By Ferhat Polat
This policy outlook explores France’s foreign policy in Libya, examining the mixture of strategic, geopolitical, economic, and ideological factors driving French interests in Libya.
A hypocritical and ill-conceived strategy
According to Tarek Megerisi, “France is relying on the, at least, medium-term success of a 78-year-old man with serious health issues and a wider movement that is held together solely by him.
Moreover, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces that Haftar heads is not a formal army or security institution which suggests that even if they were to win it would not create a situation any different to Libya’s current security situation, with multiple armed groups competing for riches and influence.
This lack of a real security institution means that he couldn’t be of much help to other Sahel allies in the region. Moreover, even this outcome looks highly unlikely. For Haftar to conquer Tripoli, it will require significant military assistance and a long campaign that will destroy the city.
Moreover, the nature of Haftar and the significant resistance to him would mean that further military campaigns in the likes of Zintan and Misrata would then be necessary.”
Up until now, France’s position towards the two main factions within Libya has been one of extreme oscillation. While giving lip service to the UN-backed government, the French government has closely collaborated with Haftar and the military authorities in Tobruk.
Haftar has indicated his opposition to civilian rule in Libya on a number of occasions and has repeatedly stated that he does not believe in democracy or freedom.
The United Nations has been encouraging diplomatic efforts, while given the failure of previous initiatives, the arms build-up, and Haftar’s history of undermining political solutions makes it harder for any credible diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Libya to take hold.
Militias loyal to Haftar blocked oil exports from the country’s main ports on the eve of the Berlin summit. Oil is the lifeblood of the Libyan economy and the country’s primary source of revenue. Haftar has been trying to use it as a trump card.
In 2014, Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” against terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia (Salafist Islamist militia group) in Benghazi in which his forces benefited from international support.
For instance, France provided significant assistance and diplomatic support for Haftar’s operation.
Paris appears to have maintained this support unconditionally, despite allegations of war crimes, an increasingly prominent Salafist core in the LNA, attempts to sell oil in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, and Haftar’s part in prolonging Libya’s conflict and undermining the UN-sponsored political process that France publicly backs.
Despite the allegations, France has never officially acknowledged providing weapons, training, intelligence, and Special Forces assistance to Haftar, though evidence suggests that Paris has been involved in training and setting up Haftar’s military forces since 2015.
The death of three French soldiers in a helicopter crash in Libya in 2016 while conducting an operation against militia groups publicly revealed France’s presence and involvement.
“Haftar made no secret of the ties with France nor about the modern weaponry he had received from Paris despite a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.” Abdennour Toumi told TRT World Research Centre.
France’s military forces are largely operating covertly in Libya.
Media organisations reported that armed French intelligence officers were arrested in April while crossing the Tunisian-Libyan border. Furthermore, France’s admission that it owned the US Javelin anti-tank missiles uncovered when government forces retook Gharyan from Haftar in late June poses significant questions about France’s role in Libya.
For François Burgat, “Paris seems to give Haftar more political legitimacy and military clout in the current scenario, protecting Haftar’s position both diplomatically and militarily, sending its special forces to help the April campaign against Tripoli.”
Paris Summit on Libya
In May 2018, the French President hosted the Libyan rivals in Paris. France also invited many countries involved in Libya’s conflict, including the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as Italy, Germany, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and all of Libya’s six neighbours.
During the summit, they crucially agreed to hold elections in December 2018. However, this window of opportunity lapsed with no election taking place.
The efforts of France were poorly coordinated with the UN and seemed to contradict the efforts of the UN envoy Ghassan Salame, who wanted the Libyans to hold a national conference and draft a new constitution before holding elections.
The ostensible purpose of the conference was to bring together rival groups and promote a political solution. However, it seems that Paris’s main intention has been to legitimise Haftar within Libya and abroad.
For instance, recently, French President Emmanuel Macron sent an official invitation to Haftar to visit France.
The Invitation by France boosts Haftar’s image as a key player and lends him legitimacy, consequently undermining Al Sarraj’s credibility and role as Prime Minister as well as his negotiating leverage during any potential conference that may take place in the near future.
When Haftar began his offensive against internationally recognised government, EU decided to move and condemn the assault in April last year, but France blocked the resolution which allows Haftar to act with impunity.
“It is a paradigm that has persisted and shaped the UN political process that followed and helped create the situation of today. Although there is no evidence suggesting French military support for Haftar, other than French-owned Javelin missiles found amongst Haftar’s equipment in Gharyan, France has played a strong diplomatic role protecting Haftar from any accountability and tried to ensure that any internationally advanced de-escalation measures or future political process are shaped around him and securing his interests. This may not provide him with military clout but enables him to act with impunity.” Tarek Megerisi told TRT World Research Centre.
France attempted to present itself as a mediator in the Libyan crisis, and at the same time, gave strong political legitimacy to Haftar. Things did not go as planned by Macron’s government.
According to Megerisi, “Macron was badly advised in thinking that Libya could be an easy victory to achieve through his charisma. He underestimated the complexity of the country. It was a little naivety, a bit opportunism. He tried to rely on the military to solve a political problem.”
Paris’s Libyan summit was poorly coordinated with Brussels and Rome as well as none of the regional powers involved in the Libyan conflict were present. French President Macron seems to believe he can do everything on his own.
It may work in his country whereas on the international stage he must work with other actors who are present in Libyan civil war otherwise his unilateral approach is highly likely to fail to bring any long-term solution to the ongoing war.
EU Divisions on Libya The EU claims to be the strongest supporter of the UNled peace process. However, in practical terms, only a few countries have provided tangible assistance to the internationally recognised government.
There is a great division among two member states, France and Italy, over Libya. The clash between Italy and France over Libya has contributed to the failure of international efforts to develop a political solution for the ongoing conflict.
French support for Haftar’s offensive in the capital damages European interests; Italy has addressed this issue numerous times.
For instance, Matteo Salvini, former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, said that France “has no interest in stabilising the situation in Libya, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy”.
The EU officially supports the UN-backed Government of National Accord led by Fayez Al Sarraj. Despite the EU’s position, Paris has developed strong ties with Haftar, which weakens the EU’s influence on Libya.
According to Tarek Megerisi, “The EU is unable to take a strong position on Libya or advance significant policies for de-escalation given France’s antithetical position to the majority of other European states.
This certainly impacts the EU’s policy options given that it employs consensus-based policy-making procedures and as such has limited the options at Europe’s disposal to remain influential or impact the worsening situation in Libya.”
Recently the EU agreed to launch a new naval and mission to stop more arms reaching the warring factions in Libya.
The new mission will be limited to stopping the flow of weapons to Libya, there were already so many arms, to begin with, and when considering Libya’s coastline is more than 1,700 km which makes virtually impossible to implement a monitoring mechanism.
The EU has been trying to implement the arms embargo, but these efforts have failed miserably as some countries including France, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt have been increasing their support for Haftar, despite the UN’s arms embargo.
At the recent Munich Security Conference, a top U.N. official on Libya, Stephanie Williams, stated that the arms embargo in Libya had become ‘a joke’.
Having warships in the Eastern Mediterranean could prevent some of the flow of arms to Libya however, such patrols would not stop the weapons the UAE has reportedly been supplying to Haftar by air over Saudi and Egyptian airspace.
In order to prevent arms deliveries via air cargo, a no-fly zone would have to be enforced. However, there is no such perceptible political will to take such a measure.
The panel of experts which reports on violations of the U.N.-mandated arms embargo on Libya reported that Haftar’s forces have received aircraft as well as military vehicles from the UAE and had even established an airbase at Al Khadim near the north-eastern Libyan city of Marj and Haftar’s headquarters at el Rajma.
That base is capable of hosting advanced jets, such as the F-16, Mirage-2000 and Rafale.
Furthermore, it has also been reported that since January this year, dozens of flights from the UAE believed to be carrying hundreds of tons of weapons to support Haftar’s offensive against the internationally recognised government have been undertaken.
The Munich meeting follows one in Berlin last month hosted by Germany in its own attempt to stem the conflict, building on UN efforts to reach a ceasefire, disarm militias and launch new economic development measures. However, progress depends on preventing weapon flows into Libya, and that has not happened yet.
Launching a new maritime effort focused on enforcing the UN arms embargo around Libya may not prevent reaching arms to Libya, as some countries including France, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt have been providing significant military assistance to Haftar by air over Saudi and Egyptian airspace, despite the UN’s arms embargo.
As it stands, it appears that there is no practical, low cost, and promising option for the EU to implement the current arms embargo in Libya. All possibilities require significant political, financial and military commitments.
The stabilisation of Libya must be the primary goal of any international engagement. However, many governments are only concerned with their narrow interests. Such self-serving actions led to greater uncertainty and impeded a timely resolution to the crisis.
In this regard, France has been trying to preserve its economic interests and the strengthening of its political influence in North Africa.
By providing military assistance and intelligence services to warlord Haftar, France only brings even more conflicts, instability and division in the country rather than the “democracy” that France had promised to the Libyan people in 2011.
For Tarek Megerisi, “continuing to support Haftar is a strategy that cannot lead to stability or security within Libya in the short-term, and that is something that has the potential to upset neighbouring allies (Tunisia and Algeria) and destabilise Sahel countries through weapons proliferation.”
As long as, the international community’s response to Haftar remains as ineffective as it has been so far, Haftar most likely will see more room to continue his military offensive.
Libya could even disintegrate in an uncontrolled way, which would make it even easier for various radical militia groups to use parts of the country to expand their influence well beyond Libya’s borders.
Paris still sees Haftar as the best bet to fight against terrorism because of his anti-terrorism narrative.
However, France must take into account the fact that his forces are a ragtag of different militias, mercenary and radical groups including Salafi Madkhali movements, as these Salafis form a vital component of Haftar’s forces.
As a consequence, Haftar’s military approach is unlikely to bring long-lasting peace and stability. Therefore, the stabilisation process must be conducted under close UN supervision.
Although the UN-led process is moving slower than many had hoped, it is still the best hope for ending the civil war in Libya.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, France claims to uphold international law and to protector state legitimacy. Hence, at face value, France supports the UN-backed government GNA as Libya’s legitimate government.
On the other hand, it backs Haftar politically and militarily. Paris also legitimises Haftar via its media, conveying the image of the latter as a stabiliser and institution builder, which is terribly misleading.
Haftar’s military offensives and counter-terrorism narrative is an attempt to install his own Gaddafi style military dictatorship. As a consequence, Haftar’s offensive is most likely to fuel renewed fighting, bring more radical groups and refugees, increase oil prices, and aggravate the geopolitical tensions already raging in the region.
Thus, Paris should rethink its support to Haftar and throw its weight along with European Union, Italy and Turkey to consolidate the UN peace process, which is the only way forward.
Many observers concur that there is no military solution for this conflict. Despite this, France still believes that Haftar is a viable partner for its counter-terrorism work.
But he is also important to them as a means of securing French economic interest, as Haftar controls much of the oil fields in the east of Libya.
Besides, France has a strong preference for authoritarian governing structures in African and Middle Eastern states.
As a result, France is very likely to continue to support Haftar in the Libyan conflict and has shown very little interest in reversing course.
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policies. His interest include the politics of the Middle East and its influence in North Africa, particularly inregards to the potential for stronger economic, political and social partnerships.
TRT Research Centre