Earlier this month a helicopter carrying three French special forces soldiers crashed near the village of Magrum, about 70km south of Benghazi in Libya, killing all three. Three days later, President François Hollande disclosed that the soldiers were involved in ‘dangerous intelligence operations,’ hours after the French defence ministry officially acknowledged the presence of French special forces in Libya.
The French newspaper Le Monde first reported the French military presence in February. According to Le Monde, a detachment of special forces was aiding the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of General Khalifa Haftar in the fight against ISIS out of a base at Benghazi airport. A spokesperson for Haftar said the French were gathering intelligence on fighters from Boko Haram who have relocated to Libya recently after the group pledged its allegiance to ISIS. An Islamist militia operating in the area of the crash, Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), claimed responsibility for downing the helicopter, posting pictures of the wreckage on social media.
On Tuesday, the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez Sarraj and backed by the UN, summoned French ambassador Antoine Sivan. The GNA released a statement saying it 'considered the French presence in Libya's eastern region as a breach of international norms and sovereignty'. Protests against the French presence and the GNA broke out in Tripoli and Misrata.
While the incident raises sensitive issues of national sovereignty, it also illustrates the fine line Western powers are treading in Libya between backing the unity government (GNA) and fighting terrorism. In response to the GNA’s statement, the French were quick to confirm their support for the unity government.
Since its establishment last December, the unity government has been seen by the international community as the primary vehicle for achieving political stability in Libya. But as I have argued previously, the increasing threat posed by ISIS in Libya has forced France, Britain, and the US to deploy special forces teams on the ground to fight Islamic militants alongside the LNA, which opposes the unity government in Tripoli. As a result, the international community is indirectly bolstering Haftar's standing in Libya and is thus undermining the success of a unity government to which it have has pledged its support.
Admittedly, the current 'two-pronged' strategy is one of very few feasible options the international community has in Libya. But it is not just the success of the unity government that could be in jeopardy. The breakup of ISIS’s stronghold in Libya (imminent, following GNA forces entry into Sirte in early June) could set up a confrontation between the LNA and Misrata-based militias allied to the GNA. Other extremist groups (such as BDB) could exploit this division and infighting. The BDB already has the support of the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an alliance of Islamist militias from Derna with links to Al Qaeda.
The focus of the international community should be on establishing a joint military command for non-extremist forces (including those loyal to the GNA and the LNA), as Mohamed Eljarh has argued. Until a solution is found that integrates the various military structures in Libya, security concerns will persist and Libya's unity government will be united in name only.