Turkey and France’s Strategic Battle on Libya

Turkey and France’s Strategic Battle on Libya

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  • 18 Ağustos 2021 Çarşamba
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Libya yıllardır bitmeyen bir savaşa ev sahipliği yapıyor. Bu iç savaş geride savaşta yıkılmış bir ülke binlerce ölü bıraktı. Bir sürü ülke kendi politik çıkarları için bu çatışmada direkt ya da direkt olmayarak yer alıyor. İki NATO üyesi olan Fransa ve Türkiye, Libya meselesinde farklı perspektiflere ve amaçlara sahip. Bu çalışma bu ülkelerin Libya ile olan tarihlerini ve kendi çıkarlarını hesaba katarak, bu meselede takındıkları tutumu inceledi. Bu anlaşmazlığı daha geniş çerçeveli anlamak ve analiz etmek için üç farklı dilde literatür taraması yapılmıştır. Bu çalışma Libya Savaşı konusunu Fransa Türkiye ilişkileri bağlamında ele almayı hedeflemektedir.


Libya has been hosting an unending civil war for almost ten years. The civil war left a war-torn country alongside thousands of deaths. Many countries were directly or indirectly involved in this war for their political interests. France and Turkey, two NATO members, are two countries that have different perspectives and political agendas on the Libyan cause. This paper examined the situation from their perspectives, which are highly relevant to their history and interests. To analyze this dispute more comprehensively, a literature review in three different languages had been done. This study aims to fulfill the subject of the Libyan War in the context of France and Turkey’s relations.

Key Words: Libyan Civil War, France Turkey relations, Future of Libya


Libya, a country that has been in turmoil since 2011, has a long history of domination by various powers. After almost being a colony for twelve centuries, Libya becomes independent during the mid-20th century. However, Libya was subjugated by the Free Officer's Movement, which launched a coup d’état in 1969 while the country was still in its infancy (Siebens& Case, 2012, p.7). Muammar Qaddafi, the charismatic leader behind the coup, ruled the country for over four decades. In 2011, influenced by the Arab Spring, protests against Muammar Qaddafi started on February 7 and quickly evolved into a civil war. On October 20, Qaddafi was killed by the rebels who were found him wounded (Siebens& Case, 2012, p.21). 

Chaos, vagueness, and atrocities occupied Libya in the post-conflict era. Despite the fact that there were elections, the opponent groups refused to cease fire and continued to rule over the territories they gained in the civil War (Caner, 2018, p.66). This cleavage soon drove the country into a possible separation, concluding with a two-parliament rule. All these events caused instability, which led to a decline in oil prices in Libya, created a severe number of immigrants, and causing thousands of people being dead. In the light of these, with West’s initiative and as a result of protracted multilateral negotiations, the Government of National Accord (GNA) was established in 2015. Unfortunately, the GNA failed to act as a dominant authority (Demir, 2020, p.4). 

Since 2015, peace talks could not reach an agreement. This disaccord is a reason for the geostrategic importance of Libya since global and regional powers have different perspectives regarding their interests (Demir, 2000, p.4). The global and regional powers have been indirectly involved in Libya's chaos. Russia and the U.S. are prominent global actors in Libya. Other than them, France and Italy are two outstanding actors from Europe.

On the other hand, there are numerous regional actors such as Turkey, UAE, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia (Demir, 2000, p.5). Among these regional actors, Turkey has had a more mindful attitude towards Libya in the last decade. Also, as executing active diplomacy concerning Libya, France has various interests in Libya, including the re-construction of the country physically and politically and the hydrocarbon reserves in the East-Mediterranean. The Libyan issue, especially since 2014, has created a cleavage between the relations of Turkey and France. This article is going to examine this cleavage. The questions to be answered throughout this study can be listed as follows:

How did the Libyan issue confront Turkey and France? 

What are the actors in Libya, what are their goals, and how did they affect Turkey and France?

What is the future of Libya regarding the relations of France and Turkey?

In the first part of this work, the different perspectives of France and Turkey will be examined with their historical ties with the region, features of their internal politics, their economic, political, and strategic interests in Libya, and the winds of international conjuncture. 

Turkey’s Perspective

Turkey, as the successor of the Ottoman Empire, has long and deep historical ties with Libya. Before the Ottomans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs had controlled the region (Demir, 2000, p.7). In 1551, Libya was occupied by the Ottomans in Dragut’s era, who was a very famous naval commander. The Ottomans had administrated Libya with deys[1] to facilitate the ruling process. After 200 years of the Beylerbey system, in the 19th century, disturbed by the Karamanli dynasty in Tripoli, the Istanbul administration decided to end the system and join the region to the central administration (Kutlu, 2016, s. 2).

