French spat with Turkey over Libya lays bare European divisions

France’s growing spat with Turkey over the Libyan civil war has exposed cracks in the Nato military alliance and raised questions over what Paris is seeking to achieve in the region.

France was the only European country deemed to be a supporter of renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who launched a more than year-long offensive on Tripoli to oust the UN-backed government. The dispute with Ankara has escalated as Turkey’s military intervention backing the Tripoli-based administration shifted the dynamics of the Libyan conflict, with Gen Haftar’s forces suffering a string of defeats in recent weeks.

President Emmanuel Macron insists Paris has now adopted a neutral stance and that it fully supports the UN-supported peace process in Libya agreed by international powers in January. But some suggest the claimed recalibration and the French criticism of Ankara have more to do with the Tripoli government’s success since April in repelling Mr Haftar’s offensive, with the help of weapons and mercenaries sent by Turkey.

“The French have realised Haftar has become a liability and not an asset any more,” one veteran western diplomat says of the French position. “I believe they are embarrassed because once again they made a mistake. Faced with this mistake, they have to justify it and they blame Turkey.”

The dispute highlights tensions between European powers embroiled in Libya since its descent into chaos after a Nato bombing campaign led by Britain and France helped oust Muammer Gaddafi in 2011.

France’s decision to align with Gen Haftar’s backers, notably the United Arab Emirates, reflects its preoccupation with protecting commercial stakes in the oil industry and fighting Islamist terrorism in the Sahel, said Tarek Megerisi, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“France has different interests to Germany and Italy in Libya and it has moved to protect these interests,” Mr Megerisi said. “It has security interests in the Sahel and a wider security partnership that it is building with the United Arab Emirates — and in which Egypt is a big part.”

Last week, France suspended its involvement in a Nato mission off Libya’s coast, amid what it claimed was the hostile behaviour of Turkish warships. Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, addressing the EU parliament, said Turkey’s actions were “unworthy of a Nato ally”.

Ankara denies the allegations, which are the subject of a classified report by Nato military authorities due to be discussed by alliance member states soon.

France has also criticised Turkey over its drilling for hydrocarbon reserves in waters off Cyprus and its military incursion into northern Syria last year. Mr Macron railed that Nato was suffering “brain death” because of its lack of a co-ordinated response to Ankara’s Syria move.

France is not the only Nato member unhappy with Turkey, which is the target of — largely symbolic — EU sanctions over the Mediterranean drilling. Ankara’s decision to buy an S-400 air defence system from Russia led to its expulsion last year from Nato’s F-35 stealth fighter jet programme.

General Khalifa Haftar’s forces are supported by Russian, Sudanese and Syrian mercenaries © Reuters

But French vitriol at Ankara over Libya — where Mr Macron has described Turkey’s actions as “criminal” — is questioned by European diplomats who do not see the situation as so clear-cut.

Ankara’s dispatch of weapons — including Turkish-made armed drones — to the north African country as well as military advisers and several thousand Syrian mercenary fighters made a crucial difference in fending off Gen Haftar’s siege of Tripoli in the past few months. Gen Haftar had appeared in the ascendancy as he enjoyed the backing of the UAE, Egypt and Russia. His forces are supported by Russian, Sudanese and Syrian mercenaries.

“Let’s be honest, Turkey stopped the fall of Tripoli,” said a senior European diplomat. “Without their intervention, it would have been a humanitarian disaster.”

Foreign policy analysts say France overplayed its hand in championing Gen Haftar as a strongman whom it could control in the traditions of its postcolonial Africa policy — and was then shocked when Turkey intervened to support the government in Tripoli.

When Gen Haftar launched an offensive in south Libya at the beginning of last year that preceded his attack on the capital, France publicly supported him. The foreign backing was considered to have at very least emboldened him to launch his assault on Tripoli. Months later, US-made Javelin missiles, purchased by France, were discovered by Libyan government forces after they seized one of Gen Haftar’s camps. 

 “There was a sort of strategic panic” among French officials when its policy of backing Mr Haftar as someone who would curb Islamist militants in north Africa went wrong, said Dorothée Schmid, a Middle East expert at Ifri, the French foreign relations institute.

Although Gen Haftar has had strong support from Russia, the UAE and Egypt — all of whom have been accused of violating the arms embargo on Libya — France has struggled to find support for its confrontational approach from its Nato and European allies. Other European states view the Libyan strongman as the aggressor and the main barrier to a political resolution.

“France is rather isolated in this affair,” Ms Schmid said. “And everyone is waiting for the American elections.” 

Mr Macron has instead struck up a close relationship with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the UAE. The Gulf state is one of Gen Haftar’s staunchest backers and Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Macron discussed the Libyan crisis last month, reiterating calls for a ceasefire.

But diplomats fear all sides in the Libyan conflict are mobilising. The UAE has increasingly toxic relations with Turkey and accuses Ankara of supporting Islamist groups and being a malign force in the Arab world.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s state minister for foreign affairs, said last month that on Libya the Gulf state did not act alone. “We are part of a group of countries that see eye-to-eye on the situation, particularly with France and Egypt,” he said. “We had a major concern with groups like Aqap [a Yemen-based al-Qaida affiliate] and Isis converging on Libya. This has kept us involved in Libya.”

Additional reporting Heba Saleh in Cairo