Turkish-French Tensions Over Libya

June 29, 2020

Two weeks ago, France accused Turkey of harassing a French frigate off the coast of Libya while it carried out checks on a Turkish ship that it suspected of breaking the UN arms embargo. Turkey denied the charge. A week later, President Macron said, “I have already had the opportunity to say very clearly to President Erdogan I consider today that Turkey is playing a dangerous game in Libya and is in breach of all commitments it took during the Berlin conference.” Turkish officials reacted. NATO is now investigating the incident at sea.

Some Western news outlets also said France has previously given military support to Khalifa Haftar to fight Islamist militants but denies supporting him in the civil war; President Macron has not criticized countries allied to his Libyan National Army, even though he has often rebuked Turkey.

I have been consistently critical of Turkish Government’s interventionist policies, its involvement in proxy wars in Syria and Libya. I find them detrimental to Turkey’s national interests. However, President Macron is in no position to lecture others on Libya unless he erroneously believes that he inherited a clean Libya slate when he won the presidency in 2017. Because, it was President Sarkozy who led the disastrous Libya intervention.

This is a time when some Western countries are reckoning with their colonial past and one cannot conveniently ignore what has transpired in the past two decades.

Starting in the early 2000s, Qaddafi sought to improve his international image and Libya’s relations with the West. In August 2003 Libya signed a deal worth 2.7 billion dollars to compensate families of the Lockerbie bombing victims. A month later Libya abandoned programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. In January 2004, Libya agreed to compensate families of victims of the 1989 bombing of French passenger aircraft over the Sahara. In October 2007, Libya was elected to the UN Security Council. In September 2008, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made the highest-level US visit to Libya since 1953. She said the relations between the two countries entered a “new phase”. Western countries continued competing for their economic interests in oil-rich Libya.

French President Sarkozy met Qaddafi towards the end of July 2007 in Tripoli in a push to deepen ties. This is what Reuters reported at the time:

“Ministers of the two countries signed agreements on a military-industrial partnership, a nuclear energy project and cooperation in science research and education, officials said.

“Sarkozy, who met Gaddafi in a tent in the compound of his Tripoli residence, has said he wants to help Libya return to the “concert of nations” after it freed six foreign medics convicted of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV.

“The medics — five Bulgarians and a Palestinian — left Libya on Tuesday on a French plane accompanied by Sarkozy’s wife and hours of energetic telephone diplomacy by her husband, clearing the way for his visit to Tripoli.

“I am happy to be in your country to talk about the future,” Sarkozy wrote in a book at Gaddafi’s residence. He is seeking to further French business interests in Libya and boost diplomatic ties before flying on to Senegal and Gabon…”

Reporters were told that nuclear cooperation was related to the installation in Libya of a nuclear plant to supply drinking water from desalinated sea water.

In December 2007 Leader Qaddafi began a five-day official visit to France on the invitation of President Sarkozy. This was Libyan strongman’s first visit to France in more than three decades. His French hosts pitched his Bedouin-style tent for receiving guests in the garden of the official guest residence and one-time mansion of Baron Gustave de Rothschild, the Hotel Marigny.

Deals signed with Libya during the visit were expected to total $14.7 billion. They included Libya’s purchase of 21 Airbus aircraft and a nuclear co-operation accord.

President Sarkozy defended the visit and welcome granted to Qaddafi in the face of domestic criticism.

Despite the warmth on the surface, Western countries continued to see Qaddafi a thorn on their side. It was just that they were prepared to pay a small political price for their economic interests until an opportunity of a different kind presented itself.

Four years later came the Arab spring. Qaddafi’s reaction to the protests gave President Sarkozy an opportunity to lead an effort for his ouster.  He and Prime Minister David Cameron succeeded in convincing a hesitant President Obama that it was time for action. Thus, the three countries presented a draft resolution to the Security Council to pave the way. The lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan military interventions led them to seek other instruments of international legitimacy as well. Under pressure, the Arab League timidly adopted a resolution asking the Security Council to declare a “no-fly zone” over Libya. African Union and Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned Qaddafi for the violence.

On March 18, 2011, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973. Five countries (Russia, China, Brazil, Germany, and India) abstained. The next day a conference in Paris, held under French, British and US leadership, decided to start air operations against Qaddafi’s forces “to protect the civilians”. Within hours air strikes began. It soon became clear that the purpose was regime change.

In a joint op-ed published in mid-April in the International Herald Tribune, Le Figaro and the Times of London, President Obama, President Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Cameron confirmed this.

Operations launched by a “coalition of the willing” were later taken over by NATO.

Clearly, Resolution 1973’s implementation went beyond its letter and spirit. This is one of the reasons why Russia and China did not give the West another opportunity in Syria.

In August 2013, PM Cameron suffered a major blow to his leadership when he lost the House of Commons vote on military action against the Assad regime. Failed interventions in Iraq and Libya were no doubt in the minds of the members of parliament.

In August 2014 President Obama questioned the wisdom of the Libya intervention in an interview he gave Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.

“… Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions… So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?”

And, Qaddafi’s ghost continues to haunt Mr. Sarkozy.

The world is yet to witness one successful external military intervention, be it outright military action or intervention through proxies. Today, those who have sown the wind are reaping the whirlwind. Yes, Qaddafi was a tyrant, but Libya is now a battle zone and a refugee route to Europe. France is still trying to bring to power a regime which would serve its economic/political interests. Russia is seeking another foothold in the Mediterranean. Turkey is after installing the Muslim Brotherhood in power to make up for its failure in Syria and economic interests as well. The Gulf states and Egypt appear determined to prevent this because they hate the Brotherhood. And, Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army are fighting each other. They are both Libyans, but they cannot have a conversation.

In brief, the suffering of the Libyan people hardly matters.

The fundamental question seems to be whether a nation at crossroads can overcome its internal divisions and produce a leader who can lead his/her country forward.

How lucky we the people of Turkey were to have Ataturk when the question facing the nation was “to be or not to be?” We are eternally grateful to him.





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