Following the rise of so-called Islamic State (IS) in Libya, France and some of its allies – including the US and the UK – provided support to local forces. Some of these groups were those from the Libyan city of Misrata, who were aligned (albeit belatedly and conditionally) with the GNA, but some support – particularly from the French – also went to the LNA who have maintained a strong stance against the GNA, the internationally recognised government in Libya.
By working with these local groups rather than going through the GNA, these countries weakened the legitimacy of the GNA and emboldened rival groups. They showed how little [the GNA] was actually able to deliver to the forces on the ground in terms of weapons, money or political support. As a result, the GNA has continued to lack any real coalition of political and armed groups backing it and while some militias have mobilised against Haftar, it remains unclear how many will stay allied with the GNA once the immediate fighting has stopped.
Even amidst the recent violence, contradictory national policies have hindered concerted international efforts to stem the violence. France stopped an EU statement, calling for a ceasefire, from mentioning Haftar and the US (as well as Russia) said it could not agree to a UN Security Council resolution condemning Haftar. In fact, according to the White House account of the conversation, President Trump also went as far as to publicly praise the general's “significant role in fighting terrorism.” In doing so, both countries are providing tacit approval for the general’s policies and actively applying diplomatic pressure to prevent international condemnation of his actions.
As the international community seeks to stem the ongoing violence, it must take stock of the devastating impact of French (and to some extent US and UK) policy towards Libya. Not only have these policies stymied progress but they have also exacerbated tensions and instability within an already fragile political situation. Strongmen cannot provide stability in the long-term, the sooner we learn this the sooner we stop perpetuating instability and violence in the places we intervene. The international community must urgently reassess the operations of countries like France in Libya, which have emboldened General Haftar – potentially to the detriment of regional security.
A situation that has produced tensions between European powers amid the Libyan conflict over recent months is the alleged support that France is providing to Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). In tandem, Libya’s former European colonial ruler, Italy, and other European Union member-states support the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which Haftar does not see as legitimate.
France and Italy have long competed for influence in the Maghreb, nonetheless, the current situation in Libya has heightened tensions between both countries, leading to rather incendiary statements by Italian officials. While supporting different actors, Paris and Rome ultimately share many interests in Libya’s future. Neither would like to see extremist groups gain a long-term foothold in Libyan and both countries would like for a political settlement in Libya to help Europe deal with the arrival of refugees and migrant workers from African and Arab countries.
Regardless of these common interests in Libya, France and Italy have extremely different strategies for advancing them. Italy believes that France’s pro-Haftar policies have been dangerous and fuel further instability.
In fact, In January, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, argued that France “has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy”. This led to a considerable outcry by French authorities, with Paris summoning Italy’s ambassador and demanding an explanation.
For President Emmanuel Macron, Paris’ alleged support for Haftar has been about countering perceived Islamist terror threats and enhancing France’s prestige on the international stage.
Given the long standoff in Tripoli, experts have grown increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of a diplomatic solution between Libya’s warring factions over the foreseeable future. In light of these circumstances, it is easy to imagine both France and Italy as well as Europe in general suffering from a heightened terrorism threat from Libya, as well mismanagement of migrant arrivals that have been fuelling the ascendancy of far-right views across the continent in recent years.
How the standoff on Tripoli will evolve and the extent to which this conflict might continue eroding the historically strong French-Italian relationship is difficult to predict. Yet the fighting in Libya is unlikely to end any time soon and it is difficult to imagine Paris and Rome finding themselves on the same page regarding the best strategy for the country.
Despite the UN-recognition that the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) currently enjoys, it's no secret that many major players in the region actively prefer their rivals in Tobruk, particularly General Haftar & his LNA - who count amongst their unofficial backers France, the UAE, Egypt and others. Turkey & Qatar have been vocal in their support of the al-Sarraj government, with rumoured backing from Italy - although GNA Minister of the Interior Fathi Bashagha is allegedly not entirely supportive of either.
In this context it's slightly less surprising that Bashagha is supposed to undertake a secretive trip to Moscow in the very near future - the GNA is clearly exploring any & all options as they fight for survival in the face of the current LNA offensive.
What's slightly more surprising is that Russia has been seen as backing General Haftar; the LNA commander has met with the Russian Minister of Defence previously, and supposedly enjoys a relationship with Evgeny Prigozhin, a Russian billionaire with considerable political influence. With the LNA offensive on Tripoli stalling, coupled with serious cracks that have emerged in the LNA alliances amongst western Libyan militias, rapprochement between the GNA & Russia could signal an upcoming, significant policy change from Moscow.
This is a developing story, one which it will be worth to follow closely.