France seeks stronger ties with Tunisia to shore up interests in Libya

France is moving to regain its lost influence in Tunisia, in a move seen as an attempt to break its isolation in Libya, especially after recent gains on the ground made in western Libya by Islamist militias backed by Turkey.

French Foreign Minister John-Yves Le Drian expressed his concern Wednesday that “a Syrian scenario is being played out in Libya," describing the situation as "very disturbing.”

On Tuesday evening, Tunisian Defence Minister Imed Hazgui discussed by phone the situation in Libya with his French counterpart, Florence Barley. The Tunisian minister stressed his country's opposition to all forms of foreign interference in Libya, and reiterated Tunisia’s call for a Libyan-Libyan solution to the conflict.

The French minister expressed satisfaction at  the current state of relations between Tunisia and France and pledged to further develop them with the aim of developing a joint long-term plan, according to the Tunisian statement.

Barley also invited her Tunisian counterpart to head the Tunisian delegation to the 28th session of the joint French-Tunisian Military Committee to be held in Paris in late September.

The two ministers discussed ways to strengthen Tunisian-French military cooperation in various fields, especially in training officers, exchanging expertise and upgrading military equipment.

Since 2011, the US, and to a certain extent Turkey, have had a virtual monopoly on military cooperation and training agreements with Tunisia. Both countries have provided arms and equipment to the Tunisian armed forces, a development reflecting France’s declining influence in the domain.

The United States’ main contribution has been in the field of surveillance. Washington has provided and installed surveillance systems on the Tunisian-Libyan border, an electronic monitoring system along the Tunisian coastline and a highly sensitive long-range radar and camera monitoring stations extending from the Tunisian-Libyan maritime border to the Tunisian-Algerian border.

Tunisian political analyst Mustafa Abdelkabir said that Tunisian-French relations are important for Paris, which explains why the French defence minister insisted on the need to strengthen military cooperation.

He told The Arab Weekly that “the important strategic location of Tunisia and its geography are important to Paris and to all countries that have a military interest in Libya.”

“What has been happening recently in Libya seems to indicate that an international military showdown will most likely be taking place soon in Libya, especially after the recent developments due to the increased Turkish role in Libya that led to the takeover of the Al-Watiya base by the GNA forces,” Abdelkabir said.

A few reports have pointed out that Turkey has begun taking concrete steps to establish a permanent military presence in Libya by taking complete control of the Al-Watiya strategic airbase. Turkish designs are seen as having American blessings, which would be a serious blow to France’s plans in western Libya.

Paris has thus joined ranks with Greece and Cyprus and opposed the agreement to demarcate the maritime borders between the Islamists’ government in Tripoli and Turkey, even though the agreement does not represent a direct threat to its interests.

France is one of the major European countries opposed to Turkish intervention in Libya. It has criticised Ankara for breaching the international resolution banning the sale of arms to Libya and, with Greece, it is leading the IRINI operation to stop the flow of arms to Libya.

The French and Greek positions impede American and Turkish efforts to bring NATO onto the Libyan scene.

France supports the Libyan National Army (LNA) and has always worked to frustrate decisions and plans within the European Union seeking to condemn the LNA or its leader, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Islamists in Libya accuse France of providing military support to the LNA. In 2016, they made a big case out of a plane crash that killed three French citizens onboard. The French authorities said at the time that its citizens were on an intelligence gathering mission.

France has been trying since 2011 to invest in Libya and get what it was unable to achieve during the time of the late leader Muammar Qaddai.

In 2010, France won a contract to develop the Nalut gas field in western Libya, but Qaddafi cancelled the contract with the French energy company Total following a legal conflict over the company’s sale of part of its stake to Qatar.

Experts speculated that the dead deal with Total may have been behind France’s rush in 2011 to topple the Qaddafi regime.

“France is one of the countries that has a great deal of weight on Libyan issues,” said Abdelkabir. “It is one of the first countries to call for toppling Muammar Qaddafi's regime and found legitimate excuses for NATO forces to intervene in Libya even before the green light from the UN Security.”

“The French believe that they earned some merit by bringing down the Qaddafi regime and should have some priority in this file, but international competition is raging in Libya today with the multiplicity of foreign and international parties involved and the growing Turkish role and Russia's entry on the Libyan scene ... All the major powers are eying Libya’s gas, oil and natural resources,” he added.

America’s indirect support for Turkey’s intervention in Libya has raised speculation about the prospect of French support for Russia’s presence there.

A statement by the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) on Tuesday expressed real US concern about Russia repeating the Syrian scenario in Libya. The statement quoted US military leaders as warning against Russia seeking to turn the balance of power in the Libyan conflict in its favour.

This article was originally published in the Arab Weekly and is reproduced by permission. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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