyan soil using Libyan money and Libyan factions”, the conflict has become internationalised. Moreover, the west, which helped remove Gaddafi and defeat ISIS, seems content with stopping the flow of migrants into Europe and little else.
This vacuum has led regional powers to flood in, competing on Libyan soil for their vision of the region to dominate. Qatar and Turkey back political Islam while the Gulf States back a strongman intent on cracking down on militant and political Islam. Libya expert Frederic Wehrey adds that “unresolved fissures and continuing proxy struggle for influence that started from the Arab Spring…(the) vacuum left behind by the west, the paralysis of the Europeans, and the ambivalence of the Americans has allowed the space for Arab states and Russia to step in and reopen them”.
Indeed, Turkey is seeking to expand its foothold in the Arab world, seizing an opportunity to back an Islamist government. The Saudis and UAE seek to prevent another Islamist government from taking hold and seek to protect their growing influence in Africa. Egypt similarly fears an Islamist government on its border, as well as any country beholden to regional rival Turkey. Jordan too, quietly one of Haftar’s biggest supports, is concerned Libya will turn into another ISIS hotbed like in Syria.
Other powers, like Russia, France and Italy, are also involved, each with their own interests in mind and backing opposing sides.
In the meantime, it seems that Libyans have to make an unenviable choice – democracy with weak institutions dominated by Islamists or an authoritarian one-state party dominated by the military. One seeks democracy first, the other stability over democracy. Eljarh explains that the GNA claims that security and stability are just code words for dictatorship, while Haftar is quite open in his claim that the country is simply not ready for democracy so long as the government does not have a monopoly on the use of force, and that this can only be established by armed force.
And yet, no actor can guarantee that Haftar would cede power to a democratically elected government were he to have full control. If anything, the signs point to moves he is making already to bring more aspects of the economy under his control. On the other side, the Monitor notes that the Islamist rhetoric on the radio in Tripoli sounds increasingly like Erdogan’s talking points. In the meantime, analyst Claudia Gazzini reports there is no progress on elections, no parliamentary oversight and rampant cronyism and embezzlement plaguing the country.
To be sure, Haftar’s model is not as anti-Islamist as he makes himself out to be. Rather, the article suggests, taking a page out of the Saudi playbook, Haftar could make a deal with extremist Salafists who eschew political involvement. Like in Saudi Arabia, the Salafists get fully dominance over the religious sphere while they remain entirely loyal to the political leadership.
Libyans must decide their own fate. However, it increasingly seems this is not being left up to them.
Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui warns that the current lull in the violence is the “quiet before the storm” and expects “The next phase of the war… to be much more intense,” Harchaoui points to the “The physical amount of foreign weaponry and foreign manpower injected into Libya over the last five to six weeks, on both sides, is absolutely without precedent.”
Indeed, it seems, from looking at flight traffic from Syria to Benghazi in LNA-held territory that Russia is sending additional mercenaries. At the same time, there continued reports of Syrian fighters being shipped in to Tripoli by Turkey, as well as the advanced capabilities Turkey is bringing with it (air defence systems, jamming systems, etc.) meant to ensure the continued survival of the GNA.
While the rationale of Turkey might be to de-escalate and force Haftar to reach a political solution, Harchaoui warns this might lead to an opposite effect. He suggests the UAE, Haftar’s main backer, could push for a “shock and awe kind of assault from the air, to overwhelm whatever Turkey has been able to install since December. It could also use heavy artillery, which hasn’t really been used in the last 10 months”.
In light of these reinforcements, US Africom commander General Townsend commented that the escalation through the interjection of foreign troops from Turkey and Russia is leaving the international community paralysed. The US itself plans on further reducing its already small commitment of 6000 troops stationed across the African continent, a further sign of decreased US influence in a chaotic region.
Harchaoui notes he does not “see any effort that is genuine and forceful in terms of diplomatic push from any Western nation….The U.S. has clearly shown that it doesn’t care. Russia is very limited, and the EU is completely caught in a very binary, simplistic and mostly false depiction of what is about to happen.”
