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The Libyan Crisis: a Russia-Turkey-France Triangle

The Libyan Crisis: a Russia-Turkey-France Triangle
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

For years, the Libyan crisis unfolded without raising much public attention. The turmoil and the actors involved in it were so complex that only experts could fully understand them. Matters have become simpler, as two separate camps have emerged, each supported by their own constellation of alliances. In the West, the official government, led in Tripoli by Faïez Sarraj, is theoretically supported by the international community, and in practice increasingly isolated. In the East, in Cyrenaica, the movement of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commanding a self-proclaimed "Libyan National Army", is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.

Until a few weeks ago, Haftar's troops were not far from taking Tripoli, thanks in particular to the mercenaries and military equipment provided by Russia. It was at that moment that Turkey decided to throw its weight in on the scale by supporting the official government camp, with (Syrian) mercenaries and direct military support. As in Idlib, in the North-West of Syria, Turkey’s drones caused real damage. At the beginning of June, Haftar's forces had to withdraw to their starting positions. The marshal himself has taken refuge in Egypt and appears to be out of the game while the camp in Tripoli is considering going on the offensive against Sirte, the major point of contention on the demarcation line between the East and the West. The Turks seem to dominate the field, where they are showing off their notorious Ottoman reflexes. As seen from Europe, with its ability to control the flow of migrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa as blackmail (as it previously did with Syrian refugees), Turkey has the upper hand. Nonetheless, Russian Mig-29s and Sukhoi-24s are keeping a close watch at the Juba base.

A major setback for France

In France, commentators seem to unanimously agree on two observations. Firstly, that of a "Syrianization" of the Libyan crisis, to borrow an expression from the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian. What makes Libya similar to Syria today is the open intervention of external powers, the territorial division of the country, the impotence of international mediation and the increasingly bloody nature of a war which, until a few months ago, had remained a low-intensity conflict.

The second observation is that France has suffered a major setback. It is considered to have given significant support to Marshal Haftar, in two phases. Until 2017, it provided military assistance to the former Qadafist army man, who then passed through the CIA. This enabled Haftar to secure a stronghold in Cyrenaica, in which he initially had no solid base.

Let us recall that a conference in Paris on Libya was one of the first foreign policy gestures of the current presidential mandate.

This assistance was justified by Khalifa Haftar's operations to eliminate jihadist groups, which in 2016 were successfully driven out of Benghazi. In a second phase, without severing any security links, the French government sought to include Haftar into a comprehensive political settlement for which Paris was taking various initiatives, thus providing Marshal Haftar with political legitimacy.

Let us recall that a conference in Paris on Libya was one of the first foreign policy gestures of the current presidential mandate. Since then, high-level French authorities have continually kept in touch with the Libyan officer, even in April 2019 when he began the offensive against Tripoli. With what objective? One interpretation could be to get the warlord of Cyrenaica to respect the international community’s demands, such as those recently made at the Berlin conference in January. More cynically, according to critics of the French position, to play the part of a candidate for power who has the double merit (in the eyes of Paris) of being a credible force and to be following a "secular" orientation.

The French spokespeople are obviously not wrong in pointing out that peace cannot be established without taking into account one of the conflict’s major players, whose forces still control two-thirds of the country ( they don’t control the capital or the oil fields).

In any case, French foreign policy has, over the years, faced many obstacles. There are internal divisions within the Libyan people, and Khalifa Haftar’s personality has been described as that of an "eradicating welder" by diplomats. Beyond that, there has been jealousy from European partners, including Italy, who is particularly interested in Libya, and who perceives France’s attitude as that of a "lone rider". To top it all off, there is Russia and Turkey that also need to be dealt with.

Russia and Turkey: between competition and complicity

Russia got involved in Libya relatively late. It proceeded slowly and with caution, adopting a strategy similar to the one used in Syria and elsewhere. Moscow first established political contact with Haftar, then sent him military equipment and (Russian) mercenaries from the Wagner company. In the meantime, it did not break ties with the Tripoli government, under the guise of aiming for a ceasefire and a political process.

Let’s not forget that, in Libya, Russia is allied with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These states, especially the Emirates, perceive the Tripoli government as the last Islamistc remnant of the Arab Spring that must be eliminated. Each alliance accuses the other of blithely violating the embargo on arms supplies to Libya.

Each alliance accuses the other of blithely violating the embargo on arms supplies to Libya.

On most of these aspects, the Russian approach seems similar to that of France. The aim is obviously different, as there is little doubt that the Russians are seeking an additional stronghold in the Mediterranean, as they did in Syria. However, unlike France, Russia does not suffer from a deteriorating relation with Turkey. Though Moscow offers military support to the faction fighting against the Turks, its dialogue with Ankara is not suffering as a consequence. Conversely, the relationship between Paris and Ankara was severely affected by a serious naval incident on June 10, in which a Turkish vessel threatened a French frigate (the Courbet) off the Libyan coast. This added yet another knot to the growing tensions between the two. At a meeting of the NATO Council the French strongly condemned the attitude of the Turkish navy, receiving the support of eight allies among thirty (not including the British).

The French authorities find themselves relatively isolated in their relationship with the Turks. In the case of the attack on the Kurds in Northeastern Syria, in Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400s and now in the Libyan crisis, Erdogan’s government is clearly disrespecting its obligations to NATO.

The French authorities find themselves relatively isolated in their relationship with the Turks.

In addition, the dispute over gas drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean may well be one of the keys to Turkish activities in Libya, (and potentially the way to a possible arrangement with the Europeans?). More specifically, The Americans wish to settle their disagreements with Ankara discreetly and believe they have resolved the dispute over the S 400, while the Germans are reluctant to jeopardize the EU-Turkey agreement on migrants.

How can the situation in Libya develop in the future? It will be tempting for Tripoli and Turkey to attempt an attack on Sirte, with the aim of restoring the country's territorial integrity - comparable to the Assad regime’s attempt to recover Idlib. Neighbouring Egypt has already indicated that this would be crossing a red line and Turkey would risk a serious escalation with Russia, which has the means to retaliate in Northern Syria. Another hypothesis – whether as an alternative to an attack on Sirte or due to an unsuccessful attack – would be a cartel on zones of influence in Libya between Russia and Turkey, in accordance with their proven relationship of competition-complicity. Again, the Syrian scenario could be replicated.

The end of an era for France?

As far as France is concerned, the current difficulties in Libya may mark the end of an era. Privileging the fight against terrorism with an local authoritarian partner such as Haftar was France’s undoing, or at least, failing to cut ties with such a partner in time. This paradigm goes hand in hand with a de facto alignment with certain Gulf countries, ideologically marked as "anti-Muslim Brotherhood". Lastly, trying to conduct a mediation in Libya against the will of our closest partners have shown its limits. France’s only chance of addressing the challenge posed by Turkey lies in its alliances, particularly the EU and NATO, however lukewarm they are for the time being. The problem for the French authorities remains convincing its partners and allies.



Copyright: Abdullah DOMA / AFP

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