2 Sep 2015

French Interests and Strategy in Libya after Qaddafi

Christopher Griffin

The French Embassy in Tripoli closed on 30 July 2014. French citizens were told by the French Foreign Ministry the following day to leave Libya due to a ‘worsening security situation’. Potential visitors to Libya checking French travel warnings will still find in summer 2015 that they risk kidnapping, assassination, terrorist attacks, or attacks by armed gangs in all parts of the country.

While the situation never stabilized after Qaddafi’s fall in 2011, factional fighting has intensified since 2014. Two different factions, one based on the Tobruk House of Representatives in the East (Operation Dignity), and one based in Tripoli in the West (Operation Dawn), are fighting each other for control of the country. Added to that is the conflict against multiple independent terrorist gorups and other militias, including, and perhaps most worryingly, Daesh, which entered Libya in late 2014. In what is now a familiar pattern from the Syrian civil war, Daesh has created a third, powerful force between the warring factions, and is taking on the local Al Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, as well.

What are France’s interests in this conflict, and how has France’s strategy evolved to deal with the fighting in Libya? Is France’s strategy effective and sustainable?

French Interests in Libya

On 31 December 2014, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stated in an official communiqué that ‘It would be a profound error for the international community to remain passive in the face of the development of such an important terrorist haven in the heart of the Mediterranean. It is unacceptable’. There was even talk in the French media about a possible French military intervention in Libya in response to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s call in the UN for international intervention against Daesh. France has not launched a major intervention, but, as we will see below, has made containing the Libyan conflict a key part of the overall strategy of its larger counterterrorist Operation Barkhane in the Sahel.

France has a number of interests in the Libyan conflict. First, France and the UK provided the air support necessary to Libyan rebels to overthrow and kill Qaddafi in 2011. The intervention, carried out with American logistical support, was successful in achieving its operational objectives, and has been the subject of a good deal of academic research.[1] After the air war and death of Qaddafi in October 2011, however, no large peacekeeping mission was deployed in the country, despite a limited and initially successful UN deployment.[2] In August 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama claimed that his ‘biggest foreign policy mistake’ was the lack of effort to rebuild Libya after the war. Thus, France has a major interest in compensating for the general dearth of postwar planning by trying to stabilize Libya.

Second, Daesh’s presence in Libya makes it a direct security problem for France. Daesh was likely responsible for the 26 June attack in Eastern France where a French citizen was beheaded. Containing and/or defeating Daesh in all of its safe havens is certainly in the French national interest. A June 2015 UN Security Council letter regarding terrorism said that Daesh’s propaganda unit defined Libya as the ‘strategic gateway to reach Africa and Europe’.

Third, spillover from Libya destabilized Mali in 2012. Qaddafi recruited a large number of Touareg fighters to his side during the war, and when he was overthrown, many of those fighters returned to Mali and declared an independent republic in the northern part of the country. The other major factor was that the returning fighters brought heavy weapons belonging to the Qaddafi regime into Mali, which made the rebellion much more powerful. The increased flow of arms out of Libya also aided the terrorist groups active in the region, in particular, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) .[3] Continued conflict in Libya means a continued source of arms and experienced fighters that can destabilize other African states. The flow of drugs from West Africa through Libya also helps finance terrorist groups.

Fourth, Libyan insecurity threatens the entire Sahel region as it is becoming a safe haven for terrorists to strike into the territory of other sub-Saharan African countries, and thus falls under France’s counterterrorism mission. Despite Daesh’s appearance in the country, Southern Libya is not yet the safe haven that northern Mali was in 2012, but, since 2013 and the successful French operation in Mali, more and more terrorists are using the lack of governance in Libya to set up shop.[4] A U.S. State Department report on terrorism in 2014 stated that ‘the majority of violent extremist groups have retreated into remote areas of northern Mali or southwest Libya’.

Fifth, France has significant economic interests in Libya. France clearly hoped that its intervention in 2011 would lead the winners of the battle against Qaddafi to sign new contracts with France for oil purchases as well as provide good conditions for French businesses to invest. During the 2011 war, the rebel groups allegedly promised France 35% of Libya’s oil output in exchange for recognition of their government in Benghazi, which both sides later denied. In 2013, 8.5% of France’s oil came from Libya, according to INSEE, the national statistics authority, a significant amount nonetheless. In any case, the French oil company Total withdrew its personnel in 2013 due to insecurity, and the civil war has prevented any real relaunch of the oil industry in Libya, which is harmful for French interests.

Finally, Libya is a major departure point for migrants heading for Europe. The migrant issue is becoming a serious problem for the European Union countries, with 2000 migrants killed in the Mediterranean the first half of 2015 and the inability of countries in the front line to cope with the influx. The situation has deteriorated to such a great extent that the European Union launched a naval operation EUNAVFOR MED, in the ‘Southern Central Mediterranean’ (in other words, near Libyan waters) to try to halt the people traffickers. The migrant problem is linked to drug trafficking and terrorism, as Daesh in February threatened to send 500,000 migrants out of Libya if the West intervened.

French Strategy in Libya

The foregoing section presents a host of extremely difficult problems facing France in dealing with Libya. While ruling out direct intervention for the moment, the French government has chosen to engage closely with the situation in Libya.

