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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

France’s Military Presence in Libya? “Un secret de polichinelle,” As the French Say

Filed under: Libya

France’s Military Presence in Libya? “Un secret de polichinelle,” As the French Say
French soldiers working with Malian soldiers in 2016. (Wikipedia)

Is there a French military presence in Libya? The French street expression, “secret de polichinelle,” is appropriate. It translates as “a well-known secret that is even known to fools.”

Map of Libya
Map of Libya (Central Intelligence Agency)

In the context of the Libyan civil war the French have a military presence in the North African state, which is no secret to anyone, despite all efforts by the French Ministry of Defense to hide the fact and its refusal to comment on it.

Indeed, France has been involved in the Libyan conflict since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, which led to the ousting of the then-ruler of Libya, Muammar Kaddafi. Eventually, France was identified as responsible for targeting Kaddafi’s convoy, which led to his capture and summary execution by rebel forces. “Opération Harmattan” (the name for the hot, dry winds that blow over the Sahara) was the code name for the French participation in the 2011 military conflict in Libya.  However, since the fall of the Libyan dictator and the takeover of operations by NATO, very little is known about the continued French military presence in Libya, which seemed to have ended with the death of Kaddafi.

An investigation by the French newspaper, “Le Monde” in February 2016 revealed that France had secretly deployed its special forces and the operational arm (called “service action”) of the French General Directorate of External Security (Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure – DGSE) for very precise strikes against targets designated as affiliates of the Islamic State in Libya. Its aim: to contain the eventual development of the ISIS threat in Libya, a policy coordinated with Washington and London.1 The Le Monde exposé triggered the then-Minister of Defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to order an immediate investigation, “because it exposed French troops to danger and divulged information classified as ‘secret-defense.’” According to the French penal code, the inquiry was supposed to be carried out by the Directorate for the protection and security of the Defense (Direction de la protection et de la securite de la Defense- DPSD), a branch of the French Ministry of Defense.2

No conclusion was published from the inquiry, nor did the newspaper mention any further action taken by French Authorities who chose instead to continue denying any military presence in Libya. It is believed that disclosure would jeopardize France’s position vis-a-vis the legal government of the Unity Party in Tripoli recognized by the United Nations versus the “National” government in Benghazi led by the self-appointed Field-Marshall, Khalifa Haftar.

Although Paris never officially acknowledged providing weapons, training, intelligence, and Special Forces assistance to Khalifa Haftar, it seems that Paris had been involved probably since 2015 in training and setting up Haftar’s military forces. Paris, under the orders of its Minister of Defense Le Drian, had decided that Haftar would be Libya’s next strong man to rule the country. Le Drian saw Haftar as capable of cracking down on Islamists who had flourished in Libya following its disintegration after Khaddafi’s death and threatened Europe by taking over Libya’s oil and gas wealth.3 The death of three undercover French soldiers in a helicopter crash in Libya in 2016 while conducting an operation against an Islamist group suddenly revealed France’s secret presence there.4

On the other side, Haftar made no secret of the ties with France nor about the modern weaponry he had received from Paris despite a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.

It is with some irony that the French Ambassador to Libya expressed “being deeply shocked” to discover Haftar’s cohorts were marching on Tripoli in March 2019.

Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar (Wikipedia)

Indeed, the irony resides in the fact that it was Haftar’s spokesman who revealed at a press conference5 that a French naval force had docked at the Sidra oil terminal with the specific task of protecting the oil fields from attacks by Islamists or by forces loyal to the Tripoli Government. The spokesman said that the French task force was composed of French military officers specializing in aviation and that their number was in the dozens. He noted that the French contingent had emptied the port’s water storage containers to fill them with fuel. He further elaborated that Haftar’s forces enjoyed Emirati, Egyptian, and French support mainly in the form of intelligence assistance and Special Forces stationed in Al-Kharruba base (east of Benghazi, in the middle of Cyrenaica), six kilometers from a separate Libyan military base. The French role as described by the Libyan officer was two-fold:

  1. To provide very precise intelligence and photo imaging allowing surveillance of enemy forces in the area.
  2. To establish an operations headquarters in the field, participate in the battle with snipers, and prepare and train military personnel on drones (provided by the Emirates after having received the proper authorization by the United States).

The Emirates were in charge of field-intelligence, training officers on new weapons, and protecting Khalifa Haftar with a special force contingent, while Egypt was responsible for logistics and providing ammunition to Haftar’s forces.

Haftar sources also reported that a French military vessel had taken an active part in the operations by disembarking fast-boats and military equipment in the port of Ras-Lanouf (an oil terminal in the central coastal part of Libya). That same vessel had been supplied with water and fuel before leaving for an unknown destination.6

France’s deep involvement in the Libyan conflict was further exposed when thirteen French officers fled from an outpost they held in the area of Gharyan, south of Tripoli, and took the coastal road to the Ras Jedir border post with Tunisia. There they entered with French diplomatic passports and were arrested after being disarmed by local authorities before being whisked by an aircraft from the near-by island of Djerba to the French capital. French official sources claimed the thirteen were, in fact, embassy security personnel, while according to Libyan sources, the French were military personnel deployed in the Al-Watiyya airbase, southwest of Tripoli whose main mission was to monitor western Libya up to the Tunisian border. The French officers fled the base when they felt that the forces loyal to the Tripoli regime were closing in on them and about to take them prisoner.7

As the situation has unfolded in the Arab press, France’s stance on the Libyan conflict is unclear. One of President Macron’s first diplomatic initiatives as president in 2017 was to invite the two competing heads of government in Libya, Fayez Sarraj (Government of National Accord) and Haftar (Libyan National Army), to try to broker a power-sharing deal.

Now, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who as minister of defense was the architect of the “back Haftar” strategy, has convinced Macron that he should bet on Haftar rather than Sarraj.

French President Emmanuel Macron and General Khalifa Haftar in 2017
French President Emmanuel Macron and General Khalifa Haftar in 2017 (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)

France’s Two-Sided Game

Why would France play a double role in the Libyan conflict and expose itself as an un-trusty ally to the UN/NATO coalition that supports Sarraj?

France may be motivated by the need to stop the supply of arms and funds to jihadist groups threatening the fragile governments in Niger, Chad, and Mali using supply routes crossing Libya.

French soldiers working with Malian soldiers in 2016.
French soldiers working with Malian soldiers in 2016. (Wikipedia)

It could also be the prospect of large reconstruction and commercial contracts with the future winner in Libya. (France is the second importer of Libyan oil.) And, of course, this could be tied to Paris’ alignment with the Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian regimes, to whom it has sold billions of dollars of weapons and who back Haftar.8 The three Arab countries distrust Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government because of the support it receives from Turkey, Qatar, and reportedly Iran. Also, according to French reasoning, the conflict in Libya is connected with the fight against Islamic terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel belt and the continued struggle against terrorism at home. Libya under Sarraj has not proven capable of containing the Jihadist wave in Libya while Haftar has scored many a victory against those Islamist factions.

Following Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s policy, Paris seems to adopt the attitude that it would be better to support strongmen solutions that could be the most effective way to fight Islamic terrorism and contain mass migration from Africa to France and Europe.

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