By Rym Momtaz
As strongman loses the last town he controlled in the West, Paris faces being frozen out of the North African country.
The collapse of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against the capital Tripoli thanks to Turkish military intervention has exposed Europe’s inability to shape the conflict at its borders and left France trying to hedge its bets.
On Friday, Haftar suffered his most significant defeat since the beginning of his military campaign in April 2019. It took the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), backed by Turkey, only a few hours to oust Haftar’s troops from the town of Tarhuna, southeast of Tripoli, the last town in the West of the country that he controlled.
“It’s very symbolic that Tarhuna fell,” said Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow specializing in Libya at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It wasn’t much of a fight and that’s significant because it’s the end of this chapter, there is no more offensive in Western Libya.”
France had backed Haftar, putting Paris at odds with its EU partners.
But as the tide started turning in recent weeks, France tried to coax the mercurial and overreaching Haftar to engage in the cease-fire talks set out at a Berlin peace conference in January, before he lost all his military gains.
“There is a Libyan crisis that is getting increasingly complex because of foreign interventions,” an official in French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said.
“If the Russians intervene on the side of Haftar and the Turks on the side of the GNA, there’s a worst-case scenario which is that they agree on a political framework on their conditions.”
But some remain dubious about France’s newfound enthusiasm for the Berlin peace process.
“The question on everybody’s lips is: are the French panicking because it seems like Turkey and Russia will divide up the country between them and it will be cut out or is France trying to salvage its image and lock in a cease-fire before Haftar completely collapses?” Megerisi said.
The Libyan conflict poses vital security and geopolitical risks for Europe. But with nothing more than an understaffed and slow naval mission to police the arms embargo in place and the Berlin-launched political process in limbo, the EU has barely been able to weigh in on the conflict.
Instead it is Turkey, and to a lesser extent Russia, that seized the moment by deploying personnel and weapons.
France has adopted an ambiguous position, as it worried about a spillover effect from Libya into the Sahel, where French forces lead a long-running counterterrorism mission.
“Counterterrorism has been the general framework of French foreign policy in the region since 2015,” said Virginie Collombier, who specializes in Libya at the European University Institute, in reference to the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and France’s counterterrorism mission in the Sahel region.
In addition, France is keen to preserve its strategic partnership with the United Arab Emirates, host of a French military base and the second-largest purchaser of French arms, and to block increasingly assertive Turkish moves in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
“So for the past few years, France has both been supporting the U.N.-led process [to broker a political solution between the warring sides] while also providing Haftar with support,” Collombier said, since Haftar is perceived as a strongman who is able to keep jihadists at bay.
But Haftar’s claim to be a vanguard against jihadism fell apart on Friday evening.
“This is no longer a fight against terrorism or extremism, this is now a fight for holy jihad,” Haftar’s spokesman said.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland told reporters on Thursday that Macron had been in touch with Haftar. An Élysée official said Macron had “worked a lot” on the resumption of cease-fire talks but refused to answer whether there had been a recent call between the two, only referring to a conversation they had in March.
The official did acknowledge that France is in touch, at various levels, with Haftar and his entourage, as they are with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke to on May 31.
On Friday, a U.N. Security Council resolution renewing the legal framework for the EU’s Operation IRINI which is meant to enforce the arms embargo — was adopted unanimously.
Over the past two weeks, diplomats have been trying to assuage Russian objections and worries about the mission. On Tuesday, the European External Action Service provided details of the scope of the mission in a closed briefing to the U.N. Security Council at the request of Russia, in addition to diplomatic contacts between Paris, Berlin and Moscow, according to a European UNSC diplomat.
“It tickles [Russia] a bit to authorize a European military operation … and there’s the complicated relationship they have with the EU since they are under EU sanctions since their annexation of Crimea, so for them to say yes to the EU it’s not natural,” the diplomat said.
Meanwhile, Russia has ramped up its military presence in Libya by reportedly sending Syrian mercenaries and up to 14 of its fighter jets to back Haftar, giving its air force a foothold in Libya that can directly threaten Europe’s southern borders.
France has refrained from condemning the latest Russian escalation, though Macron publicly condemned Turkey for doing the same back in January.
“Everything is not comparable in Libya,” the official in Macron’s office said.
He went on to say that “Turkey’s overall behavior,” including in Libya and on maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean, creates “facts on the ground at the borders of Europe that expose our security.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.
Rym Momtaz is POLITICO correspondent in France. Before joining POLITICO, she spent the last seven years working as a Producer at ABC News. She covered major news stories across Europe, the Middle East and the U.S.