EU mission to stop arms entering Libya hampered by lack of cohesion

EU has made Operation Irini a critical part of its approach to Libya but experts say the mission is constrained by a lack of resources

The German frigate 'Augsburg' stationed off the coast of Libya during Operation Sophia, the forerunner to Operation Irini, in 2019 EPA
The German frigate 'Augsburg' stationed off the coast of Libya during Operation Sophia, the forerunner to Operation Irini, in 2019 EPA

The EU’s military operation to stop the flow of arms to Libya has been hampered by a lack of political cohesion and resources, analysts have said.

The 27-member bloc announced its Operation Irini air and naval mission in the Mediterranean in March this year to enforce Libya’s long-flouted UN arms embargo.

But the operation faltered in its early stages and, after a decisive intervention by Turkey to support the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, Libya has more weapons and foreign mercenaries than ever.

In an article for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, analysts Amanda Lapo and Hugo Decis have outlined the factors holding Irini back and the limited scope of the mission in its current form.

“The EU’s limited political cohesion on Libya has handicapped its ability to play a greater role in trying to end the conflict,” they wrote.

Fighters loyal to the Tripoli's Government of National Accord secure the area of Abu Qurain, half-way between the capital and Benghazi. AFP
Fighters loyal to the Tripoli's Government of National Accord secure the area of Abu Qurain, half-way between the capital and Benghazi. AFP

“It has also constrained the resources devoted to a key plank of its approach.”

Operation Irini was one of the EU’s central commitments to enforce the agreements made by world powers at the Berlin Summit on Libya in January.

Upholding the country’s 2011 arms embargo was seen as one of the key methods to ease tension there.

Despite the speed at which the operation was set up, it has been marred by infighting between EU members. Many countries are still considering what they will contribute.

Greek and French ships joined the mission at the end of May but Malta, which had pledged specially trained boarding personnel for the mission, withdrew its participation in an apparent attempt to influence the GNA and Turkey.

The institute’s paper outlines what this has meant for the operation.

The mission lists its only assets as the Greek frigate Spetsai, a German P-3C Orion maritime-patrol aircraft and one small aircraft for reconnaissance, provided by Luxembourg and Poland.

It has rarely had more than one vessel operating at any one time, with the French destroyer Jean Bart and the Greek frigate Hydra being sent together for two weeks, from May 14 to 28.

The GNA and Turkey have regularly criticised Irini and said it gives an unfair advantage to the rival Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar by blocking the arrival of weapons and fighters.

Operation Irini has hailed at least 100 vessels in relation to suspected breach of the arms embargo, the article outlined.

But despite these efforts, no weapons have been seized.

Attempts by the EU to involve Nato in plans to bolster the mission have not been realised because of Turkey’s inevitable move to block any such assistance.

As tension in Libya continued to increase, with the country’s eastern LNA and western GNA factions facing off around Sirte near Libya’s central coast, France, Germany and Italy have said they are ready to use sanctions to enforce the embargo.

Diplomatic efforts for de-escalation have continued, with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday speaking with US President Donald Trump in a call.

The three European nations last week reaffirmed their continued commitment to Operation Irini.

But the institute’s analysts said the continued problems with the naval and air mission could have farther-reaching consequences.

“This will reinforce the sense that the EU continues to struggle in its efforts to brand itself as a security provider within an already uncertain international order,” they wrote.

Updated: July 22, 2020 02:13 AM

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