The Turkish intervention in Libya has led to a significant change in the balances, whether between the two main military camps of the conflict, or within the same camp. Upon review of this intervention from the French perspective, it becomes clear that Paris is the international party most affected by the Turkish intervention, especially that the said intervention comes within a wider context of the growing Turkish influence in areas that represent traditional strongholds of the French influence in North Africa. As a result, the relations between the two countries have reached a high level of diplomatic tension and political and media exchanges during June and July 2020.
The Turkish role and the French interests
The Turkish intervention poses a multilevel threat to the French interests in Libya. At the political level, Turkey’s intervention has led to enhancing the position of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the face of the camp allied to Haftar whose forces were able to lay siege to the capital Tripoli. This had been an indication of the possibility of the control of the capital by France’s allies, either through military settlement or through a negotiated process whereby French-led Haftar would be in an advantageous position.
This shift in the political aspect of the balances has been associated with crucial shifts at the military level, mainly - from the perspective of French interests - the control by Turkey and its local allies of the al-Watiya base in the west of the country. Since the downfall of Gaddafi, this base had remained for many years under the control of Paris’ allies, particularly those associated with the Zintan tribe. In addition, the base used to be the scene of direct military presence of French operatives during different stages of the conflict. Thus, the loss of al-Watiya to Turkey is considered, in a sense, a strategic loss for France in the Libyan arena.
During the stage following the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces from the whole of the western region, the growing tension in French-Turkish relations came against the background of objective fears by Paris regarding the possibility of sustaining further strategic losses in the Oil Crescent in light of the accelerating and accumulating military clash between the two camps on the Sirte front. While Sirte is not, in itself, of major importance to Ankara, it constitutes a stop for attacking the Oil Crescent which is the most important strategic card for Paris and its allies in the East Libya camp.
The French mobilization against Turkey is not contingent on the dynamics of the battle of Sirte and beyond. That mobilization is most probably driven by other fears that Ankara could resort to one of the alternative scenarios in case of the expected failure to take control of the Oil Crescent, such as proceeding southward to seize control of al-Sharara and al-Fil oilfields, especially in light of the financial pressures experienced by the GNA as a result of the continued disruption of oil production and export.
Regardless of the military considerations associated with this scenario, the French mobilization comes against Turkey’s activity in recent years in one of the strongholds of French influence in southwest Libya in order to penetrate and build deeper relations with the main leaders of the Tuareg tribes in the areas surrounding the two oilfields, particularly the leaders of the city of Ubari where Turkish companies are active by. The main landmark in this context had been the visit paid by a delegation of Tuareg leaders to Ankara in April 2018.
French moves to counter Turkey
In the face of the above-mentioned threats, the last few weeks have witnessed intensive, multilevel French moves. At the political level, Paris seeks to employ its long-standing relations with Libya’s neighbouring countries in order to create a new political balance in the face of the GNA with the aim of preventing Turkey from benefiting from its good relations with Algeria and Tunisia to establish its influence in Libya.
In this context, attention could particularly be drawn to the statement by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in the interview he gave to the French television network France 24 during the first week of July 2020 in which he underlined that the GNA no longer represents Libyans and that a new presidential council has to be elected. This is in line with the position expressed 10 days prior to this statement by the Tunisian President Kais Saied during his press conference with the French President in the Élysée Palace in which he stressed that the GNA legitimacy is “temporary” and has to be replaced.
At the military level, the most prominent French position is manifested within the framework of the Sea Guardian mission carried out by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Mediterranean Basin. Paris has sought to employ its participation in the mission to prevent Turkey’s ships from transporting arms to its allies in Libya in implementation of the Security Council resolution banning the provision of arms to the Libyan belligerents. On 10 June 2020, this led to the harassment by Turkish warships accompanying a civilian ship headed for Libya of a French frigate that attempted to approach the Turkish ship which was suspected of being involved in transporting arms to Libya.
In an attempt to increase pressures on Ankara, Paris withdrew from the NATO operation against the background of the Turkish behaviour which was considered by France as hostile based on the rules of engagement in force within the alliance.
On the other hand, the French diplomacy is active within the European Union (EU), not just to build a unified political position towards the Turkish role, but also to impose sanctions on Ankara. The French position draws its strength in the European context from the broad base of those affected by the Turkish behaviour. The sanctions intended to be imposed relate to Turkey’s behaviour with regard to gas exploration within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Cyprus according to the maritime deal with the GNA, which is opposed by EU countries.
Future prospects of the disagreement
The French-Turkish disagreements are distributed among three domains of conflict: the first domain is associated with the conflict between NATO and Russia; the second pertains to conflicts in the Mediterranean Basin which manifests the growing Turkish-European differences; and the third relates to the conflict in Libya.
Turkey projects its role in the Libyan arena as a proxy for NATO interests in Libya. This has helped it obtain a US green light with regard to carrying out its current military role to curb the advance of the Russian-backed Haftar. This intersects with the interests of the external actors opposed to a military settlement of the conflict in favour of the forces of Haftar and the parties backing him. This explains the implicit acceptance (as yet) of the Turkish intervention by influential capitals in the conflict, such as Rome and Algiers, and to a lesser extent London, at least to prevent the fall of the capital into Haftar’s hands without this meaning the acceptance by those capitals of Turkish ambitions in Libya which conflict with the calculations of those countries and their vision of their interests.
In the short term, France appears to favour its interests in Libya to the considerations associated with the Russian-Western conflict. In this context, the European framework is also employed to put pressure on Ankara, particularly in light of the absence of indications of the relaxation of the conflict of interests between France and the influential European actors, particularly Italy.
In this context, it seems that the warning by the French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian against the scenario of the Syrianization of Libya was primarily directed towards Turkey in view of the military support provided by Russia to its ally Haftar after Paris has decisively backed down from supporting him since the fall of the city of Gharyan in June 2019 against the crisis of the US-made Javelin missiles that were in the hands of Haftar’s forces, which almost created a crisis between Washington and Paris at that time. Today, Russian Wagner forces play important roles in securing both the Oil Crescent and the Sharara oilfield in the country’s southwest.
In addition to the military support provided to Haftar, Paris seems to be open to integration with the Russian role in Libya in view of Moscow’s positive relations with supporters of the former regime. This is lacked by Paris in light of its principal role in the overthrow of Gaddafi.
In light of such intersections of interests, it can be said that the French approaches contradict Washington’s vision which aims to prevent Russia from establishing a permanent military presence in Libya as a top priority. This comes within the framework of the traditional conflict between Russia and NATO, considering that the existence of Russian bases in the southern Mediterranean constitutes a non-traditional threat to the alliance’s interests. It would even shake the traditional concepts on which the alliance was founded where the then Russian threats were associated with eastern Europe.
In light of the above, it could be said that based on the existing international balances, the current approaches of the two countries in the Libyan arena are in favour of the continued US delegation of Ankara to support the GNA and curb the Russian presence in Libya. This process is enhanced by the lack of readiness by the various European players to send military troops to Libya. On its part, Paris will seek to balance the US delegation of Ankara by acting on two parallel tracks: first, intensifying coordination and cooperation with its regional partner countries neighbouring Libya, and second, working through the European framework to put more pressure on Ankara.
* Researcher in Libyan affairs.
EPC | 11 Aug 2020
Hamdi Bashir | 09 Aug 2020
EPC | 03 Aug 2020