Libyan civil war
Turkey versus France – a game of one-upmanship in Libya?

Relations between France and Turkey reached an historic low in June after Turkish ships allegedly targeted a French warship in the Mediterranean, resulting in France suspending its role in Operation Sea Guardian while accusing Turkey of violating an arms embargo against Libya. By Stasa Salacanin

France's growing row with Turkey over the Libyan civil war has also exposed cracks in the NATO alliance, not to mention within the EU. The Europeans have singularly failed to adopt a unified strategy towards the Libyan crisis, despite the latter having significant impact on the Union's security and stability.

The two countries support conflicting sides in Libya: Turkey has been openly backing President Fayez Sarraj (Government of National Accord) in Tripoli, while France has supported eastern commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA).

While French political elites have always been suspicious of Erdogan's Islamist agenda, they were also irritated by the Turkish intervention against Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria – which disrupted the fight against Islamic State – and have expressed their concern over Turkey's support for many Islamist factions throughout the Middle East.

This is also the key driver of the rivalry between Turkey and the Arab bloc, composed of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. France and the Arab states have been deeply disturbed by reports regarding Turkey's involvement in dispatching thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Libya (including extremists from al-Nusra Front and IS) and arming the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

According to Dr Mustafa Aydin, a former Rector of Kadir Has University and President of the International Relations Council of Turkey, however, there have been no credible reports so far to confirm the presence of IS or al-Nusra fighters among the Syrian mercenaries in Libya. These accusations would appear to come either from the Haftar camp or French-Arab related sources.

He also added that some recent reports revealed that Russia had started recruiting fighters from Idlib province, which would likely include extremist operatives, not to mention the Sudanese mercenaries sponsored by Egypt and the UAE known to be fighting on behalf of Haftar.

President Emmanuel Macron of France greets the Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, 2017 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Hamilton)
France was the only European country to back the renegade general Khalifa Haftar (seen here with French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017). Since the defeat of Haftar's forces as a result of Turkey's recent involvement in the Libyan conflict, however, France has adopted a more neutral stance, emphasising that it does not support any of the parties to the conflict. "The truth is," writes Stasa Salacanin "that France knows it bet on the wrong horse: its problem now is to find a way of not contradicting its initial pro-Haftar choice too abruptly"

French double game in Libya

France was the only European country that more or less openly backed the renegade general Haftar, thanks to Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who believed that the strongman would suppress Islamist terrorism and curb the mass migration of Africans to France and Europe.

Since the defeat of Haftar's forces as a result of Turkey's involvement, however, President Macron has adopted a more neutral stance, emphasising that France does not support any of the parties to the conflict. France's focus would now appear to be the UN-supported peace process for Libya, agreed by the international powers in January.

Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group observes that Haftar's backers know only too well that they cannot win this war, because Turkey's intervention and mobilisation of resources in support of the GNA cannot be matched by the other countries backing Haftar, all of whom are only providing the LNA with covert support.

Haftar has now become a liability rather than an asset. According to Fabiani, they are ready to remove him should this pave the way for an understanding with Turkey. Right now, the priority for these countries is to stop the Turkey-backed counteroffensive and protect Eastern Libya and the oil terminals.

Barah Mikail, Associate Professor at Madrid Campus of Saint Louis University believes that France, by saying that it does not lean towards any of the protagonists specifically, is suggesting it cares about national reconciliation and political solution to ensure it maintains relations with Haftar and his backers – namely, or more specifically, the UAE and Russia. The truth is, however, that France knows it bet on the wrong horse: its problem now is to find a way of not contradicting its initial pro-Haftar choice too abruptly.

Many analysts have observed that France's double game in Libya is not likely to gain any support from its European and NATO partners. While it is true that Turkey's aggressive regional foreign policy has faced heavy criticism, the French approach and emerging long-term rivalry with Turkey have not been met with understanding either.

The French Frigate Courbet joins the NATO Sea Guardian operation in May 2020 (photo:picture-alliance/S. Ghesquiere)
Growing tension: as the situation in Libya grows ever more complex, relations between NATO allies France and Turkey are rapidly deteriorating. In late June, President Macron said that Turkey was playing "a dangerous game" in Libya. A week later, France suspended its participation in NATO's Operation Sea Guardian after Turkish ships allegedly targeted a French warship in the Mediterranean. Turkey has vigorously rejected the claim; a NATO investigation was inconclusive. Pictured here: the French Frigate Courbet joins the NATO Sea Guardian operation in May 2020

France's limited reach

According to Mikail, there is very little France can do against Turkey in Libya. While Turkey allowed the GNA to make a qualitative advance, France does not want to appear at the forefront of the eastern-based LNA's strategy. As France and Turkey are both members of NATO, this would appear to limit their prospects for engaging in direct confrontation. But in the case of any future confrontation (which Mikail holds to be highly unlikely), France would be taking a stand against the legality and the legitimacy embodied by the internationally backed Tripoli-based GNA.

Professor of International Relations, Huseyin Isiksal, from the North Cyprus-based Near East University, still thinks that France will try to exert an influence on Libya, despite its arguably limited presence in the country. He recalls that unlike Tunisia and Algeria, Libya was never a French colony, and Libya has never been under the French sphere of influence.

In his opinion, divergent political and economic interests among the European Union countries and the shifting of political and economic priorities among member states post-corona means other EU countries are unlikely to offer France their unilateral support. Italy, for one, has openly opposed the French approach and supports the Al-Sarraj government in Tripoli. Isiksal also points out that the EU has very little leverage when it comes to Turkey, since the prospect of EU membership is not currently on the table.

Despite its current advantage, Turkey will have no easy job in fulfilling its ambitions across the Mediterranean. It faces powerful regional and global competitors such as Russia, the Arab countries and the West, all of whom have far greater financial, military and media means at their disposal than Ankara. A renewed cycle of escalation could therefore be just around the corner.

Stasa Salacanin

© 2020

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