Perhaps more than just indifference, other experts point out that European states especially France and Italy, have even played a destructive role in Libya for years. They also point out that Turkey initially entered the conflict to protect billions in investments and contracts signed during the Gaddafi era, along with its natural affinity for Islamist-leaning regimes. Erdogan has said multiple times he sees no military solution for Libya. However, at the same time, he is sending thousands of Syrian fighters, including Islamic extremists, to prop up the GNA. This in turn, makes some European supporters of the GNA think twice, such as Germany, and when taken together with Turkey’s moves in the Eastern Mediterranean, has already caused Cyprus and Greece to shift their support to Haftar.
In the meantime, Harchaoui points that out everyone seems hesitant to call out the UAE for its backing of Haftar, along with France and Russia. While the various international actors calculated their increased support for their proxy was meant to deescalate, the end result might be only further escalation, death and destruction. In this scenario, it will be the Europeans who will be held partially responsible for not working harder to end the foreign involvement in the conflict.
Libya expert Frederic Wehrey writes that the international community must stop Haftar in order to end the bloodshed. Wehrey notes that continuing support for Haftar from the UAE, Russia and even tacit support from the United States is worsening the suffering of average Libyans. Imediately after the Berlin conference, Haftar’s militias killed 11 GNA fighters near Sirte, breaking what was already a shaky ceasefire and continues his attack on Tripoli.
Wehrey describes Haftar’s initial success in light of the GNA’s lack of popularity and it being “inept and beholden to corrupt militias”. However, Haftar’s move to take control of Libya torpedoed what looked to be a promising process underway led by the UN to bring into power a functioning government and address the “militias menace”. Haftar has managed to portray himself as an authoritarian and anti-Islamist, thus gaining support from key Arab states like the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The French as well, seeking to contain Islamic terrorism to Africa, also see Haftar as a stabilizing force and provide him with clandestine military aid.
However, due to Haftar’s ineffectiveness, he was not able to take Tripoli, even with significant foreign military backing. After tens of thousands were displaces, and thousands killed, including hundreds of civilians, Russia, sensing a geopolitical opportunity, began sending in mercenaries in September to help break the stalemate. With each move, Wehrey describes, Russia gradually increases its control over Haftar and pushes him into a ceasefire that suits Moscow’s interests more than anyone. That is, until Haftar walked out of Moscow without agreeing to a truce.
Russia’s increased involvement led Turkey to up it’s own involvement, forcing Libya to back its controversial claims to Eastern Mediterranean energy stores.
Wehrey concludes that the “much hyped” Berlin summit failed to formalize the ceasefire, and emboldened by arms from his backers, continues his offensive and shut down a big part of Libya’s oil exports, risking the country’s economic stability.
Wehrey calls on the international community to stop Haftar in order to “avoid catastrophe”, noting one GNA commander told him that “Haftar will not accept a ceasefire unless America twists his ear”. Wehrey specifically called on the United States to clarify its policy and apply its “unique leverage” to stop Haftar from illegally selling oil on the global market and not through the NOC, get the UAE and other backers to cease their shipments of arms, and back the UN Security Council’s ceasefire resolution with punitive measures against those who break the arms embargo and who abuse human rights.
Middle East expert Ethan Chorin warns that the international community may be condemning Libya into solidifying the split between east and west, LNA and GNA. Chorin blames the international actors pushing for various power-sharing agreements based on their own interests, whether halting the flow of migrants or stopping ISIS, and not necessarily finding what is best for Libyans.
Chorin explains the Berlin conference failed because the two sides to the conflict are irreconcilable, the product of faulty handling of post Gaddafi Libya that left the country vulnerable. As the US and Europe then failed to finish what they started, Turkey and Qatar rushed in to “engineer an Islamist counter-revolution”, backing the GNA.
Chorin suggests that in order to bring stability to Libya, the European powers must finish what they started: disarm Tripoli’s militias. Haftar, he says, defeated ISIS and Al-Qaeda and proceeded to consolidate power over the east and south of the country. However, the continued failure of the Europeans and Americans to play a constructive role left room for Moscow and Ankara to sweep in, and push their own interests, which include undermining the West.
As the region’s leaders are distracted by Turkey’s moves in the Mediterranean, it continues to send “planeloads” of Syrian militia fighters, many of whom are Islamists, as well as sophisticated arms to counter the LNA’s advantages.