The French military operates frequently in northern Mali and Niger, with the objective often being to stop the flows of arms and other forms of support to the terrorist groups, ‘coming from Southern Libya’, in the words of Operation Barkhane’s commander, General Jean-Pierre Palasset.[5] The military mission for France regarding Libya is one of containment and interdiction. By operating against terrorists coming south across the border, French troops can keep larger formations from setting up new safe havens in Mali, Niger, or Chad, thus at least partially containing the problem. The problem, however, is the immensity of the Sahel region and the length of Libya’s southern border. The French troop deployment is not sufficient to patrol the entire border region. There is almost no control of the border on the Libyan side. It presents a similar problem to the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where NATO forces could not cross the border to eliminate the safe havens in Pakistan.[6] The new French base at Madama in northern Niger is designed for an interdiction mission, as it lies close to the trafficking routes. In May 2015, French troops based in Madama destroyed a convoy crossing into Niger from Libya, seizing both drugs and arms in the process.

French forces are not known to have operated directly in Libya since 2011, but in June 2014, Algerian Special Forces went to help Libyan General Khalifa Haftar (Operation Dignity) whose forces had surrounded a group of AQIM terrorists. French and Chadian troops provided support from Chad and Niger (without crossing the border, it seems), and American troops also participated in logistics and in tracking the terrorists. American military involvement in Libya, which has been more direct than that of France, will be discussed in another post.

French generals are frustrated with the current strategy of containment and interdiction. General Palasset stated in July 2015 that he wanted France to take the war into Libya, saying ‘it is a question of efficiency. If we leave the safe havens [intact], it will weaken the overall effort in the war against terrorism’. A French military intervention in Libya, however, does not seem to be on the table for the moment, despite reports in the UK at the end of June that David Cameron’s government was beginning to plan for operations against Daesh in the country. Hollande was unable to get international backing in 2013 for a ground intervention in Syria, and that experience likely made the French government unwilling to attempt to do the same in Libya without clear signs of international support.[7]

If direct military intervention is ruled out, and containment and interdiction is not sufficient, the remaining option is to provide political and economic support to a faction in Libya so as to help that faction win the civil war, regain control over the country, and destroy the terrorist safe havens. France’s government, however, has attempted to make it officially clear that it wants a negotiated agreement between the parties involved under the auspices of the UN. In general, however, France supports Operation Dignity, based in the East, as does the US and the EU. This was borne out by France’s support of Algeria’s operation last year, but any other methods of political support remain unknown.

Is French strategy sustainable? Operation Barkhane, a large part of which is aimed at containing the problems coming out of Libya, shows no signs of being wound up by the French government any time soon. This means that France will be able to continue to limit the penetration of terrorist groups further south. France, however, does not have enough soldiers, even with its Nigerien, Malian and Chadian allies, to control the entire border.

The situation in Libya, and the rise of Daesh in particular, poses a threat to other neighboring countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, which are not covered by Barkhane. The existence of safe havens in southern Libya also presents a direct threat to Europe in the form of terrorist attacks. Without a conclusive end to the Libyan conflict and the establishment of control by a strong government over the currently lawless southern part of the country, the terrorist threat will not diminish. France has thus an immediate interest in bringing the civil war to a close, but thus far has preferred an indirect approach. This may not be a sustainable strategy if there is an increase in terrorist attacks in Europe coming from Libya. At that point, France may be forced to employ the ‘Mali model’ of major ground intervention to eliminate the terrorist threat in southern Libya.

[1] Olivier Schmitt has a useful review of three important recent sources on the 2011 campaign. ‘A War Worth Fighting? The Libyan War in Retrospect’. International Politics Reviews, 2015. See also Kjell Engelbrekt, Marcus Mohlin and Charlotte Wagnsson (eds.), The NATO Intervention in Libya: Lessons Learned from the Campaign (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).

[2] See the French Senate Report, ‘La Libye en marche vers la démocratie’ (5-8 November 2012), which was very optimistic about the future of the country, and turned out to be completely wrong.

[3] See the OECD’s report, ‘Conflits liés aux ressources et terrorismes : deux facettes de l’insécurité’, Cahiers de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (2013), 93-96.

[4] Gilles de Kerchove and Christiane Höhn, ‘The fight against terrorism in the EU’s broader neighborhood’, in Sieglinde Gstöhl and Erwan Lannon (eds.), The European Union’s Broader Neighborhood: Challenges and Opportunities for Cooperation beyond the European Neighbourhood Policy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 83.

[5] General Palasset ended his term as commander of Operation Barkhane on 31 July, and was succeeded by General Patrick Brethous.

[6] Colin P. Clarke, Terrorism Inc. The Financing of Terrorism, Insurgency, and Irregular Warfare (Santa Barbara: Praeger Security International, 2015), 122-123.

[7] Interestingly enough, a diplomat in the Elysée in the 2013 debate said that ‘at no point was it a question to redo Libya [2011]’, which indicates that the Libyan model is seen as a failure (or possibly too expensive). This is surprising, as the Libyan model of airstrikes and special forces support for local elements on the ground was more or less the one adopted for the fight against Daesh in Iraq and in Syria. There was considerable resentment in the French government at the time regarding American reluctance to go to war in Syria.

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