French president signals shift away from Islamists in Libya mediation

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian invested in Haftar when France and other Western powers were embracing the region’s Islamists.

Middle-man. French President Emmanuel Macron (C) stands between Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (L) and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), in La Celle-Saint-Cloud near Paris, on July 25. (AFP)

2017/07/30 Issue: 117 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Lamine Ghanmi

Tunis- French President Em­manuel Macron seems to have taken Libya by storm, achieving in one day what Arab countries in the Maghreb and other European states failed to reach for years: Dip­lomatic success.

Macron played host to Libya’s two main actors: Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-brokered Govern­ment of National Accord (GNA) and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Sar­raj’s rival in eastern Libya.

During the landmark meeting July 25 out­side Paris, Macron urged the two leaders to agree to a road map that includes elections next year and a conditional ceasefire.

In doing so, Macron became the first Western leader to give Haftar centre stage. European powers had treated Haftar as a pariah in light of his uncompromising stance against Islamists and for what they per­ceived as authoritarian tendencies.

By agreeing to the ten-point blue­print, Sarraj can begin rallying sup­port among allies in western Libya for his own plan for elections in March 2018 and extend his govern­ment’s tenure beyond its scheduled end in December.

Macron has repeatedly said that the stability of Libya was impor­tant for European security. Libyan soil has served as a springboard for waves of migrants to Italy, as well as a destination for militants and traf­fickers travelling across the Sahara from Africa’s Sahel region, where France deploys its largest military mission abroad.

Haftar, who was an ally of dicta­tor Muammar Qaddafi before turn­ing against him as a CIA-backed dissident, has seen his profile grow at home and abroad as his Libyan National Army (LNA) has crushed radical Islamists in battles since the launch of his Karama (Dignity) campaign in 2014.

Haftar claimed victory over al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, on July 5. He has also taken sides with the Saudi-led Arab camp opposed to Qatar, whom he has accused of collusion with Lib­ya’s Islamist militias.

Sarraj and Haftar met with Emi­rati leaders in Abu Dhabi, last May.

Russian President Vladimir Pu­tin also endorsed Haftar as an ally in the fight against Islamism.

Macron hailed the “legitimacy” of both Sarraj and Haftar through which they can unify other fac­tions and militias and reach a con­sensus on “the road map of na­tional reconciliation” agreed on in France.

The mediation is the fruit of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s “pragmatic policy.” Le Drian invested in Haftar at a time when France and other Western powers were embracing the re­gion’s Islamists.

On July 20, 2016, when Le Drian was defence minister, three French special forces soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in eastern Lib­ya. While former President Fran­çois Hollande confirmed the troops were carrying out “dangerous in­telligence operations,” reports said the troops were helping Haftar’s forces defend an airbase from Is­lamists. An Islamist militia, Beng­hazi Defence Brigades, claimed to have shot down the helicopter.

While Macron appears to have swiftly and successfully mediated the Libyan road map, it could rap­idly unravel given the many actors in Libya’s conflict.

“Haftar and Sarraj are not the only players of the Libyan land­scape,” said Sadek Sahrawi, an Al­gerian security specialist regarding Libya. “Their meeting in France could worsen the fragmentation of the country.”

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

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