By Ferhat Polat
France’s pursuit of its own long term interests in Libya is fueling the conflict and undermining the UN-backed peace process.
Warlord and militia leader Khalifa Haftar is in a frenzy to take control of Libya by force and has put in place a regime that seems like it is emulating Gaddafi’s dictatorship. One clear indication of this is Haftar’s refusal to adhere to any negotiations or political solutions.
International involvement from the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and most particularly France is exacerbating the conflict, making the process of national reconciliation elusive.
The preservation of French economic interests in Libya and strengthening French political influence in North Africa are two of France’s main priorities. France’s role in leading the anti-Gaddafi coalition also aimed to promote the interests of the French oil giant, Total.
Libya has the largest proven crude oil reserves in Africa at 48.4 billion barrels. When Gaddafi was in power, Libya produced some 1.6 million barrels per day, exported mostly to Italy and France. Therefore, there is no doubt that Paris seeks to achieve significant commercial benefits to securing its interests in Libya, especially within the energy sector.
Some critics argue that potential reconstruction contracts and increased interest for oil business are France’s main foreign policy drivers in Libya. Thus, Paris believes only the so-called strongman solution would be the best guarantee for its current and future economic interests in Libya.
Libyan Political Agreement
In December 2015, the political agreement, also known as the Skhirat agreement (LPA), was signed to form a transitional government. The agreement was aimed at transcending the country’s political divide after the eruption of civil war in mid-2014 had put an end to the transitional process.
The peace process negotiated under the support of the UN had not only the support of Western Governments but also the endorsement of the UN Security Council. The resulting political agreement led to the establishment of a single Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al Sarraj.
France and other regional actors (Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia) played a key role in enabling Haftar to take military action against the UN-backed government. This has prevented the GNA from imposing its authority across Libya and bringing peace and stability to the country.
Up until now, France’s position towards the two main factions within Libya has been one of extreme ambiguity. While giving lip service to the UN-backed government, over the past years, the French government has closely collaborated with Haftar and the military authorities in Tobruk.
France’s current strategy is to pursue its national interests first and foremost irrespective of international legality, Europe’s course of action or what is best for the Libyan people.
The United Nation’s Role
The United Nation Security Council is deeply divided and has not been able to agree on a resolution calling a ceasefire in Libya. Some regional and international players are fuelling the conflict by sending arms to Haftar despite an official UN arms embargo. Meanwhile, the United Nations has been ineffective in enforcing sanctions against countries interfering in Libya.
France’s ties with Ghassan Salame
The UN-mediated peace process, led by Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy in Libya, planned for the Libyans to hold a national conference and draft a new constitution before holding elections.
But some of Salame’s political moves have cast a shadow over his intentions, and whether, wittingly or unwittingly, he is favouring France’s interests in Libya.
Salame’s impotence in front of Haftar’s inflexibility and disruption of the UN political process has raised many eyebrows. For example, the UN envoy remained supportive of Haftar during last year’s Paris conference despite Haftar’s multiple attempts to derail Salame’s peace proposals.
Salame’s political moves seem more aligned with Paris’ designs than anything else.
It is ironic to see that while France was one the first country to recognise and support the opposition groups protesting the dictatorship of Gaddafi in 2011, is now backing a process that will reign another dictator in Libya.
This is a clear example of France’s double standards in Libya’s internal affairs. To move forward and achieve reconciliation between rival groups, Paris should support the UN political process which could lead Libya to be united and pave the way for implementing the LPA.
Despite the UN arms embargo, some countries, chief among them France, are still providing military and intelligence assistance to warlord Haftar, which will only escalate fighting in Libya.
Instead of fuelling more conflict and destruction, France and the UN should convince Haftar and his other backers to accept that the LPA is the only viable way forward, as there are no military solutions for this conflict.
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 Policy.