ANALYSIS: French-Italian scramble over Libya fuels Haftar’s offensive

by Areeb Ullah
Published date: 8 April 2019

A diplomatic feud between Italy and France over Libya has divided Europe’s response to Khalifa Haftar’s latest attempt to take control of the country and will only encourage further fighting, analysts say.

Last week, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive to seize the capital Tripoli from the UN-backed government which launched a counter-attack, a week before fresh talks were set to start.

At least 51 people have been killed in fighting between LNA forces and rival militias and 2,800 so far displaced by clashes as violence intensified around the capital. On Monday, the LNA bombed Tripoli’s only functioning airport out of operation.

Despite escalating violence, European leaders have been divided over their response to Haftar’s offensive, with Britain and Italy both criticising France’s hesitance to condemn Haftar.

A French diplomatic source told Reuters on Monday that the country was not given prior warning over Haftar’s decision to advance on Tripoli and that it is not trying to undermine the peace process.

“The immediate need in Libya is to protect the civilian population, put an end to the fighting, and get all the key Libyan players back around the table,” the diplomat was quoted as saying.

The French claim that they were blindsided by the 75-year-old Libyan general was in contrast to a forthright statement issued by the EU that day.

“I make a very strong appeal to all sides in Libya, and in particular to Haftar, to stop hostilities and return to the negotiating table under UN auspices,” EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini said on Monday.

A former Italian diplomat with detailed knowledge of Libya told Middle East Eye that he found French ignorance about Haftar’s military moves hard to believe.

He said the French government’s muted response to Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli reflected its interest in protecting its political investments in the Sahel, including some 4,500 soldiers deployed as part of Operation Barkhane.

“I do not expect any French official or minister to say they are behind what Haftar is doing because what Haftar is doing is contradictory to international law,” Marco Carnelos, who worked as a senior diplomat for former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, told MEE.

Kristina Kausch, a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund took aim at both Italy and France’s behaviour in Libya and said both were actively “undermining the UN-led process”.

“The reasons for the French-Italian competition [in Libya] are partially rooted in vested interests linked to the current domestic situation in each of the two European countries,” Kausch told MEE in an email.

“Italy’s economic interests are Tripoli and the GNA-controlled West, while France’s concerns for the lawless south are also rooted in Paris’ interest in safeguarding its political investments in the Sahel.”

This partially explains France’s reluctance to condemn Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli,” said Kausch. “Beyond their narrower economic competition over access to Libyan oil for their respective national oil companies, however, France and Italy maintain a long-standing rivalry over migration, European leadership in the Mediterranean, and over the future course of Europe, the European Union more broadly, that transcend the Libyan dossier.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for British-Arab Understanding, feared Haftar would use these differences to his benefit.

“Unless there is a very strong united reaction from European leaders, Haftar will stop at nothing to exploit these differences and march onto Tripoli,” Doyle told Middle East Eye.

“A united response against Haftar would be a deterrent and he may not wish for a violent onslaught and could be posturing. But with the international community and regional powers divided, it will boil down to who has the upper hand militarily.”

Covert French aid

France has a long history of covert military operations in Libya. The presence of French special forces in Benghazi, which Haftar was trying at the time to wrest from groups of Islamist fighters loyal to Tripoli, was revealed when a helicopter on a surveillance mission crashed, killing three French soldiers in July 2016.

A month later, the French were reported to have withdrawn from the city in eastern Libya, but in September that year, MEE revealed that British, French and US air-traffic controllers in Benina airport were helping Emirati pilots bomb Islamist positions in the city.

The Swiss daily Tribune de Genève reported that French military aid helped Haftar take over Benghazi between 2014 and 2017. The newspaper quoted Haftar’s army spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari as saying: “We had a common interest which is combating terrorism. France wanted to pursue terrorist groups in our neighbouring countries from the south, such as Chad, Mali and Niger, where these groups are heavily spread.”

The newspaper quoted a former adviser to the French Ministry of Defence, admitting: “Operation Volcano (a military deployment France had carried out in the Sahel to combat militant groups) costs us very much. Therefore, the only way to put an end to this operation is to achieve the restoration of stability in Libya. For this reason, the executive authority (the French government) has chosen Haftar.”

Tensions over oil

French and Italian oil interests in Libya have also diverged dramatically.

“One of the reasons relations has been tense between Rome and Paris is because France was the most vocal country calling for the removal of Gaddafi,” Carnelos said.

“But after the Libyan government collapsed, Italy had to experience years of illegal immigration because there was no central authority to cooperate with Italy.”

Libya was one of the reasons cited in the withdrawal of the French ambassador to Italy last month, after Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio, head of the anti-establishment 5-Star movement, met the French Gilet Jaunes protesters and a war of words erupted between Rome and Paris.

Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League party accused France of exploiting the unrest in Libya to benefit oil company Total, which competes with Italy’s ENI in the development of regional energy assets.

Last year, Total substantially raised its presence in Libya with the purchase of a 16.33 percent stake in Libya’s Waha concessions from US Marathon Oil, Reuters reported. The deal gave Total access to reserves and resources in excess of 500m barrels of oil equivalent and “significant exploration potential” in concessions in the Sirte Basin, Total said in a statement.

“Only time will tell and if Haftar does take control, it will be interesting to see whether he gives the energy contracts to French company Total. But we cannot know,” Carnelos said.

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