Chorin predicts that what could result is a permanent division of Libya into Turkish-controlled West and a Russian-influenced East, something each country can live with. Both regions have energy reserves, Russia could establish a military base on the southern reaches of Europe, and both would see their regional influence rise, with Turkey solidifying its role as the patron of Islamist regimes. Meanwhile, Russia sells advanced arms to NATO Turkey, and Turkey helps Russia bypass the Ukraine and pump its gas into Europe, all in efforts to undercut the EU, NATO and the US’ influence. As this happens, Tripoli will be controlled by Islamists and Haftar will move closer to Russia and Egypt, becoming another regional strongman. In all of this, Russia and Turkey will be able to influence and pressure Europe as they see fit, through controlling the flow of migrants and terrorists into the continent.
Libya expert Emadeddin Badi writes that foreign powers such as Russia and Turkey are fuelling the Libyan civil war, and have no real interest to help the sides reach a power-sharing agreement. Despite assurances and promises made in Berlin, the UN warns that virtually all the actors supplying the warring sides with arms prior to the cease-fire efforts are still doing so. The truce has, essentially, collapsed and the conflict has become fully internationalised. Turkey’s efforts to connect its moves in the Eastern Mediterranean to Libya have now dragged Athens into the conflict, indirectly, leading the EU to becoming increasingly critical of and distant from the GNA, as France has long backed Haftar to begin with. Badi claims that due to this dynamic, Europe has lost all credibility as a mediator for the Libya crisis at a time when Europe’s involvement is crucial.
The lack of European and American commitment and consistency has allowed Turkey and Russia to step in and fill this void, while the UAE sends more arms for Haftar, working to balance Turkey’s increased efforts. Libya’s future, he writes, has really been hijacked according to Turkish, Russian and Emirati interests and not Libya’s or Europe’s.
At this time, he points out that Turkey and Russia’s interests have converged and they are pushing a cease-fire that suits their own interests, turning their military and political investments into economic and strategic gains. The UAE’s own interests must also be taken into account. We will add that this goes along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who prop up Haftar as a force willing to take on Islamists – ISIS, Al-Qaeda and others.
Badi suggests that what could result is some temporary stability in which the foreign powers agree to apportion Libya’s various assets, essentially spheres of influence - basically split up the country. This would grant economic contracts, energy infrastructure, naval ports and air bases to each foreign power in their part of Libya. With this possible outcome in mind, the Libya crisis will never truly be solved as the various foreign powers don’t see a need to end it, quite the opposite.
We agree with Badi’s assessment. We have written multiple times on this site that the European powers and United States, working with the UN, must take a firm lead in ending the Libya crisis. Those powers currently involved in Libya, and who are increasingly expanding their role at the expense of the European powers, must reinvest in Libya, using much stronger diplomatic and economic tools to pressure Turkey, Russia and others to cease their interference. Sanctions on those breaking the arms embargo or on those sending mercenaries would be a useful and necessary next step in this regard.
Perhaps if the fighting parties realise their international backing is going down and not up as it currently is, they would be more induced to return to the table and reach an equitable solution for all Libyans.
A feature article in the New York Times takes on the “toothless UN embargo” that allows “foreign states” to “meddle with impunity in Libya”. The article references the recently released report of an errant airstrike in July on a migrant detention centre that killed 53 civilians. However, the UN report only identified the perpetrator as a “foreign state” without specifically identifying which one. As UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame has previously said, this risks the UN embargo becoming a “cynical joke”. The New York Times calls out the UN’s reluctance to name names as part of a bigger problem of the international community’s inability to take concerted action over Libya.
At least 6 foreign nations are currently actively involved backing one side or the other in the conflict, despite the embargo. Of these, Turkey now openly provides arms and military advisers to the GNA in Tripoli. Others provide arms, logistical supplies and even supply mercenaries.
