By Sami Hamdi
For European powers, it is clear that the French gamble in Libya has failed and that Macron has led them into a quandary. France has actively pursued a foreign policy that seeks to secure its own interests at the expense of the European Union’s.
For Europe, policy in the Mediterranean and toward North African states generally has been driven by two key priorities: to stem the flow of migrants, and protect the security of Europe’s southern border from the general instability of the areas from North Africa’s coastline to the Sub-Saharan states of Mali, Niger, and Chad.
For years, this policy meant providing funds with conditions attached regarding social development, and the implementation of tough but “necessary” economic measures, including the lifting of subsidies on commodities.
However, Europe’s uncertainty over how to respond to the Arab Spring, and how to approach the rise of democratically elected Islamists, resulted in divisions within the Europe Union (EU) that all but paralyzed attempts to form a common policy.
While Brussels mulled over the best manner in which to approach the seismic changes in the region, Paris intensified its own foreign policy, leading NATO into Libya at Qatar’s behest and ousting Gaddafi to bring about a political transition that would later break down and plunge the country into civil war.
Yet, France’s motivations for pursuing a more assertive foreign policy had little to do with the traditional European policies of migration and security. Instead, Paris had noted that its former colonies, where it had continued to wield significant sway even after being forced out, were pursuing a trajectory that would lead to an active effort to constrain and significantly reduce their economic dependency on France.
In 2013, Bouteflika in Algeria was struggling to push through his attempts at a fourth term as his rivals began to lobby the US and other alternative powers for support. Bouteflika would later be ousted by a popular movement in 2019 and the current newly elected President Abdel-Majid Tebboune has begun to take active steps to reduce France’s economic influence over the country.
Tunisia’s democratic transition has resulted in significant changes within the state institutions as the Nahda party has sought to assert itself by appointing its allies, prompting fears in France about the rise of the Islamist party. As a result, there has been a tense political scramble for dominance which recently entered a new phase whereby the caretaker, Prime Minister Ilyas al-Fakh Fakh, is believed to have embarked on a vengeful removal of Nahda loyalists from the government.
In Mali, anti-France sentiment has soared as French military operations in the region have increasingly been seen as an excuse for France to maintain its military power and authority in the Sahel countries. President Macron expressed his concern over this latest development when he “summoned” the Sahel leaders to France earlier this year and insisted they take measures to temper anti-French public opinion.
In West Africa, President Nana of Ghana has called for an abandoning of the France-backed CFA Franc in favor of a West African currency, challenging France’s role in the West African economy.
The significance of these developments is that they have resulted in an assertion by Paris that the rest of Europe should follow its lead on foreign policy toward Africa. In the case of Libya, France has taken active steps to ensure Europe does not constrain its allies on the ground.
France’s Interest in Libya
Although France initially supported the elected Tripoli government and its General National Congress (GNC) following Gaddafi’s overthrow, it switched sides to support Haftar after becoming frustrated at the lack of tangible rewards for its decisive involvement in the conflict, and the increased dominance of the Islamists which France views with deep disdain and suspicion.
France then detached itself from its alliance with Qatar that was, and remains, the prime backer of the democratically elected Islamist government in the post-Arab Spring elections and joined hands with the UAE in supporting the authoritarian tendencies embodied by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar.
After the Islamists sought to unilaterally extend the term of the GNC in late 2013 amidst popular discontent and a terrifying wave of momentum brought about by Sisi’s coup in Egypt – which saw the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood imprisoned by the hundreds — they conceded to elections in 2014.
The Islamists lost in the 2014 elections which saw a very low turnout amidst a politically charged environment. They subsequently refused to recognize the results and pressured the Libyan Supreme Court to annul them. After which, their militias seized the airport, and eventually Tripoli, driving the newly elected Parliament to Tobruk.
Khalifa Haftar, who had already attempted a coup prior to the elections, then allied with the ousted Parliament exiled in Tobruk in order to operate within a framework of “legitimacy,” and embark on a military campaign to impose himself on Libya, which culminated in the late 2019 Tripoli offensive.
France’s gamble on Haftar was made clear in 2017 when it brokered a ceasefire between Prime Minister Serraj and Haftar in Paris, from which representatives of the Tobruk Parliament were absent.
As Haftar bombarded Tripoli in 2019, France took extensive diplomatic steps to prevent any effort by Germany or other EU members to rein in the warlord while actively providing weapons via the UAE in order to assist in Haftar’s bid to seize the capital.
Even as Russia began to flex its muscles in Libya via the Wagner Group and continue to rattle Ukraine, Paris adopted a position calling on Europe to warm up to Moscow rather than follow Germany’s line of giving Putin the cold shoulder.
The expectation in Paris was that Haftar would sweep the country militarily, seize the capital, and bring about a semblance of stability that would facilitate a new framework of cooperation in which France would be the major player.
Germany’s feeble attempts to rein in France via the UN-brokered Skhirat Agreement, that brought about the Government of General Accord (GNA) in 2015 and the Berlin summit of 2019, indicate that Merkel has not been entirely pleased with Macron’s adventure.
Yet, it is clear that for Merkel, unity within Europe is the top priority as the far-right gains traction, Brexit inspires euro-sceptics in Italy, and the southern European states claim discrimination and neglect by Brussels.
