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.