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IRINI: Why an EU-NATO cooperation is urgent for Libyan peace and why Turkey should accept it

BY Maurizio Geri



IRINI: Why an EU-NATO cooperation is urgent for Libyan peace and why Turkey should accept it

Just four months after its launch, the European operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, commanded by the Italian Admiral Fabio Agostini based in Rome, has already produced some solid and balanced results, with its presence in Central Mediterranean. IRINI performed more than 400 hailings and 6 visits on board of merchant vessels, monitoring the cargo disembarked in about 10 ports, and was able to issue 10 special reports to the UN Panel of Experts on Libya about possible violations of UN Resolutions. The mission not only works daily to enforce the arms embargo on Libya, but also seeks to guarantee security in the Mediterranean with secondary objectives, such as the control of illicit trafficking from Libya, especially of people and oil. But the IRINI operation does not yet fully express its potential as a true impartial controller of the embargo to help de-escalate the Libyan conflict. The main problem is the lack of resources to control the trafficking by land and air.

At the same time and in the same area, the Sea Guardian operation, the non-Article 5 NATO mission that since 2016 aims to maintain maritime situational awareness, deter, and counter terrorism and enhance capacity building, is neither in easy waters. The problem here is not the lack of resources but the lack of cohesion. Just few weeks ago, for example, France temporarily abandoned the operation after an incident with Turkey during which a French frigate was prevented from approaching a suspicious vessel escorted by Turkish warships.

The lack of resources and cohesion constrains both operations’ ability to prevent weapons and militias from reaching Libya. In fact, according to the quarterly report on counter-terrorism operations in Africa by the US Defense Department Inspector General, Turkey sent already between 3,500 and 3,800 Syrian mercenaries to Libya over the first three months of the year and it is unclear how many more in the last few months. At the same time, the UN confidential report in May said that the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary unit accused of backing Haftar, deployed up to 1,200 people to Libya. The UAE and Syria are also sending military support. Therefore, the conflict in Libya is not seeing the de-escalation requested by the international community but, on the contrary, a dangerous escalation that could turn Libya into a worse scenario than Syria. A permanent civil war in Libya could provoke large humanitarian crisis, especially looking at the anticipated migratory trends from Sub-Saharan Africa in the next two decades, caused by the youth bulge escaping from demographic explosion and the consequences of climate change, in addition to poverty and conflict.

Cooperation between the EU and NATO would be therefore crucial not only for enhancing the effectiveness of IRINI operation — because NATO has the assets IRINI needs and the EU cannot provide — but also for cohesion in NATO Sea Guardian operation. It would show that the EU is not trying to target only Turkey and its smuggling via sea, which could lead to a rapprochement between France (the EU) and Turkey. Currently, Ankara is vetoing the NATO collaboration with IRINI because, together with the Government of National Agreement (GNA), it perceives the operation as an action strictly against them, and therefore not impartial, and does not recognize IRINI’s actions. Yet, in reality, collaboration with NATO, as in the case of the EU operation SOPHIA, which operated in the same area as IRINI mainly to control human trafficking, would be in Turkey’s interest. NATO assets would provide IRINI with crucial information about land and air traffic that IRINI is now unable to obtain and expose other countries’ embargo violations via land and air. The main problem is that while SOPHIA operation had an agreement with NATO Marcom (Maritime Command) since the beginning, the IRINI operation was born flawed from the outset due to the lack of a similar agreement.

From the technical perspective, IRINI currently operates two main ships — one from Italy, San Giorgio and one from Greece, Spetsai — to control sea traffic and has three planes for maritime surveillance from Germany, Poland and Luxembourg at its disposal. Additionally, there are two air assets available for a limited number of monthly missions, approximately once or twice a month, one with the same capabilities from France and a more powerful one from Greece that would help identify potential embargo violators.

Apart from these air and naval assets, IRINI can also use space assets, i.e. satellites, to monitor the flows by air and land. Although satellites, such as those of the EU Satellite Center used by IRINI, can be an excellent intelligence tool, they must be aimed at a specific point to monitor the activities and therefore necessitate the information on which airport or a place on the long Libyan border to point at. This issue can be addressed only by NATO surveillance assets, particularly AWACS radar planes with the Airborne Warning And Control System, and Global Hawk drones, that is, the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 UAVs, which are at the NATO base in Sigonella. The former allows to control air traffic in detail and therefore help IRINI to decide on which airports to point the satellites. The latter can observe terrestrial traffic with great precision, thanks to the mapping of the terrain, and thus help IRINI to decide on which border point to focus the satellites in case of suspicious movements. The problem arising at that point would be that while IRINI can take action on the sea, the only thing it can do about air and land trafficking is to inform the UN. However, that is a different issue.

The fact is that the EU-NATO cooperation would fundamentally impact regional balance, given that military aid from powers outside of NATO arrives to Libya mainly through land, namely from Egypt and some other African countries, and by air, particularly from Russia, Syria and the UAE, while military support coming by sea is supplied largely by Turkey. Ankara would therefore have everything to gain from such an agreement, yet it is blocking this possibility. Diplomatic sources confirmed to me that IRINI officially asked NATO for collaboration, as for SOPHIA, for exactly these reasons, but NATO denied it because of Turkey, which accuses IRINI of being an operation against Ankara. All this seems to be absurd, given the advantages that would Turkey gain with greater control of land and air military traffic. The point is that Turkey seems to be comfortable with this situation, which provides it a justification for continuing arms supplies to the GNA because of others’ unchecked support for Khalifa Haftar and a narrative to stigmatize the EU, a long-time enemy of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A final key advantage that would arise from NATO, and therefore Turkish, support is the possible role of IRINI, similar to that of SOPHIA, in training the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy. SOPHIA, and especially Italy within the mission, had done a great job of capacity building on this, as well as supplying vehicles and rebuilding damaged Libyan ships, and as a result in 2019 the Libyan Navy rescued 50% of the migrants who left her country, while in 2015 it was only 1%. This has benefited Libya in becoming more autonomous in maritime police capabilities, and Europe in reducing the flow of migrants, thereby overall improving Central Mediterranean security and contributing to stabilizing Libya. IRINI’s support to the GNA government would be essential to continue on the same path, however, Fayez Al-Serraj, Head of the GNA, does not accept the continuation of this military assistance because of the Turkish veto. In short, EU-NATO cooperation, also for this reason, would be fundamental in the stabilization process in Libya, given that there is no stabilization without the training of local police and security forces.

How do you get out of this conundrum? As always, with the intervention of an external actor who can mediate. The only actor that can bring Turkey to reason seems to be the United States and although this has not been done, things could change with the next American presidential election in three months. If Joe Biden wins then the relationship between the USA and Turkey could begin to transform, with the American administration no longer fascinated by the strong man of Ankara but more assertive with the Turkish ally. All this could change the cards on the table. Biden would most likely aim for greater cooperation with Europe and therefore closer collaboration between NATO and the EU, including the IRINI mission, even if it concerns Libya with which the US no longer wants to deal after the intervention of 2011. Cooperating with IRINI would ultimately be an advantage for the USA also because it would empower the EU in the face of Russian air traffic to Libya. If Donald Trump is re-elected, Turkey will probably continue to have a free hand in blocking collaboration between the EU and NATO and things in Libya would not go for the better, with an increasing military escalation.