French president signals shift away from Islamists in Libya mediation
Tunis- French President Emmanuel Macron seems to have taken Libya by storm, achieving in one day what Arab countries in the Maghreb and other European states failed to reach for years: Diplomatic success.
Macron played host to Libya’s two main actors: Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Sarraj’s rival in eastern Libya.
During the landmark meeting July 25 outside Paris, Macron urged the two leaders to agree to a road map that includes elections next year and a conditional ceasefire.
In doing so, Macron became the first Western leader to give Haftar centre stage. European powers had treated Haftar as a pariah in light of his uncompromising stance against Islamists and for what they perceived as authoritarian tendencies.
By agreeing to the ten-point blueprint, Sarraj can begin rallying support among allies in western Libya for his own plan for elections in March 2018 and extend his government’s tenure beyond its scheduled end in December.
Macron has repeatedly said that the stability of Libya was important for European security. Libyan soil has served as a springboard for waves of migrants to Italy, as well as a destination for militants and traffickers travelling across the Sahara from Africa’s Sahel region, where France deploys its largest military mission abroad.
Haftar, who was an ally of dictator Muammar Qaddafi before turning against him as a CIA-backed dissident, has seen his profile grow at home and abroad as his Libyan National Army (LNA) has crushed radical Islamists in battles since the launch of his Karama (Dignity) campaign in 2014.
Haftar claimed victory over al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, on July 5. He has also taken sides with the Saudi-led Arab camp opposed to Qatar, whom he has accused of collusion with Libya’s Islamist militias.
Sarraj and Haftar met with Emirati leaders in Abu Dhabi, last May.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also endorsed Haftar as an ally in the fight against Islamism.
Macron hailed the “legitimacy” of both Sarraj and Haftar through which they can unify other factions and militias and reach a consensus on “the road map of national reconciliation” agreed on in France.
The mediation is the fruit of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s “pragmatic policy.” Le Drian invested in Haftar at a time when France and other Western powers were embracing the region’s Islamists.
On July 20, 2016, when Le Drian was defence minister, three French special forces soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in eastern Libya. While former President François Hollande confirmed the troops were carrying out “dangerous intelligence operations,” reports said the troops were helping Haftar’s forces defend an airbase from Islamists. An Islamist militia, Benghazi Defence Brigades, claimed to have shot down the helicopter.
While Macron appears to have swiftly and successfully mediated the Libyan road map, it could rapidly unravel given the many actors in Libya’s conflict.
“Haftar and Sarraj are not the only players of the Libyan landscape,” said Sadek Sahrawi, an Algerian security specialist regarding Libya. “Their meeting in France could worsen the fragmentation of the country.”