02 Apr 2020

Operation Irini in Libya

Part of the solution, or part of the problem?


The latest international efforts at Libyan peacemaking in Berlin and Geneva ended with declarations that the UN arms embargo must be respected. Plainly, some of the participants were speaking with forked tongues. The original (2011) Security Council resolution 1970 establishing the arms embargo on Libya runs to 10 pages, but it is dwarfed by the size of UN reports on numerous violations by several countries, which continue today, as conflict rages between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the forces of would-be strongman Khalifa Haftar. These violations were a major reason for last month’s resignation of Ghassan Salame, the hardworking UN Envoy to Libya.

So, any action aimed at enforcing the embargo should be welcomed by all those genuinely interested in a peaceful solution to the Libyan imbroglio. To that end, and while deployment of the necessary military assets has yet to begin, the EU launched operation ‘Irini’ on April 1st. It followed much internal wrangling among member states about the details, with Austria and Hungary, worried about it becoming a ‘pull’ factor for migration, leading the charge against it. Irini’s mandate is restricted to policing arms supplies, training the Libyan coastguard and disrupting human smugglers.

Unlike its sunk predecessor ‘Sophia’, Irini makes no mention of rescue operations, but maritime law obliges all sea-going vessels to rescue anyone in distress. It appears that the sceptics were finally brought on board (sic) by the fact that if Irini does get involved in migrant rescues, information on where they are disembarked will remain confidential and out of the public domain. That raises suspicions from migrant rights groups and others that the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard, close partners in the operation, will ship them back to detention camps in Libya, where conditions can be brutal.

Irini’s difficult birth is compounded by the operational constraints that it will face. While it is supposed to cover all violations, whether at sea, on land or in the air, the stress is clearly on naval interdiction. As such, it has been denounced by the GNA, as most of their arms shipments come from Turkey by ship, and it is these supplies that would be most susceptible to Irini control. On the other hand, Haftar’s forces receive their much of their materiel chiefly from, or via, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt by land, and occasionally by air, using borders and airspace that are beyond the control of Irini. And it is highly unlikely that Egypt, for example, will agree to do anything other than provide its usual lip service to the embargo, such as cooperating meaningfully with Irini on the ground.

Monitoring these flows to Haftar might be possible, although it might depend partly on the use of NATO assets. But it is hard to imagine how seizures of the kind foreseen at sea would be feasible. There could be recourse to ‘naming and shaming’ the suppliers, but that would be cold comfort for the GNA. And if there is one thing in very short supply in this troubled region, it is shame.

In the words of EU High Representative Josep Borrell, “(Irini) is not the only solution, but it is an important part of the solution, to contribute to a permanent ceasefire”.

Before pronouncing judgement, one should wait for more details of the operational plans, assuming that they are made available. But the clear and present danger here is that rather than being ‘part of the solution’, Irini could end up being part of the problem, insofar as on the face of it, it will penalise the GNA and give a nod to Haftar. There are those, including some in Europe, who have no difficulty with that, believing that the only way out in Libya is to anoint another strongman.

But even if Haftar were to be successful, he would struggle to maintain stability in the country. In the course of his offensives, he has made many powerful enemies, notably within the Western militias who do much of the fighting for the GNA. Moreover, Jihadi remnants of ISIS and others lurk in Libya’s vast deserts, largely dormant but not dead, and could well get a boost from a fearful public in the event of a Haftar takeover. The mantra ‘there is no military solution’ to this conflict applies to the letter.

For the EU to get involved in an unbalanced operation without a viable peace process on track might only make things worse. And Irini does little but paper over the cracks between France and Italy on Libya. For various reasons the former has been, if not an overt backer, quietly supportive of Haftar while Italy has championed the GNA. Internal EU cohesion could continue to suffer.

Better perhaps for Europe to lead a re-energised strong and truly unified diplomatic effort to get the parties around the table, backed up with muscle, although UN sanctions on violators other than Gaddafi elements have been few and far between. Getting agreement on action at the UNSC would likely be a futile pursuit, given the situation at the P5, with Russia, which has facilitated deployment of pro-Haftar mercenaries, against and the US indifferent.

That said, could the EU, after all the prime economic partner for many of the countries concerned on both sides, go it alone on sanctions? Or perhaps in tandem with NATO, which since its intervention in 2011 revolution against Gaddafi has long had skin in the Libyan game? The answer is probably not. There are too many divergent interests. For example, who is ready to jeopardise their relationship with powerful entities like the UAE, or for that matter, Turkey?

With the COVID 19 crisis preoccupying everyone, perhaps the best principle to follow for now would be to at least ‘do no harm’.