The air strike that killed 53 is most likely from a UAE fighter plane. The UAE backs Haftar’s LNA with heavy airpower and drones, among other means. But due to the UAE’s close ties with the US and EU countries, nobody calls it out for its behaviour. Its not the only one. Russia sends mercenaries, Egypt provides logistics support, Sudan mercenaries, Jordan sends arms and France reportedly has been offering clandestine aid to Haftar for years. Turkey, the main backer for the GNA, provides arms, training and now, also thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
The fact that all these continue to supply arms and fighters to the conflict as they all sat in Berlin just two weeks ago is almost comical if it weren’t tragic. That is, since average Libyans and helpless refugees are the ones caught in the process, often paying the price. Just last week, Turkish warships were spotted off the coast of Tripoli, and over 2000 Syrian mercenaries are said to have flooded into Libya recently (we have seen reports of close to 5000 Syrians in Libya already), while the UAE reportedly sent dozens of cargo plans filled with arms for Haftar.
Salame responded by describing the various countries as “unscrupulous actors” who “cynically nod and wink toward efforts to promote peace and piously affirm their support for the UN” as they “double down on a military solution, raising the frightening spectre of a full-scale conflict and further misery for the Libyan people.” He did not specify to whom he was speaking, but we can be sure his words were especially aimed at Ankara, Moscow and Abu Dhabi.
If the Berlin process, or any diplomatic process, has a chance of surviving, the international community, with the EU countries, Arab League, African Union and the US, all working under the UN, must specifically call out and investigate those violating the embargo, to which they are all signed on to and committed.
Moreover, the UN must reopen its investigation into private military contractors, or mercenaries in other words, who have grown increasingly influential in the Libyan conflict. A UN report conducted during the summer of 2019 and released towards the end of the year called out Sudanese and Chadian militias fighting for Haftar. This was a step, although nothing was done to remove these fighters from the conflict.
Since September, Russia has thousands of mercenaries fighting for Haftar, even as it denies their presence. And, since early January, Turkey has reportedly shipped well over 2000 and growing Syrian militants to fight for the GNA.
These forces are supremely destabilising, perhaps more than any other force at this time. The UN should immediately launch a new investigation into those countries employing mercenaries, especially and including Russia and Turkey. And, unlike the current “toothless” sanctions, these must have punitive measures to make them enforceable. Otherwise, Libya risks becoming the fully internationalised and full-blown civil war we all hope it doesn’t become but fear it might.
It’s not too late, but the UN must step up.
france reasserts itself in libya: russian meddling drew the us back in, did turkish meddling draw in france?
Turkish President Erdogan and French President Macron are in a war of words and accusations over their intervention in Libya, each accusing the other of pushing the ongoing fighting and instability.
Erdogan blamed his counterpart for backing Haftar. Turkey’s foreign ministry claimed France was the “main (actor) responsible for the problems in Libya since the crisis started in 2011”. “It's no secret that this country has given unconditional support to Haftar in order to have a say regarding natural resources in Libya". The foreign ministry blamed Macron for “trying to set the agenda with fanciful claims”. It said France was helping to attack Libya’s “legitimate government” and added that ““if France wants to contribute to the decisions of the conference being applied, it should first end its support for Haftar”.
Meanwhile, Macron accused Erdogan of failing “to keep his word” to end the intervention and uphold the embargo after the Berlin conference on January 19. Speaking together with Greek prime minister Mitsotakis, Macron referenced Turkish warships spotted off the coast Tripoli, “accompanied by Syrian mercenaries arrive(ing) on Libyan soil…a serious and explicitly infringement of what was agreed upon in Berlin”.
The strained ties as of late between Paris and Ankara extend beyond the sands of Libya, into the gas fields of the eastern Mediterranean and the Syrian civil war, where Turkey has accused France of welcoming Syrian Kurds to Paris.
It seems after taking a hiatus from having an active role in Libya, France is seeking to reassert itself in the conflict and, more importantly, the diplomatic solution. Perhaps it is Turkey’s increased involvement in recent months, backing the opposing side, and even Russia’s entrance into the conflict, that awakened Paris.
What drive’s France’s interest in Libya? And why does Paris seem to back Haftar and the LNA, despite the EU’s official position to back the UN-recognised GNA in Tripoli?
