France-Turkey naval clash: Proxy war in Libya enters a new stage

By Dr. Karin Kneissl
Jul.27, 2020

A confrontation between the two NATO states France and Turkey continues to trouble the Mediterranean region; Egyptian forces are mobilizing. And many other military players are continuing operations there.

In March 2011, during a hectic weekend, the French delegation to the UN Security Council managed to convince all other member States of the Council to support Resolution 1973. It was all about a “humanitarian corridor” for Benghazi, which was considered the “good opposition” by the government of Nicolas Sarkozy. One of his whisperers was the controversial philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who supported a French intervention. Levy, fond of the “humanitarian war,” found a congenial partner in Sarkozy.

France was at root of crisis

Muammar Gaddafi had been received generously with all his tents in the park of the Elysée, but suddenly he was coined the bad guy. The same had happened to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It was not the Arab dictator who had changed; it was his usefulness to his allies. The Libyans had been distributing huge amounts of money in Europe, in particular in Rome and Paris at various levels. In certain cases they knew too much. Plus, the Libyans had been protecting the southern border of the Mediterranean for the European Union.

So, the French started the war in 2011, took the British on board, which made the entire adventure look a bit like a replay of the Suez intervention of 1956, the official end of European colonial interventions. A humanitarian intervention changed into regime change on day two, which was March 20, 2011. Various UN Security Council members felt trapped by the French.

The US was asked to help, with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many other advisers in favor of joining that war. President Obama, however, was reluctant but, in the end, he gave in. In one of his last interviews while still in the White House, Obama stated that the aftermath of the war in Libya was his “worst mistake.”

Libya ever since has mostly remained a dossier in the hands of administrative officials in Washington, but not on the top presidential agenda anymore. This practice has been slightly shifting in the past weeks. US President Donald Trump and France’s Emmanuel Macron had a phone conversation on how to deescalate the situation there. Trump also spoke on that very topic with Turkish President Recep T. Erdogan. Paris supports General Haftar in his war against the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord, which is also supported by the European Union, in theory…

The triggering momentum for the current rise in tensions was a naval clash between French- and Turkish-supported vessels. Both nations are NATO members, and an internal alliance investigation is underway. But France decided to pull out of the NATO naval operation that enforces the Libya arms embargo, set up during the high-level Berlin conference on Libya in mid-January 2020. Without the French vessels it will be even more toothless than its critics already deem it. This very initiative on Libya was the first test for the new European commission headed by Ursula von der Leyen and claiming to be a “geopolitical commission.” The EU strives to speak the language of power but keeps failing in Libya, where two members, namely Italy and France, are pursuing very different goals. Rome is anxious about migration while Paris cares more about the terrorist threat. But both have an interest in commodities