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Is France isolated by EU countries due to its Libya-Turkey policy?

Libyans wave the national flag and carry a portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron during a demonstration with yellow vests ("gilets jaunes") against strongman Khalifa Haftar in the capital Tripoli's Martyrs Square on 19 April 2019. [MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images]
Libyans wave the national flag and carry a portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron during a demonstration with yellow vests ("gilets jaunes") against strongman Khalifa Haftar in the capital Tripoli's Martyrs Square on 19 April 2019. [MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images]

France and Turkey, two NATO allies, are escalating the military situation in the Eastern Mediterranean over the growing dispute between Turkey and Greece – also NATO members. On 14 August, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu urged that France should refrain from taking any steps that "escalate tensions". A day earlier, the French military conducted a joint training exercise with its Greek counterpart. However, it is not all centred around Greek-Turkish quarrels – Paris' position has a Libyan dimension too.

Paris openly fell out with Ankara earlier in the year, after Ankara intervened in Libya in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA). Ankara signed a security memorandum with the GNA on 27 November, 2019, pledging its military support to Tripoli against the Libyan National Army (LNA) supported by Paris.

European Union (EU) countries, France included, appear to have underestimated how committed Ankara is to protecting the GNA. The GNA is still recognised by the EU and Turkey as the only legitimate authority in Libya. In fact, the whole escalation now in the Eastern Mediterranean is largely because Turkey and the GNA signed a maritime boundary agreement that angered Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and France. The deal is critically important to Ankara, which is why it committed itself to an expansive military and security cooperation with the GNA – Libya's only United Nations (UN) recognised government.

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Central to Turkey's dispute with Greece, is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs maritime boundaries between states and defines each country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Because of the close proximity of dozens of Greek Islands to Turkey's coastline in the region, Ankara's EEZ is far too small, unlike those of its neighbours Egypt and Greece. This is why Ankara does not recognise the UN's Law of the Sea in the first place, and requires some regional recognition to its claims. To obtain that, Ankara offered the beleaguered GNA full support in return for signing the maritime deal last November. Such deals with Libya, a major riparian country, gave Ankara what it always lacked – regional acceptance of its EEZ in the area.

Head of the Libyan Presidency Council, Fayez Al-Sarraj, and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army met with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris on 25 July, 2017 [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

Head of the Libyan Presidency Council, Fayez Al-Sarraj, and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army met with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris on 25 July, 2017 [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

Greece turned to its EU partners for support, but only France responded by sending military ships to the area where Turkey had already deployed a research ship prospecting for oil and gas, accompanied by military ships. EU foreign ministers met on 14 August to agree on a common position in response to Greece's request for help, but the meeting concluded without any concrete results.

Notably, France has not been able to muster much support from the EU when it comes to Turkey's geopolitical game. Paris is also angry about what it sees as Ankara's continuous violation of the arms embargo on Libya, imposed by the UN's Resolution 1973 nine years ago. On 17 June, the French navy, reinforcing the arms embargo off Libya's shores, accused its Turkish counterpart of "hostile acts" towards its ships. The incident was investigated by NATO, without conclusive findings. However, France has long since suspended its operations because of the incident. NATO partners, as well as EU members, are suspicious of Paris' unilateral policy towards Libya and the dispute between Athens and Ankara.

Most EU countries are not happy with Paris' support for General Khalifa Haftar's LNA, particularly during the attack on Tripoli. Last May, the LNA was defeated with substantial Turkish help, further humiliating France. Many EU countries prefer to see common policy towards the conflict in Libya, alongside the UN's relevant resolutions, but so far have failed to do so.

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France is accused of double standards. While openly criticising Turkey's role in the Libyan civil war, it hardly mentions Russia's increasing involvement through the Wagner Group's mercenaries. Wagner is backing the LNA and is becoming increasingly sophisticated with fighter jets and transport planes that can only be supplied by the Russian army, despite Moscow's denials. The US Africa command (AFRICOM) has repeatedly accused Russia of supplying Wagner with IL-76 planes designed for transporting heavy loads. It also accuses Moscow of providing advanced fighter jets to Libya. Last May, AFRICOM reported that over a dozen MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter jets have flown from Russian to eastern Libya after being camouflaged in Syria. Obviously, this is a violation of the relevant UN resolutions on Libya which Russia, Turkey and France recommitted to in the Berlin Conference on Libya on 19 January, 2020.

Despite all of this, France does not seem to worry about the Russian presence. Instead, Paris is focusing EU attention on Turkish President Erdogan's adventures in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.

But France has so far failed to rally other EU members behind its rather ambiguous approach. EU countries are indeed worried by what Erdogan is doing, but they seem to prefer dialogue over escalation on both Libya and the sea dispute. Erdogan indicated that he could back down after consulting with Germany. Firstly, he announced that Turkey's oil and gas searching ship is suspending its operation on 23 August. Secondly, he stated that he agreed with Germany on the "softening" of the situation after that date.

While Paris appears to be isolated in its confrontation with Ankara, both capitals are not prepared for further escalations in the Mediterranean. Concerning Libya, though, it's a different story. Ankara's involvement in Libya is a strategic issue, while Paris does not seem to have a coherent strategy of its own towards Libya. EU countries' response to the volatile situation between Greece and Turkey is likely to be a difficult compromise.

France might appear bullish, but it is a farfetched idea that it will become involved in any military action against Turkey. In the end, Greece, Turkey and France are NATO members, while the Greek-Turkish dispute will continue as it has always done for decades now. Its maritime dimension might appear new, but in truth, it is just as old.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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