In April, the French and British foreign ministers visited Tripoli to show support for Libya’s UN-backed unity government. France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged Libya’s neighbours to get behind the government, adding, “There is no other possible path.” Reports have however recently surfaced showing that Western forces, including France, have been assisting General Khalifa Haftar – a figure who has been threatened with EU sanctions for refusing to support the unity government and who has been fighting some groups involved in the Western-backed campaign against Daesh.
Earlier this month, air traffic control recordings obtained by the Middle East Eye showed that British, French, Italian and US troops, have been coordinating air strikes in support of Haftar. On Wednesday, the death of three French soldiers led to the first official confirmation that French special forces are operating in Libya, something the unity government say they were not informed of. France’s presence in the country was first reported by Le Monde in February, with reports claiming that a detachment was aiding Haftar in his battle against Daesh from a base at Benghazi airport. Earlier this year, the Pentagon said its units were deployed to “partner” local militias against Daesh and Britain has admitted sending RAF reconnaissance flights over the country.
Since the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, the country has struggled to stay on course. Today Libya is in the middle of a civil war and is split between two warring parliaments. The political vacuum has allowed for the powerful militant group Daesh to gain a foothold and criminal networks to flourish.
General Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA), has been the key force fighting against Libya Dawn, an umbrella of several armed groups who have supported Omar Al-Hassi’s General National Congress (GNC). The GNC was replaced by the House of Representatives (HoR) following an election but political opponents of the new parliament challenged its legitimacy and revived the GNC in Tripoli. Fighters from Libya Dawn forced the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani and the HoR to Tobruk. Haftar’s crackdown is known as Operation Dignity.
The UN-backed unity government, effectively Libya’s third parliament, was formed in Tunisia in December 2015, with the aim of bringing an end to the conflict. It has the difficult task of replacing the two governments, bringing unity to the fractured country and dealing with security concerns arising from the presence of Daesh.
But it has faced endless opposition. The government only managed to sail into Tripoli in March 2016 as opposition groups prevented them from flying in. Daesh has also made things difficult – in the run-up to the January 16 2016 deadline for its formation, the militant group led a sustained attack against Libya’s vital infrastructure. While the unity government does have the mandate to call for the UN to militarily intervene, unsanctioned military actions by Western countries only works to undermine the already very thin veneer of legitimacy it has.
In Libya, the response to the news of the French soldiers has been strong, with condemnations from the UN-backed government and angry protests in Tripoli. As Fayez Serraj, the Prime Minister of Libya, said in recent op-ed, “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh) is not our greatest enemy. National division is.” The divisions within Libya have allowed it to veer into civil war, with groups such as Daesh managing to exploit the cleavages in the country. The growth of Daesh is a symptom of conflict in Libya not the cause.
Serraj continues, “The stark lesson from the past five years of turmoil is that when Libyans fail to work together they empower those who would destroy our country…terrorists will be defeated by our Armed Forces uniting under civilian command, not rival militias rushing to claim a political prize.” This applies to achieving peace in Libya- by backing one side politically while supporting another militarily, divides that are preventing peace only widen. In supporting Haftar whose power base is in the east, it undermines the unity government’s struggle to gain control of this heavily divided area.
Aside from the implications of peace for the country, there is also a question of the legality of the action. As Libya’s Supreme State Council put it, it is a “clear deception by a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a sponsor of the [December 2015] political agreement”. Stop the War Coalition’s Chris Nineham told RT: “They are not backed by the UN, these interventions. They are not checked anywhere. They are just unilateral acts of military aggression.” Some have gone even further. “This is a sort of coup against the political process and against the democratic path chosen by the Libyan people,” Mansour Al Hasadi, a member of the GNA, told Al Jazeera.
Britain and France took the lead in pushing for military intervention in 2011. While the intervention led to rapid results and was initially considered successful, the country now contends with three parliaments, the growing presence of Daesh and continued violence. Peace seems a distant prospect. Yet the same international powers have not learned from their mistakes.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.