x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 October 2017

French president tries to mediate Libyan civil war

French president Emmanuel Macron has signalled that France will follow a more assertive foreign policy, and diplomats hope French support will kick-start a peace process to end the Libyan civil war

Fayez Al Sarraj, prime minister of Libya’s UN-backed government, left, met Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s most powerful military commander, in Abu Dhabi in May. AP Photo
Fayez Al Sarraj, prime minister of Libya’s UN-backed government, left, met Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s most powerful military commander, in Abu Dhabi in May. AP Photo

French president Emmanuel Macron is hosting peace talks between Libya’s UN-backed prime minister and its most powerful military commander on Tuesday in the hope of ending the country’s civil war.

Mr Macron, elected in May, has signalled France will follow a more assertive foreign policy, and diplomats hope French support will kick-start a peace process to end a civil war that began three years ago.

The talks in Paris will see Fayez Al Sarraj, prime minister of UN-backed Government of National Accord, meet with Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, commander of the forces of the rival House of Representatives parliament, for the first time since they met for exploratory talks hosted by the UAE in Abu Dhabi in early May.

Mr Macron’s task is to build on the process initiated by the UAE and Egypt, and persuade the two leaders to agree on a formulation for a unity government.

Despite UN support, the GNA, which arrived in Tripoli in March last year, has been rejected by the HOR, which is based in the eastern town of Tobruk.

The task of bringing these rival governments together will be supported by Ghassan Salame, head of the UN Support Mission for Libya. UNSMIL has already suggested that Libya's cabinet be slimmed-down and for a more inclusive version of the GNA, with its presidency cut from the present nine members to three.

Mr Macron is advised by his foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was defence minister under former president Francois Hollande and has warned about the dangers of militants exploiting the security vacuum in Libya’s chaos.

During his defence ministry tenure, Mr Le Drian oversaw the French military operation to clear Mali of militants in 2012 and, in 2014, initiated Operation Barkhane, a 3,000-strong French force operating in Niger to interdict militant groups crossing into the country as they move between Algeria, Libya and Mali.

Mr Le Drian deployed French special forces to Libya in 2016 to aid Field Marshall Haftar in fighting militants in the eastern city of Benghazi, an operation that saw three members of France’s elite Directorate General for External Security killed in a helicopter crash south of the city last July.

On June 30, Mr Le Drian told French daily Le Monde that Libya was in chaos.

“Libya is a totally failed state where all structures now need to be rebuilt,” he said, adding that he wants roles for both the field marshal and Mr Al Sarraj.

"Like Prime Minister Sarraj, General Haftar is part of the solution.”

Paris will hope its strong links with the UAE will aid in building a co-ordinated Libyan peace process involving the international community.

Mr Macron said last month that France’s participation in Nato-led intervention during Libya’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution had been a mistake. The intervention saw NATO jets bomb the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, aiding rebel forces in deposing and later killing him.

“France was wrong to join the war in Libya,” he said, adding that the result of such interventions were “destroyed countries in which terrorist groups thrive now”.

The problem that Mr Macron must confront is the disparity between Libya’s fighting forces, with Field Marshall Haftar’s Libyan National Army in the ascendant.

The GNA relies for security on militias that have inferior equipment and training to the LNA and that have suffered a string of defeats against it.

Last September, the LNA captured four central oil ports, giving the HOR control of the so-called Oil Crescent, home to of two thirds of Libyan oil production. After that, the HOR promoted Haftar to the rank of field marshal.

In the spring, the LNA captured key airbases in south-west and central Libya, giving Tobruk control over nearly three quarters of Libyan territory. Then on July 5, the army captured the last militant enclave in Benghazi after a three-year battle.

Combat continues in the city between the army and militant holdouts, but Field Marshall Haftar will arrive in Paris knowing army control of eastern and central Libya is assured.

By contrast, Mr Al Sarraj has found it impossible to form a security force of his own, and in Tripoli the militias aligned to him periodically battle other militias supporting a third government, the Salvation Government, clashing most recently on July 10 at Garabulli, east of the capital.

The field marshal has declared his intention of winning the war with a drive on Tripoli.

“Our families in Tripoli and our brothers want us to enter," he told eastern tribal leaders on June 30. "We can enter, but we want to do it in peace, without spilling blood.”

However, diplomats fear a bloodbath if the LNA enters the city, with the militias knowing that losing the capital means losing the war.

Many in the HOR may need a lot of persuading to make a compromise deal with Mr Al Sarraj while its army continues winning on the battlefield.

Parliament’s minimum demand is likely to be that Field Marshall Haftar gets command of all Libyan forces in any new unity government.