France leads European-Arab drive to counter Turkey’s ambitions in Libya

Paris saw Ankara’s strategy as clashing with France’s interests in Libya and its vision for the whole region.

Wednesday 01/07/2020
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the press,  June 30, 2020, in Nouakchott. (AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the press, June 30, 2020, in Nouakchott. (AP)

PARIS – A European-Arab coalition led by France to counter Turkey’s ambitions in Libya has begun to take shape, after Ankara’s defiance has reached the point of tampering with regional and European security by sending over to Libya thousands of Syrian mercenaries that include extremists from al-Nusra Front and ISIS, experts say.

Faced with Ankara’s growing aggressive posture in the pursuit of its goal of assuming control of Libya’s resources and taking advantage of its strategic location, France has moved at a feverish pace to thwart Turkish ambitions. Paris saw Ankara’s strategy as clashing with France’s interests in Libya and its vision for the whole region.

France was the first European country to criticise Turkey for sending mercenaries and weapons to Libya and to voice its total solidarity with Cyprus and Greece’s rejection of the agreement on maritime border demarcation signed last November between Turkey and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).The row escalated despite the GNA’s attempt to bribe Paris by granting French energy giant Total gas exploration contracts in Libya’s disputed areas.

France has also supported Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA) in their war on terrorist groups since 2014. On more than one occasion, Paris has fended off attempts to push the European Union to issue a resolution condemning the LNA or its commander.

France was the first to intervene in 2011 to topple the regime of the late Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, even before a UN Security Council resolution was adopted allowing military intervention in Libya. Observers attributed France’s eagerness to intervene to its desire to get rid of a regime that had been rivalling its influence in Africa and impeding its interests in Libya, especially after the Qaddafi regime reneged on a gas exploration deal with Paris in the Nalut Basin.

More recently, France was among the first European countries to welcome the Cairo initiative aimed at solving the Libyan crisis by providing for an immediate ceasefire and a return to the political process. Turkey and the Islamists,  as presented by the GNA, rejected the initiative with the apparent backing of the US Department of State.

The new French position has the support of several Arab countries, notably the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and –to a large extent– the Tunisian presidency.

A file picture of Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash. (Reuters)
A file picture of Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash. (Reuters)

The strongest expression of Arab support for the French position against Turkish interference in Libya came in an opinion piece published in the French newspaper Le Point by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, who praised the actions of French President Emmanuel Macron in this regard.

“French President Emmanuel Macron was the first European leader to explicitly refer to this reality and this danger by urging the European Union and NATO to stand up to Turkey in both Libya and Syria, thereby placing France as a strategically leading country for Europe regarding Turkey and security in the Mediterranean, and joining the voice of the Arab majority,” Gargash wrote.

“Late last year, Erdogan took advantage of the divisions within the Libyan National Accord government to enact bilateral agreements that he then used to justify extensive resource expropriations in the Mediterranean, provide advanced weapons and transport thousands of Syrian mercenaries to western Libya. As in other similar circumstances, the UAE has stood with France and other allies to address these threats,” he added.

Before that and during his recent visit to Paris, Tunisian President Kais Saeid emphasised the necessity of implementing a ceasefire in Libya and holding elections that would renew legitimacy for the authorities there, describing the GNA’s “international legitimacy as only temporary.”

The coming out of France as a clear-committed party in the Libyan conflict is likely to break the silence over Washington’s disagreement with Paris over Libya as the US State Department, in cooperation with Turkey, is trying to portray the Libyan crisis as a conflict between the West and Russia. According to experts, highlighting Russia’s presence in Libya is part of scare tactics used by Turkey and the Islamists in Tripoli to provoke reactions from the United States and the West that would ultimately hand control of the whole country to the Islamists.

Observers believe that the odds of Turkey failing in its Libya offensive are likely to improve tremendously as a country like France spearheads the counterattack. Paris is already moving to mobilise European support for the battle, as reflected by Macron’s recent visit to Germany, on the eve of Berlin assuming the presidency of the European Union.

Curtailing Turkish designs, observers say, will benefit from role played by a country like France capable of harnessing a more effective European position, and of preventing the US from acting alone to try to shape the future of Libya without consulting and coordinating with France, a country larger than Greece and Egypt.

The Sixth Summit of the Heads of State of the five African Sahel group, held Tuesday in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, is seen as a prelude to a broad French move to expand the circle of pressure to stop the Turkish expansion that is now threatening most of Libya’s neighbours.

Observers believe that the timing of the summit in these exceptional circumstances includes clear political messages that France wanted to send from Mauritania within the framework of the pressures it is exerting in order to reduce the area of Turkey’s encroachment in Libya and encircle its repercussions, especially that it coincided with an escalation in Macron’s statements against the entire Turkish project in Libya.