Mediterranean geopolitical shifts risking shipping and trade: France and Turkey over Libya

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The Mediterranean is a sea. And there are significant geopolitical shifts involving the European Union, NATO, France, Russia, Turkey and others over Libya. This article looks at the France – Turkey dimension. At risk is the shipping and trade for all states in the Mediterranean.

There are states on the Northern Mediterranean shore and there are states on the Southern Mediterranean shore. Although the geographic distance is small, there is a vast demographic and political governance difference. All the former are states in Europe, have democratically elected parliaments and leadership without restrictions on the practice of religion, and are members of the European Union and NATO.

All the latter are states in Africa and are non-democratic with restrictions on the practice of religion other than Islam. And there are vast economic differences. France is one of the states of the former and Libya is one of the states of the later. And then there is a state on the Eastern Mediterranean shore that is not in the European Union but is in NATO, it is Turkey.

The desire of Paris to position itself as an influential foreign policy power in Libya was apparent early on after the end of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s motives for supporting the 2011 revolution against Muammar Gaddafi was to restore France as a dominant European military power. And France is pursuing a single-minded approach to cancel out its rivals and position itself as a dominant power broker in Libya.

After Libya’s subsequent descent into instability, France pursued its own economic and security interests. It began courting Haftar, seeing this ambitious, post-revolutionary warlord as a key partner to guarantee “stability” against extremism and ultimately secure France’s economic interests, such as Total’s oil exploration and production operations.

During the Paris summit aimed at reaching a political solution in 2018, France wanted to supplant UN efforts and steer peace talks towards its own interests. Paris was trying to select its preferred actors, while excluding others. Even during Haftar’s Tripoli campaign, launched in April 2019, French missiles were sighted among Haftar’s forces. Despite France’s gambit, it was clear that Haftar’s offensive would not succeed, instead creating a drawn-out stalemate.

Turkey has growing dominance in the country backing the Government of National Accord (GNA). Turkey’s intervention since the start of the 2020 to shore up the besieged GNA has dashed Paris’ vision for Libya. Ankara and the GNA also signed a deal, granting Turkey permission to explore Libya’s shores for oil, threatening France’s interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey eclipsed France as a dominant external actor in Libya, blowing up France’s strategy.

France expressed frustration at Turkey’s efforts, and tensions between them erupted. French President Emmanuel Macron launched repeated verbal attacks against Ankara. Macron claimed that Turkey was playing a “dangerous game” and has accused Turkey of being “extremely aggressive”. France now seeks to undermine Turkey’s role evidently fixated on countering and vilifying Turkey.

For example, the French navy seized a Turkish vessel delivering arms to the GNA while the French embassy in Greece called the GNA-Turkey deal “invalid”. France withdrew from NATO’s naval operation along the Eastern Mediterranean, highlighting its evident antagonism towards Turkey for effectively thwarting its regional geopolitical interests.

Tensions between the two NATO allies, France and Turkey, also escalated after a standoff between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean on June 10. France criticized the alleged nuisance to a French ship by Turkish frigates in terms of NATO’s rules of engagement. Although Ankara denied the accusation, NATO is conducting an investigation into the incident.

France also blames Turkey for breaching a UN arms embargo on Libya, but it hasn’t addressed the UAE’s nor Egypt’s unlawful support for Haftar’s offensive, showing a double standard. France has also refrained from criticizing Russia’s role, due to their mutual support for Haftar and as a counterbalance against Turkey. All of this has also rendered the EU an impotent actor in Libya. There is a general absence and indifference of the US towards Libya’s political turmoil.

The bottom line is a shift in Mediterranean geopolitics over the issue of Libya. With all the political and military cards on the table, the crucial question is whether such heated exchanges may escalate to the point of rivalry and change the already fragile balance. Many states are involved, and new alliances could be formed. At risk should tensions mount is the shipping and trade for all states in the Mediterranean.

By: Glen Segell

Glen Segell (DPhil) is Director, London Security Policy Study and a former member of the United Kingdom Council for Arms Control

Source: Middle East tracker

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