As a consequence of the Ottoman Empire’s regression, great powers descended on its territories. In 1881, with the Treaty of Bardo, the Ottomans accepted the French control over Tunisia. In 1911, Italy attacked Tripoli and started an era of colonization with the agreement of Ouchy (Kutlu, 2016, p.3). As can be understood from the first paragraph, Libya and Turkey had almost 400 years of engaged history. During the period of Ottoman rule, Libya had indispensable features for the empire. Its geographical location allowed the Ottomans to gain more economic power and an advantageous position over the trade routes of the Mediterranean Sea (Demir, 2020, p.8).

Libya’s importance for Turkey

 In a similar vein, today, modern Turkey has various interests in Libya. These interests can be divided into economic, geostrategic, and ideological. One of the most transparent concerns of Turkey is undesired to perceive its regional rivals, UAE and Saudi Arabia, controlling Libya. UAE and Saudi Arabia have been in a pro-Haftar position, while Turkey and Qatar have supported anti-Haftar powers, especially the GNA. Turkey has had significant commercial affairs in Libya since Qaddafi’s rule. Most of the Turkish industry projects were unfinished after 2011, which damaged Turkish companies equal to 19 billion dollars (Şahinkaya, 2020). The loss drove Turkey to find a more profitable place for its commercial interests in today’s Libya. 

Another crucial determinant for Turkey is its concerns regarding the East-Mediterranean. In the last decade, along with findings of new hydrocarbon reserves, East-Mediterranean has become incrementally critical for the region and the globe. Turkey has had followed mindful diplomacy about the region to secure its maritime zones by all means. In this vein, Turkey had signed an agreement with the GNA on the delimitation of maritime jurisdictions (Şahinkaya, 2020). The agreement accommodates a great significance to Turkey for its maritime rights in the Mediterranean and the security of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). 

Another reason for Turkey’s effective intervention was the Justice and Development Party’s (JDP), the ruling party in Turkey, ideological foreign policy understanding, Libya has become a laboratory for Turkey’s growing support of political Islamist groups after the Arab Springs (Megerisi, 2019). Ideological foreign policy understanding of the JDP has been an essential determinant of Libya’s vitality for Turkey. 

 France’s Perspective

France owns its unique historical background with Libya. With the visit of Qaddafi to Paris after his coup d’état, Qaddafi’s Libya started its relations with France. During the protests in 2011, France called for sanctions against Qaddafi with the U.S. and U.K. (Demir, 2020, p.77). Distinctively, with a speech he made in Turkey, Sarkozy was the first leader to call Qaddafi should leave (Rasmi, 2021). France was also the first country who declared the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the representative of the Libyan People. Qaddafi’s brutal military interventions to the rebels triggered the Western powers. After the United Nations Resolution was adopted, France performed a pivotal role in the assault against Qaddafi (Rasmi, 2021). Following Qaddafi’s toppling, the NTC failed to rule over the country, which led to various groups gaining power in their regions. Since 2014, Khalifa Haftar, a retired general who fought in Chadian War[2], gained the support of UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and France with its anti-political Islam campaign (Rasmi, 2021). Supported by many countries, Haftar’s army, better known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), progressed to the country’s western part of the country successfully. However, with Turkey’s official involvement in the conflict in 2019, the LNA conducted an unsuccessful assault on Tripoli (Rasmi, 2021). Despite the UN’s statement of the GNA as the recognized government, France continues to give much of its support to the LNA.

Nevertheless, France is conducting active diplomacy in terms of mediation and supporting the GNA on specific issues. This perplexing attitude of France is linked to the fact that there is still uncertainty on which actor will come out dominant. Since France has many concerns about Libya regarding its foreign policy, it conducts a more sensitive approach. This will be understood better after the examination of France’s interests in Libya. 

Libya’s importance for France

France has various interests in Libya on different grounds. This part of the writing will examine the French mindset behind its Libyan policies. 

France’s interests in Libya have military, economic, demographic, and political dimensions. The military dimension of this case points to the security gap which occurred during the fall of Qaddafi. This lack of central authority allowed terrorist groups to strengthen in the Maghrib Region (Faytre,2020).  

