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PARIS – France has given the US and others a plan to remove foreign fighters from Libya, a country shaken by the civil war in recent years.
The plan seen by POLITICO sets out a six-month timetable, proposing first the withdrawal of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, followed by Russian-backed mercenaries and Turkish regular troops. The two-page proposal has been touring for several weeks with diplomatic officials with the countries involved, according to two officials familiar with the negotiations.
In recent days, officials said French President Emmanuel Macron has brought the idea directly to his colleagues in the United States and Turkey. Macron discussed the plan with U.S. President Joe Biden at the G7 meeting of England’s wealthy democracies on Saturday before it was presented to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a NATO summit in Brussels on Monday.
The ultimate goal is to further stabilize the country on the EU’s southern border, which has created immigration challenges and terrorist risks for Europe. Major actors have sought to reinforce the ceasefire in the civil war last October between the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and General Khalifa Haftar, who oversees the eastern Libyan region.
In March, Libya established a government of national unity, recognized by all major actors in the civil war. But its position remains precarious ahead of the December elections – Haftar still has significant military support and fighters backed by Turkey and Russia continue to linger in the country. These challenges are united by the fact that Turkey and Russia entered the war on opposite sides – Turkey behind the Tripoli government and Russia behind Haftar.
The idea behind Macron’s plan seems to be to take advantage of America’s heft and use it as leverage to put pressure on Turkey and Russia to pull their troops. It’s a tactical change for Macron, taking a more collective approach that could end up offering a foreign policy victory to someone else – Joe Biden.
“This may resonate with U.S. policy,” said Tarek Megerisi, Libya’s expert on foreign relations at the European Council. “They reward expediency in terms of content in Libya and rely heavily on key allies despite bias.”
According to Macron’s plan, Turkey will first withdraw Syrian mercenaries, which it sent to Libya in 2020, when the Tripoli government asked for help to combat the siege of Haftar’s troops. Such a phase could take place immediately on July 1st.
In the second phase, Russia will withdraw the private forces of the Wagner Group and Turkey will withdraw its own troops. The phase proposed in September may be more challenging, given that Turkish forces, which have been summoned by an internationally recognized government, and private forces attached to Russia illegally.
In the third phase, it is proposed to unite the divided Libyan security forces, which are currently divided between those who have defended the Tripoli government and those who are fighting for Haftar. Seemingly, this step leaves Haftar as the ruling group of the Libyan National Army. This fact could make it a tough sale for those supporting Tripoli. The result can also be seen as a reward for Haftar’s failed drawing of Tripoli, and may reinforce the notion that France is too close to Haftar, who has been a partner of choice in his fight against the Islamic state and jihadist groups in the region. .
The proposal is an attempt to launch a stalled effort to get foreign fighters out of Libya. It happens after the failure of the previous two plans. The October ceasefire included a clause ordering all foreign fighters and mercenaries to leave the country within 90 days. But this deadline came and went without movement. The UN Security Council later adopted a resolution calling on all parties concerned to withdraw their foreign troops, but this has also been ignored.
The Biden administration would not say whether it supports France’s latest proposal – nor did it say whether it would discuss Biden’s plan with Erdoğan or Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Biden will meet for Wednesday’s meeting. But U.S. authorities admitted they were working to ensure the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Libya.
“We are negotiating with a number of Libyan and international partners to demand full respect for the Libyan ceasefire agreement and its demand for the removal of foreign parts,” a senior administrative official said.
According to Biden officials, the president usually discussed Libya with Erdoğan at a longer-than-expected meeting at the NATO summit on Monday. Libya is expected to be on the agenda for Biden’s meeting with Putin on Wednesday afternoon in Geneva.
If Biden comes from his Putin meeting committed to working with Libya, it could offer the U.S. president a tangible victory from the meeting, which is not expected to yield many.
However, the bigger problem may be trying to win Turkey. The equivalence of the document between Turkish soldiers and mercenaries from the Wagner Group could frustrate Turkish officials.
“It appears to be designed to oppose Turkey largely ignoring Russia,” said Libyan expert Megerisi. “The Wagner Group is there on dubious grounds, poses a strategic threat to Europe and remains the most likely foreign force to disband the upcoming elections.”
There are indeed general elections in Libya on 24 December, and there are doubts that they will be held in time.
When Macron pressed on Monday whether Erdoğan had agreed to withdraw his regular troops, not just Syrian mercenaries, Macron dodged and focused on what they thought was a broad agreement that foreign fighters must withdraw. Macron also remained vague about the timing of the withdrawal.
“At our meeting, President Erdoğan confirmed his desire for foreign mercenaries and militias operating on Libyan soil to leave as soon as possible, and his desire to work with him,” he said.
The French leader also warned that France and Turkey may not be able to solve the problem alone, citing the interests of other countries. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – to name a few – have all played different roles during the Civil War.
Macron said the withdrawal “does not depend entirely on the two of us.”
Lara Seligman participated in the reporting