The EU is seeking to enforce a weapons blockade in Libya, however, it could also mean weakening the internationally recognised government, if it’s not properly applied.
The EU agreed on Monday to launch a naval and air mission in a bid to stop the flow of arms into Libya.
The agreement by EU foreign ministers on the new operation is set to begin at the end of March and is a victory for France’s Emmanuel Macron and the new European foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles. Both politicians are seeking to project the EU’s "geopolitical impact" in what they perceive to be the bloc’s sphere of influence.
"There was a sense of urgency for the EU to actually do something with regards to the Libyan situation, in terms of dealing with the flow of weapons and retain some form of credibility after Berlin [conference]," says Emadeddin Badi a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Last month, international powers and Libyan politicians gathered in Berlin to de-escalate the ongoing war in the North African country in a bid to implement a ceasefire.
“The problem is that the EU is operationally constrained in terms of how to do that, there isn't enough of a political will to commit and what little political will there is swayed by the agendas of certain states that are either backing Haftar or don't want a strained relationship with Haftar's backers,” adds Badi, speaking to TRT World.
As the Libyan war enters its ninth year, the country has been divided between two warring factions following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Fayez al Sarraj is the prime minister of Libya’s government and is recognised by the UN. It is actively backed by Turkey, Qatar and to a certain extent by Italy.
Khalifa Haftar — a former general in Gaddafi’s regime had fled to the US later becoming a CIA asset — returned to Libya in 2011 to lead the revolution. In recent years he has styled himself the leader of the Libyan National Army with the backing of the UAE, Egypt, France and Russia amongst others.
Both sides in the conflict have received material support with the UAE and Egypt being a significant contributor to armaments contravening a UN resolution.
The decision by the EU to enforce the arms embargo on Libya is “the direct result of the increasing pressures of the international community to de-escalate the conflict,” says Umberto Profazio, a Middle East analyst.
The EU’s willingness to enforce the embargo by sea but only monitor weapons transfers by air will be seen by countries backing the government as an attempt to tilt the balance in Haftar’s favour.
“The move seems to target mainly the GNA [Government of National Accord headed by Saraj], which has so far received military support from Turkey mainly by sea,” adds Profazio, speaking to TRT World.
Merve Seren a visiting scholar at Turkey’s National Defense University speaking to TRT World suggests that the EU move may have other strategic goals.
“The fact that the military support to Libya has been routed over the East Mediterranean targets Turkey's activities of reinforcement and support because the Haftar camp, even if it’s cut off from the Mediterranean, will be able to mostly receive logistical support over Egypt," says Seren.
The new EU naval mission may also have another rationale in addition to enforcing an arms embargo says Profazio.
“Considering rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over the controversial maritime agreement between the GNA and Turkey, the new mission could establish a European presence in a sensitive area, reassuring some EU member states irritated by Turkey’s claims over the extension of its economic exclusive zone.”
Haftar’s militants have also forged a close working relationship with the Egyptian army with which it shares a border allowing goods and supplies to move through, whereas the Libya's legitimate government relies mainly on ports and the airport for the movement of goods.
“The presence of an undisclosed number of mercenaries from Chad and Sudan in Libya, both highlight the importance of a comprehensive solution to monitor the arms embargo, which takes into consideration movements along Libya’s porous borders with neighbouring countries,” says Profazio.
The EU mandate is clear that it will only patrol international waters and not Libyan ones, which given the maritime agreement signed by Turkey and the Tripoli government in December 2019 would mean that Ankara could continue sending naval ships to Libya.
Will the EU mission succeed?
An attempt by the EU to stop the flow of arms into Libya, however, may be hampered for a number of reasons.
Firstly the EU member states until the last moment struggled to form a unified position. Austria and Hungary blocked the revival of an earlier EU naval operation called Operation Sophia.
Starting in 2015 at the height of the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean, EU countries hoped that Operation Sophia would ward off immigrants from Libya from coming to EU shores.
Instead, the operation was deemed a failure and a factor that pulled further immigration towards the EU and was finally suspended in September 2019.
The Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio warned that if the new EU mission "creates a 'pull factor,' that is to say, the ships attract migrants, the mission will be stopped," suggesting that EU efforts to curb weapons entering Libya is on fragile footing.
Moreover, while the EU is attempting to enforce an arms blockade France’s role in supplying Haftar’s militia has been called into question.
In 2019 sophisticated US-made Javelin missiles that were sold to France were found in the hands of Haftar’s fighters. Paris to this day has not explained how those weapons found their way into militants hands.