Operation Irini Sets Sail into a Complex Libyan Scenario
by Melissa Rossi
EGIC Steering Committee member from the Brazilian Naval War College in Rio de Janeiro
More than three months after the Berlin Conference, where some of the countries involved in Libya’s quagmire — re: Turkey, Russia, the UAE and Egypt — pledged to refrain ‘from interference in the armed conflict’ and little has, substantially, changed. The war still ravages the county and despite the arrival of Ramadan and growing fears of COVID19, no lasting ceasefire has been reached. In light of an ever more complex proxy scenario on the doorsteps of the European Union (EU), the bloc’s 27 Member States have decided to officially flex their foreign policy muscles once again by projecting their military power in the Central Mediterranean in order to halt the influx of illegal weapons into Libya. This authority is based on UNSCR 1970 (2011) and subsequent resolutions that call for an arms embargo on the North African state.
Despite initial resistance by states such as Austria and Hungary, due to fears that the new operation would act as a “pull-factor” for migrants, a Council agreement was reached. Based on decision 2020/472 of 31 March 2020, the military crisis operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI was launched. As of 4 May 2020 the Operation headquarters in Rome has announced that Irini has “set sail” into the geopolitically complex waters of the Central Mediterranean. At this initial moment, Irini will count on three vessels from the French, Greek and Italian navies and personnel from 23 Member States. More specifically, the French frigate Jean Bart is already operational in the Mediterranean, counting on the support of a patrol aircraft from Luxembourg. It will be patrolling the coastal water of Libya in order to intercept vessels suspected of trafficking arms.
Still, beyond the hype of the EU’s new Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) mission, lie several questions pertaining to the EU’s effective military strategy, to the migrant question and to the arrival of COVID19 in Libya.
Firstly, the conflict in Libya is fuelled by personnel and weapons entering the country by sea, land and air from distant states that have some stake in the conflict. The UN-backed government in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, is supported by Turkey, Italy and Qatar, while the Eastern government in Tobruk, led by dissident military general Khalifa Haftar, is supported by Egypt, France, the UAE and Russia. By looking at the players positioned on the Libyan geopolitical chessboard, including two EU Member States on opposing sides, whose interests — re: energy — are at stake, how will the EU navigate both literally and diplomatically in this scenario? For the bloc not to be accused of favouring one side of the conflict, by acting on only one arms route, it will most likely need a much more comprehensive mission, with more personnel and intelligence to guard the border with Egypt, perhaps a mission similar to the UN mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL). If the EU is only effective in blocking weapons arriving via sea and ignoring the weapons flowing across Libya’s Eastern land border, its strategy to enforce the UN arms embargo in Libya will be seen as flawed and biased.
Secondly, there is a question of upholding international law as the ill treatment of migrants and asylum seekers by the Libyan Coast Guard and in detention camps becomes known to the world. Libya is a transit country for many people trying to reach the EU owing to its geographic proximity to Southern Europe. As the EU’s geopolitical aims have changed in the area due to an electoral shift towards right-wing governments elected on nationalistic anti-migrant agendas, some of which openly opposed to the rescuing of people at sea, the EU has lost some of its international humanitarian credibility in this process. In fact, it is important to remember that Operation Irini was only approved because right-wing countries such as Hungary and Austria made sure that Irini would be primarily an operation to support the UN arms embargo on Libya, moving away from the humanitarian objectives of previous Central Mediterranean missions, such as Operation Sophia. Furthermore, the EU finances and trains the Libyan Coast Guard, notorious for its ill treatment of migrants. The founding EU fathers, who lived themselves through the horrors of the Second World War, wherein millions of Europeans likewise became refugees, perhaps would have envisioned a different, more compassionate international role for the bloc as it projects its power beyond its borders.
Finally, the Libyan realty is not only more complex because of the number of military players involved and the migrant issue but, like the rest of the world now fighting against an invisible encroaching enemy, COVID19 has made its way silently into the war-torn country. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has warned that ‘attacks on health care and civilian infrastructure are not only adding to the conflict’s ever increasing death toll, but also jeopardising the country’s fragile COVID19 response.’
In order for the EU to ascertain its role in the Central Mediterranean, it will need to consider these and many other variables within this complex scenario. Hopefully, Operation Irini, named after the Ancient Greek goddess of Peace, will uphold the true significance of its name.
11 May 2020