Libya: With France's Backing, Libya's Sarraj Hopes to Come Out of the Cold

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj says he has won France's support against an attack on Tripoli by military strongman Khalifa Haftar. Following his meeting with President Emmanuel Macron, he appeared to get the "clear political position" he was after.

"President Emmanuel Macron was very understanding," Sarraj said Wednesday following his meeting with the French president.

"We agreed on a number of points to kick start the UN-backed peace process," he told RFI. "That can only happen once the fighting in Tripoli comes to an end."

Tensions have flared since General Khalifa Haftar launched an assault last month against Sarraj and his internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

"We were getting close to an agreement and possibly a solution with international backing," Sarraj added. "But unfortunately, Haftar's decision to attack Tripoli... has put an end to any hope of reaching a political agreement."

In their talks in Paris, Macron called for an unconditional ceasefire to end the fighting between the two factions, which has already claimed nearly 400 lives.

"We have to call a spade a spade," Sarraj continued. "This is not a conflict, this is a deliberate offensive by Haftar whose sole aim is to destroy the legitimacy of the internationally recognised government."

'Emboldened'

Haftar, who controls much of the country, launched his offensive on Tripoli on 4 April, the same day that Antonio Guterres, the UN's secretary general arrived.

"Haftar is backed by a certain number of countries who no longer believe in the mediating capability of the United Nations," comments Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for European Prospective and Security (IPSE) in Paris.

Backed by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt, the strongman of the east recently received the backing also of US President Donald Trump.

"I think Haftar feels emboldened by the support of important regional players, or proxy players, who are giving him legitimacy," Dupuy told RFI. France is said to be one of them, although Paris publicly denies supporting Haftar.

This notwithstanding, Paris blocked a draft EU resolution condemning the warlord and calling for his retreat from the Libyan capital, sparking allegations of complicty from Sarraj's Government of National Accord.

Quest for support

The latest flare-up of violence in Libya spurred Sarraj to tour European countries this week to call for the international community to step in.

On Tuesday, the Libyan leader was in Rome where he met Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who appeared to rule out any military intervention in Libya. He then met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before travelling to London on Thursday to meet Britain's Theresa May.

Yet behind this quest for support is a weakened leader, reckons Mitchell Belfer, president of the Euro Gulf Information Centre in Rome.

"Sarraj has not managed himself well in the last five years," he told RFI. In contrast, "Haftar is not only a strongman but he's the best chance Libya has for a stable future," he said.

Haftar is seen as a bulwark against the spread of the Islamic State in Libya, and has notably received the support of British and French elite units.

"France is caught in a dilemma," comments IPSE's Dupuy. "Officially it is backing the United Nations process but on the other hand helping Haftar in his fight against Daesh [Islamic State group] in the western part of Libya."

Franco-Libyan ties on the mend

Despite this, Sarraj told RFI that relations between their two countries were "on the mend."

"With Macron, we discussed the possibility of overcoming the fallout from Haftar's offensive."

On the ground however, the situation is far from certain. Haftar has urged his troops to inflict "an even harder" lesson on forces loyal to the country's internationally recognised government, who have put up a counter-offensive in the south and east.

And the GNA has previously rejected any ceasefire unless Haftar pulls his troops back to the areas they held before the 4 April offensive on the capital, creating a stalemate.

"We will continue to fight to the bitter end until we obtain victory," said Sarraj, dashing hopes for a halt in the fighting to mark the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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