Why does France support General Haftar in Libya?

On 29th May 2018, France convened an international meeting on Libya, bringing together representatives from its four divided political factions. This included Aguila Saleh (the Chair of the House of Representatives in Tobruk whose Prime Minister is Abdullah al-Theni), Khalid al-Mishri (the head of the High Council of State in Tripoli which was originally the old congress), Fayez al-Sarraj (the head of the internationally recognised Presidential Council) and General Khalifa Haftar.

General Haftar, commander of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), has taken control over much of eastern Libya. He has command of the strategic port city of Tobruk and Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi. In late June Haftar also took control of the city of Derna in a ground offensive by the LNA. This followed a two-year siege by Haftar’s forces and hundreds of civilian casualties.

The main division in Libya, therefore, is between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West, headed by al-Sarraj, and Haftar’s forces in the East. Macron’s goal for the summit was to get all four Libyan sides to commit to an agreement under the auspices of the UN and to start arrangements for staging elections before the end of 2018. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no tangible results have come from this meeting. A similar meeting between al-Sarraj and Haftar in July 2017 also produced no positive outcome. It is becoming clear that these summits on Libya are heralded more as a diplomatic accomplishment for France rather than a genuine breakthrough in the conflict.

Despite encouraging open dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution, however, France has maintained its controversial support for General Haftar for the past three years instead of backing the GNA, which was implemented by a UN-led initiative in 2015. Almost immediately after Macron’s summit at the end of May it became apparent that France had provided General Haftar with reconnaissance aircraft to help his forces advance on Derna.

Why, then, is there such a discord between Macron’s rhetoric about peace and diplomacy on the one hand, and his provision of weaponry to a particular side of the conflict on the other?

During the summit in May, Macron was keen to promote a quick presidential election in Libya, supposedly as a means to centralise the government and reduce tensions in the region. Many are arguing, however, that elections cannot happen until there is a constitution which would provide a set of rules and a legal framework to govern the elections. Many Libyans are afraid that elections in the absence of a constitution will only catalyse conflict rather than resolve it. It is likely, therefore, that France’s ambitions for a quick election in Libya are part of a coordinated step with the UAE and Egypt (Haftar’s other international supporters) to facilitate the General’s takeover while the GNA is weak.

France ultimately sees Haftar as the ally who could best serve its interests in Libya, which is why they have supported the consolidation of his control in the east and are vying for his success in upcoming presidential elections. From a geopolitical standpoint, France wants to have a dominant international presence in Libya. Having had brief direct administrative rule from 1944-51 over Fezzan in southern Libya, it is keen to maintain a close presence in the region which is rich in reserves of oil, gas and minerals. This would also allow France to extend its influence over the nearby countries of Chad, Mali and Niger.

Macron is also keen to compromise Italy’s interests in Libya, and chose a strategic moment for the summit (announcing it only a week beforehand) at a time when Italy was occupied with its own changing government. Despite Rome’s attempts to maintain a presence in Libya and curb the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, its influence in Tripoli has waned of late. Italy’s ties with western Libya had previously been through the city of Misrata, which is now largely autonomous and ruled by militias opposed to the GNA. France and Italy are also leading foreign stakeholders in the Libya’s hydrocarbons sector and have competing business interests in the country’s oil revenue. Therefore, by supporting Haftar France not only provides the military general with legitimacy but also asserts itself as the leading international actor in Libya’s internal politics and stands to gain financially. Haftar also presents himself as the military strength of Libya against terrorism, an image that France is keen to propagate. He claimed that his recent offensive on Derna, for instance, was in order to relieve the city of ‘terrorists and those who carry weapons against the LNA’.

At a time when Libya needs unity and stability more than ever, international players like France need to prioritise the interests of Libyans above their own. Upcoming elections will be undermined if a constitution is not put in place to guarantee a safe transition to a centralised, democratically elected government. France needs to use its influence to smooth divisions in Libya, not exacerbate them.

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