In an attempt to rally the European Union to impose sanctions on Turkey for its role in Libya and its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, France in July has called on EU foreign ministers to meet to discuss “the Turkish question,” saying new sanctions on Ankara could be considered. However, while solely targeting Turkey regarding the Libyan conflict, French President Emmanuel Macron keeps complicit silence over the threats of interference by Egypt, the crimes of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) while being soft-shelled vis-a-vis Russia and its Wagner Group mercenaries.
“Turkey has been for some time now a heated subject of debate in Europe in general and in France in particular. In fact, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), and President (Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan in particular, Turkey has managed to assert its autonomy, sovereignty and independence in world affairs,” Dr. Jana Jabbour, a researcher and professor at Sciences Po Paris and expert on Turkish foreign policy, told Daily Sabah. She added that Turkey has “reawakened in the European mindset the memory of the powerful Ottoman Empire that defeated European powers in many battles throughout history.”
Jabbour said that in Europe and France, today’s Turkey awakens not only the fears of the past, fears of the “all-powerful Turk” but also fears of a strong Islamic society. “In that sense, Islamophobia in Europe crystallizes around Turkey because Turkey under President Erdoğan is seen as the embodiment of a strong, assertive Muslim ‘other.’”
“Turcophobia and Islamophobia feed each other,” she added.
Ties between NATO allies France and Turkey have soured in recent months over Libya, as well as the conflict in northern Syria and drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. France’s Macron after meeting Tunisian President Kais Saied in Paris on June 22 has accused Turkey of “playing a dangerous game” and of “criminal responsibility” in the Libyan conflict. The animosity was aggravated in June after an incident between Turkish and French warships over an attempt to inspect a vessel that was suspected of smuggling weapons to Libya.
On July 24, Macron in a joint press conference with Greek Cyprus leader Nicos Anastasiades reiterated that it would be a serious error by the EU not to respond to provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean and that “the EU is still doing too little” in the face of Turkey’s activities.
Speaking to Daily Sabah, Ömer Aydın, a journalist based in France, stated that Paris' fear of losing its influence in the region was the reason it became louder and bolder toward Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Syria and through its support of the PKK, a terrorist group recognized by the U.S. and the EU.
Tensions grew as Libya increasingly became the agenda of the EU along with escalating rivalry and Turkey’s support for the official Libyan government as well as a maritime and military pact with Tripoli.
Oil-rich Libya has been torn by violence, drawing in tribal militias, extremists and mercenaries since the 2011 NATO intervention and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which failed to make things any better. Though the new government was founded in 2015 under a United Nations-led agreement, efforts for a long-term political settlement proved unsuccessful due to a military offensive by putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
Hafter, a self-styled warlord who is based in eastern Libya, launched an offensive to try to take the capital Tripoli and control of the country from the legitimate Government of National Accord (GNA), with the backing of the UAE, Egypt, France, Russia and thousands of mercenaries from the Wagner Group known for having close ties to the Kremlin. Weapons and mercenaries have poured in to support the warlord, stymieing U.N. efforts. Yet, with Turkey’s backing, the GNA managed to thwart the warlord’s 16-month campaign and made significant gains, pushing Haftar forces out of Tripoli and the strategic city of Tarhuna.
Mass graves filled with corpses were found after the retreat of Haftar, who is backed by at least two permanent U.N. Security Council members. The discoveries have raised fears about the extent of human rights violations in territories previously controlled by Haftar’s forces, given the difficulties of documentation in an active war zone. In addition to this recent discovery, Haftar is also known to have engaged in torture, desecration, mass displacement and mass killings.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), those who commit, order, assist or hold responsibility for war crimes in Libya are subject to prosecution by domestic courts or the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has a mandate over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed there since Feb. 15, 2011.
Following the increase of foreign support and human rights violations in the North African country, the former U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame early July accused member states of "hypocrisy" regarding their activities in Libya. "You could see clearly that (Haftar) was confident that a number of big powers were supporting this attack and he mentioned some of them by name,” Salame said.
Turning a blind eye to violations
“That Macron is only accusing Turkey – which supports the government recognized by the United Nations and, at least officially, by France itself – is perplexing, yet it reveals France’s ambiguities regarding Libya,” Bruno Stagno Ugarte of the HRW said last week, adding that Paris itself “most likely violated the 2011 arms embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), of which France is a permanent member.”
The rights group deputy director referred to last July when French missiles were found on a base south of the capital Tripoli belonging to militias loyal to Haftar. France admitted the weapons belonged to them yet denied supplying them to Haftar in breach of a U.N. arms embargo, saying French forces in Libya had lost track of them.
Though ostensibly seeking a political solution and permanent peace for the war-ridden country, France has supported Haftar. Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, on July 25 wrote on Twitter that the French government backed Haftar in part because it saw him as a bulwark against terrorists and that Paris did not calculate the chaos Haftar had fomented.
France has been adeptly silent over a U.N. report revealing that two Dubai-based companies have been sending Western mercenaries to support Haftar in his offensive as well as reports by rights groups showing that the UAE had killed civilians in Libya. Similarly, Macron has remained silent over the repeated interference in Libya of his ally, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose parliament recently, in a move likely to worsen tensions, approved a proposal that empowers military intervention in neighboring Libya. The Libyan government described the decision as a "declaration of war."
Though Macron recently has somewhat raised his voice regarding the activities of Wagner mercenaries, Russia still escapes Macron’s condemnations to a large extent.
France’s influence sphere eroding
France, which had once been a significant player in the Middle East and North Africa, gradually lost its sphere of influence with its former colonies declaring independence and its retreat from the Levant. Conversely, Turkey has been growing as a game-changing actor in the region.
Aydın elaborated that “Paris still sees itself as the dominant power in the Islamic world. France has established its scope of influence in North Africa and the Middle East in this regard and does not want to lose this.”
Pointing out that France’s economic interests can be spotted in its relations with the UAE and on its position on Libya, Jabbour stated that “friendship with the UAE is a lucrative business for Paris.”
“France supports any side the UAE takes in MENA conflicts because France and the UAE seem to share the same threat perception of political Islam and have common economic interests. The UAE buys French weaponry and encourages its allies to do the same,” Jabbour continued.
Yet, economic interests remain insufficient to explain the French president’s ultimate goal. It is clear that Macron is intent on leading Europe after his statements regarding a more independent EU from the U.S. in terms of defense and security as well as his “brain death” comments on the NATO alliance. The U.S. as a superpower slowly disappearing from the world stage and failing to take up American leadership could also be rooting for France’s aim to take the lead, as the position seems to be vacant.
“It seems that through active engagement in Libya, President Macron wants to gain popularity inside his country and in Europe, by showing that he is a strong leader who dares taking action on risky fronts,” Jabbour underlined, saying that the 42-year old leader is also taking advantage of the U.S.’ inaction in Libya, to show that France can take the lead for NATO.
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