UAE “rules” France’s Libyan policy

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By supporting warlord Khalifa Haftar against the government recognized by the UN, France has gone against the grain of thought in Europe and upset NATO allies like Italy and Turkey.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Libyan “Arab Spring” in 2011, France led Operation Harmattan, which led to the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.

Five years later, reports surfaced of three French soldiers losing their lives in a special forces operation in Libya.

Since then, all observers of the Libyan civil war have recognized France as one of the main state supporters of warlord Khalifa Haftar and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (ANL).

However, Paris had to pay the price for its Libyan foreign policy. French support for the ANL isolated France from dominant members of NATO and the European Union (EU) on the Libyan question.

Apart from Greece, which is mainly a spectator of the civil war in Libya, France is the only one within NATO and the EU to side with the eastern center of power of Libya against the government of national agreement (GNA) recognized by the UN and supported by Turkey.

France’s behavior in Libya fueled significant problems with two NATO countries: Italy and, more importantly, Turkey.

Anger Rome and Ankara

Italy has pursued its own interests in Libya which are in direct contradiction to France’s agenda. Of all EU members, Italy has opposed France’s pro-LNA policies the most given the destabilizing impact of Haftar’s efforts to “liberate” all of Libya by brute force.

Rome’s interest in restricting the arrival of migrants and refugees from Africa is a major factor shaping Italy’s perspective on Libya. To achieve this goal, Italy has sought to promote ceasefires in Libya which require working with all parties, and not supporting an LNA offensive aimed at overthrowing the government recognized by the UN in Tripoli.

Many Italians believe the French are busy playing a destabilizing role in Libya, which Italy must pay for in various ways, including the challenges and burdens of hosting more refugees.

Among the 30 NATO members, Turkey is the most angry with France for its Libyan policies. As the only power to ensure the survival of the GNA through direct military intervention, Turkey is by far the most important external ally of the GNA. France’s harsh rhetoric against Turkey, in which Paris condemned Ankara for violating the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya, has damaged bilateral relations which have already suffered from armaments France and the formation of the YPG, which is the Syrian arm of the PKK terrorist organization.

In fact, earlier this month, France withdrew from NATO’s naval operation in the Mediterranean. As Jonathan Fenton-Harvey wrote, this decision was the result of “French antagonism towards Turkey to effectively thwart its regional geopolitical interests”.

From a Turkish perspective, France’s efforts to attempt to slam Turkey by raising this issue of the arms embargo in Libya while remaining silent on the arming by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of militias from Haftar in Libya show how Paris is totally devoid of principles regarding the Libyan conflict, and guilty of turning a blind eye to Haftar’s war crimes.

The Emirati factor

The United Arab Emirates has been an ambitious and controversial external actor in the civil war in Libya. Of all the Western powers, none have aligned with Abu Dhabi’s Libyan foreign policy as closely as France. Much of the reason has to do with his interest in working with Abu Dhabi on many levels across Africa.

It is difficult to overstate or overestimate the influence of the Emiratis on France’s agenda in Libya. It is significant that Abu Dhabi has much more influence over France’s strategies vis-à-vis Libya than any other European capital.

“The UAE is running France’s Libyan policy,” as Jalel Harchaoui of the Clingendael Institute explained earlier this month. At the end of last year, the widely respected expert on Libya asserted that “France has used its diplomatic muscles to ensure that no one criticizes the Emirati mission in Libya”.

Emma Soubrier’s Arab Institute for Gulf States in Washington described a “Macron effect” that has deepened relations between the Emirates and France since the current French head of state took power. Macron’s “jovian aura” came with certain “qualities that appeal to many Gulf leaders …”

The geopolitical path ahead

Macron’s nation had a vision of Haftar taking control of Libya and establishing a pro-France political order across the country.

Yet, due to Turkey’s support for the GNA, which intensified in late 2019 and early 2020 in the form of military advisers, Haftar is in retreat, making this French vision unrealistic. We do not know how France will adapt its Libyan foreign policy to this reality.

A number of important questions remain unanswered. Will Haftar’s external supporters such as France try to pressure the warlord to step down as head of the eastern power center? Would Haftar’s foreign partners push for a solution allowing their Libyan client to maintain administration in eastern Libya, the country undergoing partition, formal or informal?

Parisian decision-makers believe that the stakes are high for the future of France’s cooperation and coordination with the Emiratis throughout Africa. It seems therefore a safe bet that France will not let the UAE isolate itself in Libya.

Ultimately, French leaders view the UAE as an “ideal” Sunni Muslim ally who can help Paris achieve its main foreign policy goals across Africa. This is due to ideological factors, France’s admiration for the UAE’s “economic dynamism” and many common interpretations of the concepts of “terrorism” and “extremism” in the Sahel region.

Looking ahead, there is a good chance that Paris will continue to invest in its close relationship with Abu Dhabi as France pursues its own ambitions in Libya and other parts of Africa. Macron’s government is unlikely to make decisions regarding the North African country’s conflict that are not the responsibility of the Emirati leadership.

Although President Donald Trump has had an extremely close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the possibility of former Vice President Joe Biden entering the Oval Office in January raises questions about whether politics foreigner will become much less favorable to the United Arab Emirates next year. If so, it will only increase the value Abu Dhabi places on its relationship with France, which has given the Emirates greater leverage in its partnership with the United States.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views and editorial policy of TRT World.

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Source: TRT World

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