Operation Irini – Europe’s Bleak Attempt at Preventing Libya from Slipping Away

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 1.6.2020 09:56

Enforcing the United Nations arms embargo and diminishing the influence of foreign powers in Libya’s civil war is a necessary condition to allow a return to a political process. However, the EU will need to clear numerous hurdles if it wants its newest operation to succeed.

On May 4th, the EU’s Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI officially commenced its activities in the Mediterranean with a particular focus on the effective enforcement of the UN arms embargo on Libya which since 2011 has basically been dysfunctional.

While the embargo was recently described as a joke by the UN special envoy for Libya due to the extent of the violations committed on land, sea and air by all parties involved, the lack of accountability, and the deteriorating situation. Its enforcement remains a crucial prerequisite for a return to even limited dialogue between warring parties.

In light of recent events and increased unrest, Operation Irini appears to be Europe’s final desperate collective attempt towards the pacification of the war torn country situated on its own doorstep.

 

Mandate & Objectives

The second European operation in the Mediterranean has a straightforward mandate with clear objectives. Firstly, Operation Irini aims to contribute towards a permanent ceasefire by enforcing the implementation of the United Nations Security Council arms embargo on the country by use of maritime, aerial and satellite assets.

This operation succeeds Operation Sophia which expired on March 31st and which had a more humanitarian dimension as its primary focus was to combat human trafficking in the Mediterranean. This principal aspect of the mission has been largely relegated to a secondary objective under the new Irini mandate which is focused primarily on arms embargo with a more limited geographic scope, and operational features aiming at reducing the risk of the overall operation acting as a “pull-factor” for migrants willing to attempt the perilous journey in the hope of getting rescued at sea.

This European “change of heart” resulted from major concerns about immigration expressed by some European governments, in particular Italy’s previous populist government which blocked Operation Sophia, after maritime patrols led to the rescue of tens of thousands of migrants making the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Europe.

 

A Conflict Plagued by Foreign Intervention

The EU’s latest operation is more than ever necessary because of the increasingly fierce fighting in Libya and the worsening humanitarian crisis amid the deepening conflict fuelled by competing internal and external interests with no resolution in sight.

The second Libyan civil war opposes forces loyal to the UN backed and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) based in the East of the country.

Both parties have the backing of foreign powers from which they receive a constant supply of troops, fighters, military equipment and funding by air, land, and sea. Turkey and Qatar – both at odds with the Gulf States, support the GNA - whilst Haftar enjoys military, financial and/or political support from Russia and a bloc of Arab powers which include Egypt, the UAE, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

 

“The operation Irini will, to some extent, be able to contribute towards the disruption of smuggling by sea, but little can be done to prevent the flow of weapons and fighters by air and land. This seems to benefit General Haftar (…).”

 

Considering the extensive international meddling in Libya’s civil war, it is no wonder that the UNSC arms embargo on Libya has been routinely and blatantly violated by warring parties with both sides being accused of smuggling small weapons, drones, armoured vehicles and air defence batteries.

The latest European operation in the Mediterranean will, to some extent, be able to contribute towards the disruption of smuggling by sea, but little can be done to prevent the flow of weapons and fighters by air and land. This seems to benefit General Haftar who is not dependent on supplies by sea which is the case of the GNA despite Turkey’s recent increased reliance on aerial transport*, but instead is supplied by land through its border with Egypt and by air through the airport of Benghazi, both of which remain beyond the control of the mission which lacks international authorisation to halt these activities.