It is also possible that German officials privately believed that an end to the war, even by Haftar’s military force, might be better in the long term for the stability of Europe’s southern border than the impossible task of bringing the Libyan parties to an agreement.
However, Haftar’s offensive was brought to an abrupt end by a Turkish intervention as President Erdogan lashed out at what he perceived to be a maritime chokehold forming on the Mediterranean by Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, the UAE, and Italy.
If pro-UAE and Turkey antagonist Haftar were to take Tripoli, the maritime chokehold would effectively be completed, hampering Turkey’s claims to resources.
With tensions over gas in the East Mediterranean simmering, and a new Israel-Greece maritime deal in the works, an isolated and deeply concerned Turkey signed a cooperation agreement with the GNA before proceeding to embark on a military expedition involving the sending of drones and thousands of Syrian fighters to drive Haftar out of Western Libya.
Turkey’s Intervention Stifles France
Europe had failed to grasp the extent of Turkey’s concerns and had repeated the mistakes made in Syria whereby they alienated Turkey and facilitated a Russian-Turkish partnership by ignoring Erdogan’s insistence on the need to establish a safe zone in northern Syria to secure his southern border, and to provide assistance in catering to the millions of refugees who had flooded into Turkey.
The deteriorating relations were compounded by an attempted coup in 2016 that Erdogan believed Europe had privately been rooting for.
In other words, had Europe made a deal with Erdogan over the East Mediterranean issues with Greece and Cyprus, and facilitated talks with Israel, it is highly unlikely that Turkey would have intervened in Libya.
Moreover, Erdogan may well have preferred those talks to succeed rather than risk his domestic political situation on what has been criticized domestically as a uniquely “Muslim Brotherhood” adventure.
Turkey’s intervention not only ruined France’s plans for Haftar, but also facilitated a more assertive Russian presence in the East. Russia has been courting Libyan tribes and amplifying its overtures to Aguila Saleh and the decision makers in eastern Libya, denting France’s influence.
Recently, Russian mercenaries have taken control of oil facilities and have sought to secure military bases. Meanwhile, Turkey has begun establishing a large naval base in Misrata and an air base in Al-Watiya, indicating that Turkey intends to stay and cement its power.
To make matters worse for Paris, the US has begun to reassert itself as AFRICOM begins to express concern over Russian presence that was only made possible by French-UAE support for Haftar.
France has sought to compensate by preventing Algeria and Tunisia from responding to Turkey’s overtures. While France has succeeded in bringing about a notable cooling in public relations between Turkey and Libya’s neighbors, the fact remains that neither Algeria nor Tunisia have the capabilities to stem Turkey’s advance and have found themselves restricted to statements that assert neutrality and call for talks.
Moreover, while Algeria has cast doubts over the legitimacy of Turkey’s allies in Tripoli, it has warmly received a host of Turkish businesses and is currently in discussions over the expansion of economic ties.
In effect, the most active European country in Libya has found itself lagging behind the new emerging powerbrokers, and Europe’s problems have been further compounded by ongoing negotiations between Ankara and Moscow that have resulted in a new “Libya working group.”
For European players, it is clear that the French gamble has failed, and that Macron has led them into a quandary. Moreover, France has actively pursued a foreign policy that seeks to secure its own interests at the expense of the European Union’s.
Although Macron has sought to secure goodwill from disgruntled European states by brokering a record 750 billion Euro economic recovery package, there is a sense within Brussels that the current trajectory of the Libyan conflict risks side-lining Europe altogether.
In the meantime, France is still lobbying Brussels to designate Turkey as the primary threat as opposed to Russia. This runs counter to the US which views the opposite.
Germany and Italy have opened channels with Erdogan while Greece joins Paris in antagonizing Turkey. Finally, Germany sees room for discussion with Turkey. But it does not see the same for Russia. France has the opposite opinion.
The irony is that Turkey once ardently pursued European accession but was rejected by France which insisted that “Turkey belongs in Asia Minor.” In Syria, Turkey eagerly sought European allies against Russian-backed Assad but found itself isolated and forced into a marriage of convenience with Moscow.
In the Mediterranean, Turkey fervently sought talks over access to resources but found itself ignored and pro-actively pushed into isolation by European powers.
The result of Europe’s antagonism has led to a northern Syria in which the Turkish lira has become the main currency, and a political process dominated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. In the East Mediterranean, there is talk of war as Greece flounders in the face of Turkey show of force.
In Libya, Turkey looks set to remain for the foreseeable future, and has embarked on an extensive economic campaign to win over Algeria, severely undermining any possibility for Europe to exert control.
As France insists that Turkey is the villain, at some point, Europe must question the direction Paris is leading them on foreign policy. Turkey is keen to emerge from isolation and limit its dependency on its alliance with Russia.
To this end, it has welcomed a thaw in ties with Washington and has sought warmer ties with Berlin, Rome, and even touted the possibility of talks with Egypt.
Turkey is for the time being a major powerbroker in Libya. However, Europe can still rally and re-integrate Turkey into an alliance that might keep Russia at bay. All things considered, an expanding Russian threat that has already claimed Crimea far outweighs one posed by Turkey, driven by a sense of forced isolation rather than ambition.