In the wake of the current power struggle that is taking place in Libya, one of the main angles that, to some extent, fuel instability is the involvement and interests of foreign actors in the conflict and their open or covert support to any of the sides taking part in the fighting. One highly controversial issue that has been brought up by numerous analysts and diplomats is the alleged French support to the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar, despite the fact that the European Union (EU) and the UN back the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
These suspicions were exacerbated by the discovery of French-owned advanced Javelin missiles of US origin at the LNA command centre of Garyhan following the GNA’s capture of the town. In the midst of extensive international outcry, the French governments issued a statement on July 10 arguing that the Javelins were not provided to the LNA but were rather “abandoned” by French troops that were previously in the area. Thus, amid the confusion that arose from the statement, several questions remain. What were French troops doing in Libya? And secondly, are they still deployed there?
It is important to note that the French army has an extensive presence in Africa, particularly in its former colonies across the Sahel, just south of Libya. The most notable of this is Operation Barkhane, established to fight militancy in Mali and with operations in the former as well as Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. During the past couple of years, Barkhane has conducted extensive operations against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and to a lesser extent against the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). Taking the above into consideration, amid the power vacuum left in southern Libya since the launch of Haftar’s Tripoli campaign, IS has attempted to establish a foothold in southern Libya, engaging in guerilla warfare against troops as well as partaking in illegal activities.
Even though there is no official confirmation that France is involved in anti-insurgency activities in Libya, it sounds reasonable to assume that avoiding the growth and entrenchment of IS in southern Libya would be a priority in France’s geopolitical strategy in the region. Indeed, said entrenchment could potentially lead to greater coordination amongst IS-affiliated and create a continuous corridor linking the Sahel and Sahara regions. In fact, the group has become more reliant on sub-Saharan African personnel in its post-territorial phase and has simultaneously deepened its connections with Libya’s desert smuggling networks, which connect North Africa to the Sahel.
Such coordination would seriously jeopardise stability in the region, and pose a serious threat to French interests in the region, including the supply of Uranium from Niger, which represents the main source of the mineral used in French nuclear facilities. Likewise, considering the already increased involvement of IS in the smuggling networks, wide-IS cooperation could spark a rise in people smuggling across the region, which subsequently will increase the influx of people into Europe, worsening the already dire migration crisis.