By Giorgio Cafiero
By backing the warlord Khalifa Haftar against the UN-recognised government, France has gone against the grain of thinking within Europe and antagonised NATO allies, such as Italy and Turkey.
Shortly after Libya’s “Arab Spring” erupted in 2011, France spearheaded Operation Harmattan, which led to Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster.
Five years later, reports surfaced about three French soldiers losing their lives amid a special forces operation in Libya.
Ever since then, all observers of the Libyan civil war have recognised France as one of the major state-backers of warlord Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
Yet Paris has had to pay a price for its Libya foreign policy. French support for the LNA has isolated France from NATO and the European Union (EU)’s dominant members on the Libyan issue.
Aside from Greece, which is mostly a spectator to Libya’s civil war, France is alone within NATO and the EU in terms of siding with Libya’s eastern power centre against the UN-recognised and Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
France’s conduct in Libya has fueled significant problems with two fellow NATO countries: Italy, and, even more so, Turkey.
Angering Rome and Ankara
Italy has pursued its own interests in Libya that directly clash with France’s agenda. Of all EU members, Italy has most objected to France’s pro-LNA policies given the destabilising impact of Haftar’s efforts to “liberate” all of Libya through brute force.
A major factor shaping Italy’s perspective on Libya is Rome’s interest in restricting the arrival of migrants and refugees coming from Africa. To achieve this goal, Italy has sought to promote ceasefires in Libya that require working with all parties, not supporting an LNA offensive aimed at overthrowing the UN-recognised government in Tripoli.
Many Italians believe the French are busy playing a destabilising role in Libya which Italy has to pay for in various ways, including the challenges and burdens of hosting more refugees.
Among NATO’s 30 members, Turkey is the angriest at France for its Libya policies. As the only power to ensure the GNA’s survival through direct military intervention, Turkey is, by far, the GNA’s most important external ally.
France’s harsh rhetoric against Turkey, in which Paris has condemned Ankara for violating the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya, has harmed bilateral relations which already suffered from France’s arming and training of the YPG, which is the Syrian arm of the PKK terror organisation.
In fact, earlier this month, France withdrew from NATO’s naval operation in the Mediterranean. As Jonathan Fenton-Harvey wrote, this decision resulted from French “antagonism towards Turkey for effectively thwarting its regional geopolitical interests.”
From the Turkish perspective, France’s efforts to try to slam Turkey by raising this issue of Libya’s arms embargo while remaining silent on the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s arming of Haftar’s militias in Libya highlights how Paris is entirely unprincipled regarding the Libyan conflict, and guilty of turning a blind eye to Haftar’s war crimes.
The Emirati Factor
The UAE has been an ambitious and controversial external player in Libya’s civil war. Of all western powers, none has aligned with Abu Dhabi’s Libyan foreign policy as closely as France. Much of the reason has to do with its interests in working with Abu Dhabi on many levels throughout Africa.
It is difficult to exaggerate or overstate how much sway the Emiratis have over France’s agenda in Libya. Significant is that Abu Dhabi has far more influence over France’s strategies vis-a-vis Libya than any other European capital.
The “UAE runs France’s Libya policy” was how the Clingendael Institute’s Jalel Harchaoui explained it earlier this month. Late last year, the widely respected expert on Libya asserted that “France has used its diplomatic muscles to make sure that nobody criticises the Emirati mission in Libya.”
The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington’s Emma Soubrier described a “Macron effect” that has deepened Emirati-French relations since France’s current head of state took power. Macron’s “Jovian aura” has come with certain “qualities that appeal to many Gulf leaders…”
The Geopolitical Path Ahead
Macron’s nation had a vision of Haftar taking over Libya and establishing a French-friendly political order across the entire country.
Yet due to Turkey’s support for GNA, which intensified in late 2019 and early 2020 in the form of military advisors, Haftar is on retreat, making that French vision unrealistic. Unclear is how France will adapt its Libya foreign policy to this reality.
A number of important questions remain unanswered.
Will Haftar’s external backers such as France try to pressure the warlord into stepping down as the leader of the eastern power centre?
Would Haftar’s foreign partners push for a solution whereby their Libyan client can maintain an administration in eastern Libya with the country undergoing a partition, either formal or informal?
Decision-makers in Paris believe that the stakes are high when it comes to the future of France’s cooperation and coordination with the Emiratis throughout Africa. Thus, it seems a safe bet that France will not let the UAE become isolated in Libya.
Ultimately, France’s leadership sees the UAE as an “ideal” Sunni Muslim ally that can help Paris achieve its key foreign policy objectives throughout Africa. This is due to ideological factors, France’s admiration for the UAE’s “economic dynamism”, and many common understandings of the concepts of “terrorism” and “extremism” within the Sahel region.
Looking to the future, the chances are high that Paris will continue investing in its close relationship with Abu Dhabi while France pursues its own ambitions in Libya and other parts of Africa.
It is doubtful that Macron’s government would make any decisions in relation to the North African country’s conflict that does not sit with the Emirati leadership.
Although President Donald Trump has maintained an extremely close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the possibility of former Vice President Joe Biden entering the Oval Office in January raises questions about American foreign policy becoming significantly less UAE-friendly next year.
If so, that will only increase the value that Abu Dhabi places on its relationship with France, which has given the Emirates greater leverage in its partnership with the United States.
I Gotta Story to Tell : French interference in Libya
By supporting warlords and undermining the legitimate government, successive French leaders thought they could have their way in the North African state. Now that its plans have failed, the Macron government is playing the blame game.
France is once again threatening sanctions against those interfering in Libya, even as it tries desperately to rescue its own project in the country.
On the one hand, the Macron government has condemned Turkey for coming to the aid of the legitimate Government of National Accord (GNA), on the other it has worked hand in glove with a rogue warlord, Khalifa Haftar, as he tries to seize control of the Libyan state.
Despite being beset with its own problems such as anger over police brutality, the state of the economy, and a far-right on the rise, French officials have made Libya their proverbial hill to die on.
The country has pulled out of planned NATO exercises in the Mediterranean over Turkey’s role in supporting the Libyan government and unfounded claims that Turkish vessels were harassing its own ships
Without Turkish intervention, at the invitation of the UN-recognised GNA government, it is likely that Tripoli would have fallen to Haftar, sparking a humanitarian disaster and resulting refugee crisis that Europe is ill-equipped to handle.
GNA forces, backed by Turkish military advisors and air power through the Turkish military’s drone fleet, have managed to push back the warlord to the strategic city of Sirte.
Why France for all its ostensible commitment to the rule of law and the values of democracy, order, and stability, would have a problem with the legitimate UN-recognised government remains a mystery for anyone not familiar with its role in Libya.
Despite his reputation for committing massacres, unwillingness to negotiate, and even turning against his own allies, Macron has thrown in his lot with Haftar, arming the warlord and providing him with diplomatic support with patronage from the Elysee.
Now that the strategy has failed, instead of introspection, blaming Turkey for its role protecting Libya from the abyss of conflict seems the preferred option in Paris.
The Libyan episodes are far from the only example of French adventurism on the African continent.
Decades after supposedly ending its colonial project in the region, France continues to dominate the lives of tens of millions.
Whether that is via the continuing historic trauma of French rule and the atrocities that came with it, such as in Algeria, where the independence was only attained in 1962, or the economic cloud that hovers over central African countries in the form of French control over their monetary policy.
Given that history, maybe it’s time for France to act on its own advice and stop interfering in the policies of African states?
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.