Can Macron’s Libya talks deliver anything more than a photo op?
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French President Emmanuel Macron will host talks on Tuesday between Libya’s UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and his main rival, General Khalifa Haftar, in a landmark meeting all three are hoping to benefit from.
Officials at the Elysée Palace say Macron will be hoping to “facilitate a political agreement” between the head of Libya's unity government and the powerful Egyptian-backed commander when they meet at a chateau in La Celle Saint-Cloud, outside the French capital.
The Paris talks follows a first contact between Sarraj and Haftar in Abu Dhabi in May. That meeting was seen as a tentative step towards reconciliation in Libya, which has been mired in conflict and chaos since the 2011 uprising, when longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by rebels supported by a French-led NATO air campaign.
Currently, Libya numbers two rival parliaments and three governments (the latest was formed in UN-brokered talks and was meant to replace the other two). So far, Haftar has rejected the authority of Sarraj’s UN-backed government as his forces gain ground in the east of the country supported by Egypt and United Arab Emirates.
But, this month, Sarraj set out a new political roadmap for his war-torn country, including the scheduling of presidential and parliamentary elections in March 2018. There is hope that weapons could be set aside and a political solution could be reached.
Priority for Macron
Western intelligence services fear that Islamic State (IS) group jihadists may capitalise on the chaos to set up bases in Libya as they are chased from their former strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
This fear prompted a shift in French policy: in May, Macron’s newly appointed administration said it was reviewing its position on the Libyan conflict and openly called for a united national army including Haftar to battle Islamist militants.
Macron promised during his campaign to prioritise the fight against jihadist militants and, in his first week, travelled to Mali to pay a visit to the French troops that make up the Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism force, created to address the threat across the Sahel. He returned to Mali again in July. Macron has said Libya is a priority for his administration.
“The situation in Libya is extremely worrying for the region because it is positioned on the doorstep of Europe and, thus, France,” said an official at the Elysée palace on Monday. “For reasons of regional stability, the fight against terrorism and the fight against illegal immigration, the president of the republic wanted to immediately take initiatives for Libya.”
Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says there’s another reason that the French president has leapt on this opportunity to arrange talks between Sarraj and Haftar: because it is the easiest of his priorities to tackle.
“If you compare it with the other priority dossiers Syria, Russia and the Sahel facilitating the organisation of elections in Libya doesn’t seem like the hardest task,” Toaldo said. “Macron has already achieved a lot just by convening the summit. It’s taken months for anyone else to get the two sides together, but Macron did it quickly.”
There’s another reason why Macron may find it (marginally) easier to work on Libya, according to Toaldo. On June 22, Ghassan Salamé was appointed as UN special envoy to Libya. Salamé is a Paris-based Lebanese academic, Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs and professor of International Relations at Sciences Po.
“Many people in Macron’s team probably had Salamé as a professor,” Toaldo said. “Salamé is basically French. That was one factor that contributed to this meeting coming together much faster than talks that other countries tried to arrange. Macron can enjoy that little win. Then again, I hope France doesn’t have any illusions about how easy it will be after.”
Gains for the leaders
Macron isn’t the only one with political capital to gain during this meeting, Toaldo added.
“One of the things that lured Haftar to Paris is the possibility of a five-minute photo op with Macron,” he said. “It will do a lot for his international standing. Just last year, Haftar was an outcast.”
Back then, it was unclear what Haftar could do militarily: his men’s control was restricted to a region in the northeast of Libya. Now, the tables have turned and it is his opponents whose control has been reduced to a small area, this time in the country's northwest.
“Haftar is in a more powerful position,” Toaldo said. “The situation on the ground has changed. Haftar is also backed by Egypt and the UAE, who seem to be on the winning side in the region.”
According to Toaldo, Sarraj is also attending the meeting with the hope of gaining standing by getting Macron’s support.
“Seraj doesn’t have real, consolidated support within Libya he’s just a political figure in a country where political figures don’t matter,” Toaldo said. “He is similar to [the US-backed former president of Afghanistan, Hamid] Karzai. These men are strong only because external powers give them strength.”
Speaking at a press briefing on Monday, Elysée officials set out a more concrete goal for the talks.
“We want to see a joint declaration tomorrow between the two main actors,” officials said. “That would be the first time that they accept to agree on a vision of diplomatic transition for the months to come.”
For Toaldo, this may be aiming too high. He said the Libyan leaders won’t want to be seen as making too many concessions, fearing a backlash at home. After the meeting in Abu Dhabi, Sarraj bore the brunt of the criticism, he noted, even though some rumours had exaggerated the extent of his concessions.
“My guess is that they will come to an agreement about a framework for further negotiations,” Toaldo said, “But nothing more binding than that. My hope, however, is that it is more substantial than just a Kodak moment for these three leaders.”