 

*Two Turkish Air Force C-130E flying from Istanbul to Misrata (May 27th). Source: Flightradar24.com

*Two Turkish Air Force C-130E flying from Istanbul to Misrata (May 27th). Source: Flightradar24.com

*One wrongly identified C-27J Spartan reportedly bearing the Kenyan Air Force marks. This is in reality a Erkilet based 222nd Squadron Turkish Air Force C-130E/B (callsign TUAF222) flying from Istanbul to Misrata (May 26th). Source: Flightradar24.com

*One wrongly identified C-27J Spartan reportedly bearing the Kenyan Air Force marks. This is in reality a Erkilet based 222nd Squadron Turkish Air Force C-130E/B (callsign TUAF222) flying from Istanbul to Misrata (May 26th). Source: Flightradar24.com

 

The EU has come under scrutiny as its operation in the Mediterranean allegedly affects Turkish support for the GNA with its regular arms shipment more than it impacts on the Russian and Arab support for Haftar’s forces thus impartiality being compromised.

This is a massive flaw in the mission’s mandate as aerial and satellite surveillance of land and air routes will not prevent the delivery of weapons to Libya. Only the deployment of ground troops and more rigorous in-land air patrols would allow for a full and strict control of the country’s borders.

 

A Lack of Credibility of the EU as an Honest Broker in the Conflict

Individual interests of some EU members, including troop contributing countries, are also putting a strain on efforts to stabilise the situation in Libya and bring warring parties back to the negotiating table.

Germany – which hosted the Libya Peace Summit in Berlin – led initial efforts at the beginning of 2020 to apply a stricter arms embargo on Libya based on a “new spirit” to achieve peace, but ironically also approved around €331 million in arms exports for Egypt, Turkey and the UAE, weapons which could well be used in the escalating conflict.

Some EU member States are no strangers to partisan involvement in Libya’s war. Despite officially backing efforts for a peaceful solution, France has been quietly supportive of Haftar’s cause in the hope that, under his rule, Libya could become more stable and be a reliable partner in Sahel counterterrorism efforts, support possibly boosted by French interest in the presence of abundant presence of oil reserves in the region. One might even conclude that France plays a more active role in its support for General Haftar following the discovery in 2019 of French weapons in a camp previously used by Haftar’s forces.

On the other hand, Italy openly supports the UN-backed GNA in the West, a region where the Italian oil giant Eni has heavily invested. Yet, Italy has been accused by the LNA of providing more than just diplomatic support to the GNA. Haftar’s forces have accused Italy of providing intelligence to their rivals by use of Italian surveillance drones, a statement which came after an Italian Air Force Reaper was shot down by LNA forces miles inland despite it reportedly being on a human trafficking monitoring mission over the Mediterranean Sea.

 

Operation Irini, while Flawed, Remains Indispensable

Blasted for its lack of unity and credibility, the EU can still turn the tide in its favour for the sake of peace in Libya. The launch of Operation Irini demonstrates the EU’s willingness to end the long-running armed conflict in Libya and the need for a political solution.

This operation remains only a part of the solution as dialogue can only be achieved once an effective ceasefire is in place. This is not possible without stopping, or at the very least reducing, the flow of weapons, fighters and military equipment to Libya. “Diplomacy cannot succeed unless it is backed by action” High Representative Joseph Borell said, and the EU’s involvement in the Mediterranean is indispensable as it remains the only regional broker willing to monitor and enforce the arms embargo. Yet, only a united and concerted European effort can deter foreign involvement and de-escalate the conflict.

 

“The failure of Operation Irini and of the EU’s foreign policy in Libya would most likely result in a frozen conflict and the intensification of foreign influence in Europe’s immediate backyard.”

 

The Operation suffers from multiple shortcomings, among them its limited impact on air and land arms trafficking, perceived bias vis a vis the GNA and Turkey, and a credibility crisis. Yet, it remains the only available joint military tool to reduce the level of violence in Libya and contribute to ending the conflict in a country which has been ravaged by two civil wars.

The failure of Operation Irini and of the EU’s foreign policy in Libya would most likely result in a frozen conflict and the intensification of foreign influence in Europe’s immediate backyard, as illustrated by the recent deployment of Russian fighter jets to provide air support for Wagner Group mercenaries fighting for the LNA.

A failure of Operation Irini could possibly set a dangerous precedent with long term repercussions for security and stability in the region.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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