Despite the EU’s more-or-less agreed upon position, France seems to follow its own, more narrow, national interests in calibrating its Libya policy. This has led to a collision of sorts with its neighbour Italy, who has taken the EU lead in backing the GNA, for its own reasons. France’s Libya calculus seems to be predicated on a mixture of a few elements: oil and energy interests, its efforts to stop Islamic extremism from reaching Europe, and its larger picture of geopolitical and economic strategic relationships. France’s ambiguous double-game in Libya goes back to 2015.
All of these happen to stand in direct contrast to Italy’s Libya calculus.
Oil and Gas
As it turns out, France’s national oil giant Total has considerable interests throughout Libya, Africa’s largest oil and gas producer. Total’s acquisitions and interests, however, lie in Haftar-held territory, while Italy’s Eni’s interests lie primarily in GNA-held territory. Thus, France’s Total recently purchased a 16% share of the Waha oil concern, at an investment of over $600 million.
Stability and Extremism
However, beyond the obvious driver of securing energy sources, Paris seems especially intent on preventing the emergence and spread of radical militant Islam in its backyard. It has especially focused on this as a foreign policy and defence priority since the major attacks in 2015 that killed over 100 in Paris. This thinking has traditionally led France to place its weight behind strongmen who can impose order, especially ones like Haftar who at least pay lip-service to secularism and take on Islamists. (Many a critic points out that within the LNA are Islamist elements and Haftar only flies the banner of taking on Islamists to curry favour with the west.) With this view in mind, the human rights and democracy of these nations takes a back-seat to preventing Islamist terrorism in France.
Thus, France is especially invested in the Sahel and out parts of the Sahara region, where it employs special forces in Niger, Chad and Mali, and in the southern parts of Libya (which Haftar controls) fighting Jihadist elements and helping support fragile governments. While never openly admitting to it, it is within this context that France has reportedly provided intelligence, technology, training and special forces to aid Haftar’s LNA in fighting Islamic extremists. French-made advance arms have been found in LNA territory.
By contrast, Italy’s top priority is stemming the flow of illegal migrants into Europe. The Libya-Italy corridor had become a common avenue in recent years. Therefore, Italy reached an agreement in 2017 with Tripoli, whereby Italy and the EU would offer military aid, naval vessels and training and Libya would help block the flow of migrants into Italy.
Geopolitics and regional alliances
When Macron took office in 2017, one of the first major foreign policy files he took on was the Libyan crisis. Almost immediately, Macron thought he could bring Sarraj and Haftar together in Paris to hammer out a power-sharing agreement. Critics have claimed he either over-estimated his charisma and diplomatic pull, or under-estimated the complexity of the crisis.
The intra-Europe rivalry between France and Italy spills over into Libya. Here, Macron can be seen as representing the liberal, welcoming European-Union ideal, while Italy’s new government can be seen as more of a nationalist conservative force. It only adds increased tension when Macron left Italy, Libya’s former colonizer, out of the meeting.
It is also important to see France’s military-economic relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in this context. France sells billions in advanced arms to these countries, the same countries that happen to be backing Haftar for their own interests.
Complications and Turkish Wrenches
France’s plans to maintain and increase its influence in Libya have been challenged of late. Its ongoing rivalry with Italy has jumbled and slowed the EU’s efforts. Moreover, as the EU focuses on Brexit, Libya slipped from its collective mind. Within this confusion, Russia on the LNA side and Turkey on the GNA side were able to insert themselves and become increasingly crucial to either side. As we have pointed out in previous articles, the Turkish-Russian plan seems to be to edge out other foreign powers, then push for a peace-process in which they are indispensable, thus providing them with first dibs at energy and infrastructure contracts, not to mention enhanced regional prestige.
Paris’ bet hasn’t really panned out so far. Strongmen can be risky investments, even if they provide stability in the short term, and Haftar himself is 75 and reportedly ailing, without a clear successor in place. He also hasn’t succeeded in taking Tripoli, Misrata or other major population centres as promised.
Can France reconcile its differences with Italy long enough to form a unified EU front regarding Libya? The Berlin conference seemed to be a good start. But if France and Italy seek to maintain their influence at the Libyan table, they would be wise to start cooperating, and prevent Turkey and Russia from edging them out.
Calling out Turkey’s enhanced meddling is a good start.