Discord and back-and-forth criticism have noticeably intensified between Paris and Ankara recently. While, earlier, disagreements between the two countries primarily concerned the issues of Turkey joining the European Union; refugee and asylum policies; human rights abuses in Turkey, and the French recognition of Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, nowadays, Libya has become their prime fodder, capable of drawing a number of other nations into the conflict.
During the recent month, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Turkish ships near Libya’s coast. On photos, which appeared online, we can discern Turkish frigate F497 Göksu, which belonged to the United States before and was subsequently handed over to Ankara at the beginning of the 21st century. And an S-70B Seahawk naval helicopter can be spotted on board the ship. Such vessels may come equipped with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and Sea Sparrow and Phalanx CIWS ship-borne weapon systems for protection against fast-moving and also low-flying targets. The ship’s crew comprises 200 people. According to Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, the Turkish frigate recently helped escort Bana, a cargo ship that brought armored vehicles to Tripoli in contravention of the UN embargo.
In December of last year, Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who opposes the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya supported by Turkey and headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, ordered the sinking of Turkish ships if necessary. However, his troops are clearly incapable of doing so for now. Khalifa Haftar’s naval force is very weak and comprised of fairly small vessels that are no match for the imposing Turkish fleet. In addition, the LNA does not have any anti-ship defense systems in their possession, which means that any attempts made by Khalifa Haftar’s air force to stage an attack could be swiftly dealt with by Turkish naval forces with the help of their powerful ship-borne air defense weapons.
In such a climate, France is reluctant to display its fairly cordial relations with the LNA Commander, Khalifa Haftar, who has more and more openly shown his willingness to take action against Turkey. And the problem is that not only is Paris disappointed with Ankara for supporting Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord of Libya but also with Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Both of these conflict situations essentially affect France’s and Turkey’s interests in the region thereby tying them together into one “tight knot”. Earlier, a number of European media outlets reported that France had pledged its support to Greece and Cyprus, whose relations with Turkey are under strain yet again on account of Ankara’s ambitions to develop oil and gas fields located in the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Cyprus.
In the end, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to dispatch nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle to patrol the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea hoping that it would be accompanied by Belgian, German, Greek, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese military ships. The aircraft carrier left the Toulon Naval Base on 22 January. It is equipped with 18 Dassault Rafale M multirole fighter jets, 2 E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft and three helicopters. The French Navy’s carrier strike group also includes two guided-missile frigates, a nuclear-powered attack submarine and a supply ship. A Greek frigate has also joined it.
In light of these developments, Greek media outlets have been reporting their concerns about the unfolding situation, which may result in military clashes in the Aegean Sea.
In such a climate, both France and Turkey began to exchange criticism, voiced at the highest political levels. Afterwards on 29 January, President of the Fifth Republic of France Emmanuel Macron accused his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of not keeping his promise, given at the Berlin conference on Libya, to prevent any foreign interference in the Libyan conflict. In turn, Ankara accused Paris of destabilizing the situation in this North African nation. The official spokesperson of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hami Aksoy, even stated that France bore the brunt of responsibility for the problems that had arisen in Libya before the 2011 crisis. France, whose dark past in connection to Africa is well-known (after all, memories of mass killings committed by this nation in Algeria and the resulting suffering are still fresh in people’s minds), should not have been so quick to blame Turkey, and instead ought to have played a constructive role to ensure security and stability in Libya.
In addition, according to London-based news portal The Investigative Journal, tensions are on the rise because a portion of the Islamic militants who had come to Libya from Turkey (and earlier fought in Syria) fled to Europe. The report also pointed out that some of the “mercenaries” sent by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Libya to help defend the Government of National Accord (GNA) (supported by Ankara and headed by Fayez al-Sarraj) against Khalifa Haftar’s troops had been spotted on a flight in Europe. And more than 40 of these pro-Turkey “supporters” managed to travel to Italy via Libyan ports. In addition, the article stated that in December of last year, Turkey had transported approximately 3,000 militants to the North African nation. Their fate remained unknown, and there was wide-spread concern, not only in France but in the EU in general, about the possibility that they could make their way to Europe. According to other sources, the number of militants, including those from the Free Syrian Army and Iraqi units of pro-Turkey supporters, had supposedly reached a total of 6,000. Earlier, television news channel Al Arabiya, citing Turkish military sources, reported that Ankara was planning to establish a military base not far from the Libyan capital, which would house special forces and naval units, and to build an airstrip and a communication center too.
In light of the rising tensions surrounding the Libyan situation and in the France–Turkey relations, and in accordance with the decision made at the Berlin conference on Libya, 5 senior officers from each the LNA and the GNA arrived in Geneva recently to take part in the Joint Military Commission. In truth, it is not yet reasonable to hope that these talks will de-escalate the tensions and secure a long-term ceasefire in Libya. It is far more likely that, in the nearest future, the commission will be used by the parties to the conflict as a platform to voice grievances stemming from ceasefire violations. In any case, it is imperative that the two sides involved in the confrontation in Libya as well as external players make more effort, and not by means of brute strength, to engage in negotiations in order to resolve pressing issues and to lower tensions arising from the dispute.
Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.