Libya is one of the states that have the largest oil and gas reserves in Africa. According to Faytre, while Libya was France’s third-biggest oil supplier in 2010, it fell to 13th in 2016 as a cause of the war (Faytre, 2020). Following the LNA’s advancement through the oil-rich parts of the country, France’s oil import from Libya again increased (Présentation de la Libye, 2020).

Due to its geographical location, Libya is excessively suitable as a corridor for immigrants coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. France’s desire to prevent migration coming from that area constituted a fundamental reason for its policies. 

Lastly, it can be discussed that all of these different dimensions of France’s interests can be better understood with France’s struggle for European leadership. France is in a power struggle with Germany for so long by trying to run the show itself, especially on security matters (Faytre, 2020). 

The cleavage

In this part of the article, the current situation in Libya and its effect on Turkish-Franco relations will be examined. Since 2014, a brutal war has been going on in Libya. Turkish intervention in the region changed the balance of the game, and Tobruk-based LNA had suffered defeats against the GNA. Subsequently, more self-confident GNA’s counterattacks broke the advance of the LNA and ended with the GNA capturing strategic routes. Ankara’s military activeness in Libya created a strategic cleavage between Franca and Turkey, two NATO allies (Ahmedzade, 2020). Both countries’ political leaders and bureaucratic authorities criticized each other frequently for their actions in Libya. One of the most explicit reasons for this infighting is France’s total support for Greece and Cyprus in the EastMed natural gas dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Eastern Mediterranean issue has become highly linked to the Libyan case with Turkey’s agreement with the GNA on the delimitation of maritime zones. On June 10, 2020, the two countries had a severe naval confrontation in the Mediterranean, which ended with an investigation of NATO (BBC, 2020). This hot confrontation proved the determination of the Franco-Turkish proxy war in Libya. Such dissensus can turn into a severe rivalry which could have a spill-over effect on the internal dynamics of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) (Jabbour, 2021).

An important thing to mention in this part is the word “proxy war”. Proxy wars are simply a method of warcraft, which are conducted by states to accomplish their aims. This method has some benefits for the running country. States can support indigenous actors secretly and can deny their relations with them. Since the beginning of the Syrian War, Turkey has conducted this method immensely and provided its experience in other battlefields, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya. Turkey used militias and non-state actors for its political benefits successfully. This system is a profitable way of conducting actions for its political agenda, which helps Turkey to avoid a military overstretch in such fields. Libya has become an excellent example of this since Turkish intervention changed the dynamic of the game (Jabbour, 2021). The UN and many countries failed a ceasefire attempt until 2020 when Haftar’s army was finally unable to conquer Tripoli after their defeats against the GNA. With the UN’s coordination, an interim government was established, and the date of the elections was set as December 24, 2021 (Kurt,2021). Abdulhamid Dbeibeh’s administration started to set to work to provide favorable conditions for elections after they took over the government. There are significant problems that the government has to deal with, especially there are many economic and social crises that remain. The biggest problem on the table is the remaining armed groups, who are still keeping their position, particularly Khalife Haftar. Regardless, the government made a positive impression with their work until today. 


To conclude, Libya has been in turmoil and chaos since the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi. A civil war has been going on in the country since 2015, which left thousands of people dead, destroyed institutions, and created an environment of chaos. This war soon had become a proxy war in which many countries were directly or indirectly involved. There were two worthies of note sides fighting for the future of Libya. The instated side by the UN, supported by Turkey and Qatar, the GNA has located in Tripoli. On the other hand, the LNA, which has been backed by France, Russia, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, has located in Tobruk. The war-torn country, despite all the meditation efforts, is still not settled down yet. Numerous foreign actors were involved in the war because of their own self-centered interests. Turkey is a significant actor, who as middle power trying to assert its influence and have a voice in the future of Libya.

On the other hand, as seeing Libya as its “backyard”, France is also conducting active diplomacy to protect its influence over not just Libya but the whole region while desiring to become the leader of Europe. France and Turkey were confronted each other on many fronts, not just Libya. Their confrontation in many fields can evolve into a possible long-term geopolitical rivalry. A rivalry that can endanger Libya's future and make the normalization process become fail. It is needed to reach a consensus among the actors for a permanent peace settlement.

Ahmetcan Uzlaşık

European Studies Intern



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[1] The title which was given to the rulers of the principalities in North Africa.

[2] A series of military campaigns happened among Chad and Libya between 1978-1987.

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