The summit should also jumpstart stalled security negotiations between rival parties in Libya, hopefully culminating in of a joint force as the precursor for unifying military and security agencies that have been debilitated by war over the past ten years.
Talks on the military-security track under UN auspices have seen progress since last month. The 5+5 Joint Military Committee (JMC) met with the leaders of militia groups in Libya as well as Abdoulaye Bathily, the UN Special Envoy and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). The meetings took place in Tripoli and Benghazi in late March and early April.
The last two meetings of JMC saw expanded participation by security and military leaders of the rival eastern and western parts of the country, including the commanders of key brigades and militias across the country, who reciprocated visits to Tripoli and Benghazi for the first time since 2014, more than two and a half years after signing a UN-sponsored ceasefire in October 2020.
France, which chairs the security working group of the International Follow-up Committee of the Berlin Process on Libya, wants to take advantage of that momentum on the military-security track to lead Western efforts to restore Paris’ eroding influence, especially in western Libya and to assert France’s diplomatic prowess in Libya which has dimmed over the past three years.
Africa Intelligence, which has contacts with intelligence circles in Paris, reported that Paul Soler, the French president’s adviser and special envoy to Libya, is working with other French diplomats to host a meeting of the JMC which will be attended by Bathily (from Senegal), the Presidential Council, and the chiefs of staff from East and West Libya: Abdel-Razek Al-Nadouri and Mohamed Al-Haddad, respectively.
France is hoping to capitalise not only on recent progress made in Tunis, Benghazi and Tripoli but also on talks that have taken place since 2017 in Cairo under Egyptian auspices — to push towards creating a joint force as stated in the 2020 ceasefire agreement.
According to the French website, the upcoming summit on Libya will discuss ways to form a joint force, which should contribute to stability before elections are held within the year according to the UN plan. It will also discuss ways to assist in the exit of foreign forces and end smuggling across the southern border.
A Libyan official in Tripoli said the anticipated meeting will also discuss the proposed framework of the joint force, candidates to lead it and locations for deployment. The source said parties have agreed that this force should begin deployment in the southwestern regions of Ubari and Ghat, in order to counter the potential security vacuum as combatants leave for Sudan, especially those belonging to groups from Darfur in western Sudan, where violent clashes began between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on 15 April.
France hopes for a breakthrough in the positions of Libyan players regarding a joint force, which has been under discussion since the ceasefire agreement though no progress has been made due to conflicting Libyan and international agendas and visions of the role of this force and where it will be deployed.
The ceasefire agreement states that the joint force should act as a buffer between the warring Libyan sides and be stationed on the frontlines between forces backed by the government in Tripoli in the West, and its rivals led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the East. However, this plan broke down due to political developments and fractures within the government, as well as attempts by influential local actors to rearrange the political and security scene outside the UN process.
Since tensions between the US and Russia escalated at the start of the Ukraine war in late February 2022, resulting in growing pressure by Western powers, especially Washington and London, to remove paramilitary combatants of the Russian Wagner Group, the JMC has once again been discussing the formation of a military force but with a different agenda from the one stated in the ceasefire agreement.
The US is putting pressure on Libyans to form a joint force to secure southern Libya as an alternative to Russians deployed in south central Libya. It is more pressing to create this force now in the light of the war in Sudan, which is expected to draw in more than 10,000 foreign fighters.
Meanwhile, France is eager to take advantage and benefit from the services of the proposed joint force in Libya to preserve its weakening influence in the African Sahel, caused by intense geopolitical competition between Russia, the US and China. These are the powers whose intervention directly contributed to undermining France’s historical influence in Africa, even though France retains influence in Chad and Niger, which border Libya to the south.
Despite the great hurdles facing the implementation of this proposal on the ground, Western powers believe there is potential to push Libyan parties to bring it about. However, as the agendas of these powers continue to clash, it is more likely that the current constraints will remain in place.
By leading diplomatic efforts on the security track of Libyan dialogue, France hopes to return to leading Western efforts as part of its undeclared competition with the US and Britain, which had previously dominated managing the Libyan crisis.
In recent months, France assumed responsibility for Libyan issues at the UN, succeeding Britain which was the pointman on the Libyan crisis at the Security Council. This is a shift that President Emmanuel Macron’s administration is trying to use to its advantage to rebuild relations with Libya, especially the main players in Tripoli, from which it has grown distant since Haftar’s military campaign to take control of the capital in April 2019.
Recently, Paris said it is willing to support the interim government of national unity in Tripoli, despite its efforts and commitment to replace this very government and form a new one before elections – which are much further down the road.
In order to garner support for his endeavours and avoid opposition from Libya’s national unity government to France’s moves, Soler held a meeting on April 28 with the new Libyan Ambassador to Paris Khaled Al-Kagigi to discuss developments in Libya’s political process and ways to boost cooperation between the two countries.
During the meeting that took place at the Libyan Embassy in Paris, the French envoy said that France will play a positive role in Libya’s stability until a political agreement and solution are reached – embedded in holding parliamentary and presidential elections based on a consensual constitutional framework.
Soler’s pledge was made at a time when France has been critical of closer ties between Libya’s national unity government and Turkey, which erased French influence in western Libya, especially on security and economic matters.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly