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PARIS – France has presented a plan to the US and others to remove foreign fighters from Libya, a country that has been rocked by civil war in recent years.
The plan consulted by POLITICO envisages a six-month schedule, which suggests withdrawing Syrian mercenaries backed by Turkey first, followed by mercenaries backed by Russia and regular Turkish troops. The bilateral proposal has been circulating for several weeks among diplomatic representatives of the countries involved, according to two officials familiar with the talks.
And in the past few days, officials said, French President Emmanuel Macron has passed the idea directly on to his counterparts in the US and Turkey. Macron discussed the plan with US President Joe Biden at the G7 meeting of wealthy democracies in England on Saturday, before discussing it with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday at the NATO summit in Brussels.
The ultimate goal is to further stabilize a country on the EU’s southern border that has created migration challenges and terrorism risks for Europe. Key players have sought to consolidate a ceasefire reached in October last year between the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, capital of Libya, and Khalifa Haftar, a general who controls the territory in eastern Libya.
In March, Libya formed a government of national unity recognized by all major actors in the civil war. But his position remains precarious ahead of a December election – Haftar retains significant military support and fighters backed by Turkey and Russia are still in the country. To make matters worse, Turkey and Russia entered the war on opposing sides – Turkey behind the government of Tripoli and Russia behind Haftar.
The idea behind Macron’s plan seems to be to harness the weight of the US and use that as leverage to pressure Turkey and Russia to withdraw their affiliated forces. It’s a tactical move for Macron, who takes a more collective approach that could end up delivering another – Joe Biden – a foreign policy victory.
“That could resonate with US policy,” said Tarek Megerisi, Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “When it comes to Libya, they value practicality over substance and, despite their partisanship, rely heavily on key allies.”
According to Macron’s plan, Turkey would first withdraw the Syrian mercenaries it had sent to Libya in 2020 when the Tripoli government sought help repelling a siege by Haftar’s forces. Such a step could take place as early as July 1st.
In the second phase, Russia would both withdraw its private Wagner group militias and Turkey would withdraw its own soldiers. The move proposed for September could be more difficult as it equates Turkish troops invited into the country by an internationally recognized government and the private militias there illegally linked to Russia.
The third phase sees the reunification of Libya’s divided security forces, currently divided between those who defended the Tripoli government and those fighting for Haftar. Allegedly, this move would leave Haftar’s Libyan national army as the dominant group. This fact could make it difficult for those who support Tripoli. The outcome could also be seen as a reward for Haftar’s failed siege of Tripoli and could heighten perceptions that France is too close to Haftar, who has been the country’s preferred partner in fighting the Islamic State and jihadist groups in the region.
The proposal is an attempt to reinvigorate stalled efforts to drive foreign fighters out of Libya. It comes after two previous plans fail. The October ceasefire contained a clause ordering all foreign fighters and mercenaries to leave the country within 90 days. But that deadline came and went without movement. The UN Security Council later passed a resolution calling on all relevant parties to withdraw their foreign troops, which was also ignored.
The Biden government did not want to say whether it supports France’s latest proposal – and did not say whether Biden would discuss the plan with Erdoğan or Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Biden will hold a one-day summit on Wednesday. However, US officials admitted that they are working to ensure the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Libya.
“We are consulting with a number of Libyan and international partners to demand full respect for the Libyan ceasefire agreement and its call for the withdrawal of foreign elements,” said a senior government official.
Biden officials said the president spoke with Erdoğan about Libya in general during a longer-than-expected meeting at the NATO summit on Monday. And Libya is expected to be on the agenda of Biden’s meeting with Putin on Wednesday afternoon in Geneva.
If Biden emerges from his Putin meeting with some commitment to work together in Libya, it could offer the US president a tangible gain from a meeting that is not expected to bring many.
The bigger problem, however, could be winning Turkey over. The equivalence that the document draws between Turkish soldiers and mercenaries of the Wagner group could frustrate Turkish officials.
“It seems designed to anger Turkey while largely ignoring Russia,” said Megerisi, the Libyan specialist. “The Wagner group is there for dubious reasons, poses a strategic threat to Europe and remains the most likely foreign force to fail the upcoming elections.”
In fact, parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 24th in Libya, and doubts are growing that they will be held on time.
When asked Monday whether Erdoğan had agreed to withdraw his regular troops, not just the Syrian mercenaries, Macron dodged and focused on what he said it was their broad agreement that foreign fighters should withdraw. Macron also remained vague about a schedule for the withdrawal.
“In our meeting, President Erdoğan confirmed his wish that foreign mercenaries and militias operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible and work together on it,” he said.
The French head of state also warned that France and Turkey might not necessarily solve the problem on their own, alluding to the range of other countries with interests in the country. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – to name a few – played different roles during the civil war.
Withdrawal, Macron said, “doesn’t depend entirely on the two of us.”
Lara Seligman contributed to the coverage