The opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), destabilised by the mass exodus of its militants, most of whom have become the target of separatist militias, is divided over its participation in the local elections of 9 February.
Libya: “It is nothing new that France is violating the arms embargo”
According to a Pentagon investigation released Tuesday evening by the New York Times, a batch of US-made Javelin-type missiles found in Gharyan, 8km south of Tripoli, belonged to France.
This information was confirmed a few hours later by Paris, which explained that they were for the “self defence of a French military unit deployed to carry out counter-terrorism operations”, while stressing that that the equipment was “damaged and unusable”.
The three Javelin-type anti-tank missiles were recovered with seven Chinese-made GP6 artillery projectiles by forces allied to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, at a base in Gharyan on Sunday, 30 June, the day after the city’s return to its strategic position. Abandoned by fleeing Libyan National Army (LNA) fighters who had made Gharyan a command centre on the war front, the weapons were presented to journalists as yet more proof of foreign support for Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Initially, because of the markings on some containers, they were attributed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an important partner of the United States and Haftar’s main ally on Libyan soil, which also uses this type of weaponry. But ten days later, the Pentagon investigation traced the origin of American-made anti-tank missiles “which cost more than $170,000 each and are generally sold to close allies”, to conclude that they belong to France. As for the Chinese-manufactured projectiles, they belong to the UAE.
Paris “forced to justify itself”
Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the United Nations arms embargo has been constantly violated, both by the strong man from the east and by the forces allied to the leader of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj. France is suspected of supporting Marshal Haftar, who launched an offensive on 4 April in the capital, Tripoli. While these accusations have repeatedly been described as “unacceptable and unfounded” by France’s President Emmanuel Macron, recent revelations have rekindled the debate.
“It is nothing new that France is violating the embargo,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a Libyan specialist and researcher at the Dutch Institute of International Relations in Clingendael. In April, the head of government, Fayez al-Sarraj, announced that “any link between the Libyan ministry and the French side […] was suspended, because of the position of the French government [in the conflict]”.
According to Jalel Harchaoui, the discovery of the Javelin missiles must be linked to the events of the past eight years. In 2016, the death of three DGSE members in Libya in the fall of a helicopter near Benghazi had already forced François Hollande to speak out on the subject. According to the former president, France was then limited to “conducting perilous intelligence operations”. Today as yesterday, Paris, which officially supports the government of Fayez al-Sarraj wanted by the UN, “is once again forced to justify its presence alongside Khalifa Haftar,” he observes.
On Wednesday, France’s armed forces ministry announced that “the missiles were intended for the self-protection of a French military unit deployed to conduct counter-terrorism operations. […] Damaged and unusable, the weapons were temporarily stored in a depot before their destruction,” the minister added in a statement to the press.
“It is possible that the missiles were damaged. But it is not credible that France sends intelligence agents with equipment used exclusively for self-protection, without ever violating the embargo,” says Jalel Harchaoui.
A French presence in Libya?
The Javelin missiles, an American weapon imported in the early 2000s, “are indeed part of the French arsenal, which used them in northern Iraq and most probably in Afghanistan,” says Akram Kharief. According to this security specialist, director of the Mena Défense site, this type of “exorbitantly priced” missile is actually used “in anti-terrorist operations or to defend a position” against “military objectives and not against civilians”. However, “there are no documents in which Paris declares that it uses them on Libyan soil.”
However, according to the guidelines of the UN Security Council – of which France is a permanent member – each arms transfer to Libya must be communicated and approved by the permanent five members if it is intended for local actors. According to France, the missiles were used by the intelligence services, which would in any case imply a French presence on the ground.
“As in 2016, this scandal could have more consequences in France than on the ground in Libya, where it will not change the dynamics of a conflict that goes beyond Libyan borders,” Jalel Harchaoui concludes.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.