image Photo: Reuters

New EU naval mission to enforce Libyan arms embargo

The European Union has launched a new Mediterranean naval and air mission to obstruct any further deliveries of weapons to warring factions in Libya.

The new mission is codenamed “Operation Irini,” which means “peace” in Greek. It will replace the EU’s current military mission, known as Operation Sophia, which had stopped deploying ships a year ago after Italy, facing an anti-immigrant backlash, said it would no longer accept any migrants rescued at sea.

The decision to launch Operation Irini had been delayed by dispute over the migratory issue, but was eventuated following warnings by European High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell that the bloc was risking becoming ‘irrelevant if it could not act’ – potentially leaving Libya’s fate to Turkey and Russia.

The internationalized-conflict is continually becoming more tenuous. Libya has been wracked with conflict since a 2011 Arab Spring uprising backed by NATO lead to the downfall and death of then-President Muammar Gaddafi after more than four decades in power. Since then, two rival seats of power in Tripoli and Tobruk have emerged in the North African country, in addition to numerous heavily armed militia groups. The eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia while the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) is supported by Turkey.

Just ahead of Irini’s launch, the GNA reported that a Turkish cargo ship was reportedly intercepted by a French navy frigate in the Mediterranean on suspicion it was transporting weapons that included air defense systems.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been engaged in efforts to strengthen his nation’s geopolitical position in the strategically-important eastern Mediterranean Sea by signing two separate pacts with the GNA on 27 November 2019: one on military cooperation and the other on maritime boundaries of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. “At the end of November, the Memorandum of Understanding on Security and Military Cooperation and maritime boundaries signed with Libya will provide significant strategic gains for our country,” said Erdogan, stressing that “With this memorandum, we have expanded and widened the process we have initiated with the agreement with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” He went on to say that “The project to exclude Turkey from the Mediterranean has been foiled by the latest steps we have taken,” in veiled reference to Jerusalem’s agreements with Rome, Athens and Nicosia to export natural gas from Israel’s vast offshore reserves.

Ankara began to deploy troops to Libya on 5 January 2020. In order to minimize its own casualties, Turkey has also been sending Syrian mercenary militiamen belonging to its allies fighting in the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimates that there are currently at leas 4,750 such fighters in Libya  with  1,900 who are being trained in Turkey. Moreover, the SOHR said 156 Syrian combatants have been killed in Libya, while the LNA reported the fatality rate of “foreign fighters” has reached 500.

Russia reacted to Irini’s launch with a statement from the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After noting that UN Security Council Resolution 2292 established “a special procedure for inspections on the high seas off the coast of Libya” in 2016 to  employ “arms sanctions” as a means to “contribute to the settlement of the Libyan conflict,” the statement pointed out that “during this time, only individual inspections of suspicious vessels were carried out under the established regime by the EU military operation “Sophia,” the predecessor of “Irini,” and that “In general, the effectiveness of “Sophia” in this field has been low, and last year saw indeed a suspension of the work of its maritime component.”

After stating it will “closely follow how effective “Irini” will be, especially against the backdrop of escalation of the conflict in Libya and reports of increased violations of the UN arms embargo,” Moscow cautioned that, “We have warned our European partners that the operation should be in full compliance with international law, as well as the framework established by Resolution 2292. Any other steps would require consent of the UN Security Council.”

“We assume that operation “Irini” will cover the entire Libyan coast. Imbalance in the matter could negatively affect international efforts to promote dialogue between the opposing Libyan parties. We will take the above aspects into account while considering another extension of the inspection regime on the high seas off the coast of Libya in June 2020. Meanwhile, we reaffirm the central role of the UN in the Libyan settlement and look forward to early appointment of a special envoy of the UN Secretary General who would enjoy confidence of the parties to the conflict,” concluded the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement.

The EU breakthrough to launch Operation Irini came when Greece finally agreed to take in any migrants rescued at sea. “Greece has allowed disembarkation (of rescued migrants) in its ports,” said an EU diplomat involved in the negotiations, adding that other EU governments have agreed to help cover the harbor costs of bringing the refugees ashore to offset any additional pressure on Athens.

As hundreds of thousands of people continue to undertake the perilous crossing from North Africa each year – with thousands dying due to capsized, overcrowded and faulty vessels – EU ships are obligated by international law to rescue anyone whose life is in risk.

There are already more than 110,000 people currently live in migrant facilities across Greece, 40,000 of whom are housed at overcrowded camps on five islands. At least 2,000 have been relocated from the islands to the mainland over the past three months, as part of the government’s continuing effort to decongest the camps, which are slated for eventual closure and replacement by smaller, temporary reception centers.

Last Thursday, the Ritsona migrants camp in central Greece was the first to be quarantine, after 23 of the 2,500 residents tested positive. The Malakasa camp of 1,700 people was the second to report an outbreak. The camp was quarantined on Sunday after a 53-year-old Afghan man was confirmed as infected and transferred about 30 kilometers north to a hospital in Athens.

More than one hundred migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos have been placed under preventive quarantine due to the coronavirus, and there reportedly have not been any other recent arrivals. A Migration Ministry official said that all newcomers will be held in quarantine for 14 days, and that the ministry is currently working with the municipality on Lesbos to find space where they can be accommodated. One migrant from Uganda named Samuel told Reuters that, “we are under quarantine by the Greek government and UNHCR. They came they tested everybody and everyone was negative, but nevertheless we are to be quarantined for 14 days.” As she shielded her head from falling rain, an Afghan woman named Rina said she had been in quarantine for five days and that the conditions were a “very big problem (for) babies.”

Once the quarantine period ends, the migrants will be relocated to the Moria camp on Lesbos, which is the most overcrowded with close to 19,000 residents amid a deterioration of sanitary conditions.

Now that a previous ban has been lifted, the Migration Ministry official said the migrants will be able to apply for asylum.

The European Union’s replacement of Operation Sophia was required after its mandate expired at the end of March 2020. Operation Irini began patrolling the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where most arms smuggling occurs, from the start of this month.

Diplomats have nevertheless been forced to acknowledge a major gap in the enforcement of weapons ban exists on Egypt’s land border with Libya, through which artillery is still being delivered and the EU is unable to patrol.

Despite the pleas of the United Nations for a ceasefire, the civil war in Libya has escalated sharply over the past two weeks even as the country struggles with preparations against an outbreak of the coronavirus.

During a day of heavy mutual bombardment by Libya’s warring sides, projectiles struck the grounds of a hospital in Tripoli on Monday in an area held by the internationally-recognized government near a frontline. The local council of the Abu Salim district said the medical facility had been targeted by rockets fired by the LNA, which has been attempting to capture Tripoli for a year. The council said five people had been injured in the attack, and also posted photographs showing damaged cars on hospital grounds. A local aid group said six of the hospital’s patients had been evacuated.

Libya’s health infrastructure has deteriorated badly by years of chaos and turmoil since 2011. Aid agencies have warned that the North African state is poorly prepared to cope with a major coronavirus outbreak. So far, there have only been 19 confirmed cases and 1 death of the virus.