French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the situation in Libya as “grave,” emphasising the risk that mercenaries and militants dispatched by Turkey to Libya could include “some former leaders of jihadist groups”.
His accusations come ahead of a European Union foreign ministers’ videoconference July 13, when France could ask the ministers to consider new sanctions against Ankara.
During a hearing held by the French Senate’s committee on foreign affairs, defence and armed forces, the French foreign minister said Turks are duplicating their pattern in Syria in Libya.
“We are witnessing a Syrianisation of Libya. This is not a merely symbolic Syrianisation because the forces that are backing the Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj are forces organised by the Turks around militias from Libya’s western region,” Le Drian said. “They are dispatched by Turkey as proxies or as combat troops and transported by plane to go fight in Libya.”
In response to claims that his country supports the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Le Drian said France had provided “advice and political support” to the LNA in 2014-2015 during the LNA’s fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). “But the situation has changed today,” he added.
Asked whether there is a risk of ISIS elements infiltrating Europe today, the French foreign minister replied: “It is likely that certain armed elements that have accompanied the Turks have been infiltrated by some former leaders of jihadist groups. This is why we face a grave situation.”
Le Drian insisted on the need to respect the agreements reached in Berlin last January and on strict implementation of the United Nations arms embargo on Libya.
Turkish intervention in Libya remains a source of concern for France. Le Drian said Paris still expects “clarifications” from Turkey about the behaviour of its naval forces during a June 10 incident.
It also expects a follow up by the Atlantic alliance on the “aggressive behaviour” of Turkey during the French-Turkish encounter that day.
The incident unfolded quickly in the eastern Mediterranean when Le Courbet, a French frigate under NATO command, tried to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya in violation of a U.N. embargo.
The French armed forces’ ministry said the frigate was harassed by three Turkish navy vessels escorting the cargo ship. A Turkish ship flashed its radar lights and its crew put on bulletproof vests and stood behind their light weapons, it said.
According to French daily Le Monde, French naval forces have witnessed several cases of flagrant arms smuggling by Turkish vessels to Libya over the last few months.
NATO ordered an investigation on the June 10 incident, but its contents are classified and NATO has not commented on its outcome. Two European diplomats told the media that France sent a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in early July saying the report did not “correctly establish the facts”.
After a series of disagreements – from Turkey’s purchase of weapons from Russia to gas drilling operations near Cyprus – France concluded that suspicions of Turkish arms smuggling to Libya were too serious to ignore, four NATO diplomats and officials told Reuters.
France has suspended its participation in NATO’s Mediterranean mission, Sea Guardian, instead offering its assets to a EU mission that is upholding the U.N. arms embargo but does not involve Turkish ships, diplomats said.
“What do you do when you have a NATO surveillance mission…and one of those in the alliance is the one doing the trafficking, while saying it is implementing the (U.N.) embargo?” said an official from France’s armed forces ministry, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told the European Parliament on July 2 that NATO must make Ankara realise it cannot “violate” NATO rules. But French diplomats also say Paris is not looking to expel Turkey, and NATO has no formal mechanism to punish or expel members.
Still, NATO could threaten to remove assets from Turkey, such as a radar, Patriot missiles or NATO AWACS aircraft.
“The ambivalence of Turkey, with one foot in each camp, is the troubling factor,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey with the Carnegie Europe think tank.
France made four concrete demands of NATO in its July letter to Stoltenberg, the contents of which were laid out to Reuters.
It wants all 30 allies to reaffirm their commitment to respecting the U.N. arms embargo on Libya, to ensure NATO signals are not used during national missions, to improve coordination between the NATO and EU missions in the Mediterranean and to avoid similar incidents in the future.
At the last NATO defence ministers’ meeting in late June, via video link, eight countries including Germany, Italy and Spain backed seeking a more cooperative approach from Turkey.
Yet there is a risk of a longterm rift within NATO if Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not change course, analysts say.
“Turkey considers itself big enough now to be independent from all sides,” Pierini said.
This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Weekly.