Turkish-French dispute carries over to Libya

There are growing indications that Erdogan may be pushing to undermine the ceasefire in Libya.
Monday 26/10/2020
Islamist protesters demonstrate against France and the French President in Istanbul, last month. (AFP)
Islamist protesters demonstrate against France and the French President in Istanbul, last month. (AFP)

TUNIS – At the current stage of the French-Turkish political conflict, political and religious considerations are being purposely mixed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the background of his clash with France confirms it has nothing to do with religion, which is being used to hide an intense conflict governed by geostrategic calculations.

Former Tunisian minister Mabrouk Korchid expressed this view by saying that the current French-Turkish conflict is a political struggle with a religious cover, rooted in the struggle for domination and vying for the sympathies of the simple-minded folks.

Korchid told The Arab Weekly that Erdogan “is not really concerned with the issue of defending the Prophet, otherwise he would have called an Islamic summit for this purpose,” pointing out that Erdogan wants to win over the sympathy of Muslims in his conflict with French President Emmanuel Macron by resorting to inflammatory rhetoric.

In this reading, Korchid joins the position of the French intellectual and Middle East affairs authority Alain Gresh, who previously said that differences between Macron and Erdogan do not reflect “in reality a religious conflict, but rather (reflect) the use of religious discourse by political leaders in geopolitical conflicts.”

Given the conflicting interests and goals of the two countries in the Mediterranean, the Libyan file is expected to take front seat in their current clash. Observers and analysts fear that the current French-Turkish political clash will carry ripple effects in the wide-open conflict in Libya.

The Libyan file is one of the major points of contention between Macron and Erdogan, as Turkey supports the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the militias loyal to it, while France tends to support the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Korchid told The Arab Weekly that one of the chapters of this conflict “will take place in the Mediterranean basin, and one of its most prominent areas is going to be Libya, which Turkey wants to place under its complete hegemony for economic and geostrategic reasons, while France considers itself the architect of the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's regime and must therefore be the biggest beneficiary of that.”

The rapid developments in the Libyan file over the past two days do seem to be fuelling these expectations, amid fears that Turkey will divert the arena of its differences with France towards Libya, mobilising its proxy militias and mercenaries to undermine the ceasefire agreement, whose "reliability" was questioned by Ankara but welcomed by Paris.

Libyan parliamentarian Ali al-Takbali described this fear as legitimate and that it is justified on the ground. In a phone conversation with The Arab Weekly, he did not rule out the possibility of Libya turning into an arena for settling scores between France and Turkey.

Takbali attributed this to the fact that “France is afraid for its influence and interests in the Mediterranean and sees in Turkey a strong competitor that can and will spoil its plans to reap the benefits it aspires to in the acquisition of some of the natural wealth in the Mediterranean, especially after Turkey’s signing an agreement with Fayez al-Sarraj that did not receive the approval of the House of Representatives or the backing of any international legitimacy.”

He said this agreement, which he described as “fake," stands to cause great losses to French interests in the region, and this is why Paris is trying by all means to spoil things for Turkey in Libya, while Turkey is trying to spoil things for the Libyans in order to circumvent France.

“The possibility that Turkey and France will settle their scores on Libya is very likely,” Takbali said, “and therefore Libyan soil may turn into the actual ground for that.”

He did not rule out Turkey’s continuing occupation of western Libya and its bringing in additional mercenaries, especially that “we know that it is implanted in the ports of Khums, Misrata and Al-Watia, and we also know that France helps the Libyan National Army, but does not intervene to the extent that Turkey interferes.”

While Takbali warned that “the future could usher in a fiercer war between France and Turkey, and that the sole loser is going to be the Libyan people,” observers recall the escalation in the media discourse of the pro-Turkey Libyan militias, and their field preparations that fall within the context escalating the situation in order for them to disavow the ceasefire agreement.

In light of these escalatory steps, there are growing indications that Erdogan may be pushing to undermine the ceasefire in Libya. He was among the first to question its steadfastness, describing it as “lacking credibility” and said that “the days will show the extent of its steadfastness.”

The militias did not wait long to translate Erdogan’s scepticism into action, announcing military training exercises under Turkish auspices, in the first serious breach of the terms of the ceasefire agreement, which GNA field commander Taher Bin Gharbia described as “disastrous."