Since the finalization of Operation Unified Protector launched by NATO in 2011, chaos in Libya intensified owing to the initiation of a military intervention without a proper exit strategy. Further instability in Libya since then knocking on the doors of Europe led to a series of decisions and initiatives to stem, in the first instance, the flow of irregular migrants into Europe.
Irregular migration had long become one of the main sources of anxiety in Europe in the wake of the Syrian conflict. The challenge posed by the Syrian conundrum had further been compounded almost simultaneously with the deepening of the crisis in Libya.
The reaction of Europe to problems associated with asylum seekers from Syria had been to reach a deal with Turkey in March 2016 and launch a NATO mission in the Aegean Sea in coordination and cooperation with the EU, namely FRONTEX.
The joint NATO-EU cooperation in the Aegean brought success and relief with its ups and downs.
The key actor in the conduct of that Aegean mission has been Turkey which took steps and initiatives under the auspices of NATO and the EU to stop irregular migration en masse.
Similarly Operation Sophia launched by the EU in 2015 to address human smuggling and trafficking in Central Mediterranean off the coast of Libya in international waters in liaise with Operation Sea Guardian of NATO yielded some modest results in terms of lessening the irregular migration from Libya, but particularly sharpening the situational awareness in that portion of the Mediterranean.
Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis intelligence reports and open sources consistently pointed to infiltration of radical terrorists affiliated with Al Qaide into Libya to wreak further havoc. Additionally, the same sources monitored on a constant basis systematic attempts by Russia to increase its influence in Libya in addition to the regional state and non-state actors.
As a result the rift within Libya had deepened and there emerged a clear need to bring the warring sides around a negotiating table to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis affecting security in Europe. Hence the initiative by Germany in January 2020 at Berlin to explore the prospect of a political compromise in Libya with the participation of key stakeholders, including Turkey.
The subsequent European response to the Libyan crisis was to terminate Operation Sophia and launch Operation Irini on 17 February 2020 to address arms trafficking in breach of the UN arms embargo on Libya and as a secondary task continue to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking by way of information gathering/sharing.
What ensued the EU decision of March 2020 was a series of disagreements over Operation Irini within the EU as to its sustenance and effectiveness. The result was that Operation Irini was stillborn due to a number of factors:
As a platitude, the EU has once again demonstrated its inability to formulate a unified approach in the face of irregular migration which still keeps many of its decisions hostage to national perceptions and priorities. Despite lofty rhetoric adopted by various high level EU officials regarding Operation Irini, realities on the ground led, for instance, Malta to depart from that Operation in May 2020 after striking a deal with Sarraj on the prevention of the flow of irregular migration toward Malta. That became the first visible blow to Operation Irini.
Another political challenge was the paralysis characterising the decision making in the UNSC. The fundamental question here is who abides by the arms embargo introduced by the UNSC in the case of Libya. The answer is by and large in the negative, including some participants in Operation Irini. It has now become evident that arms sales by some European countries such as France and Germany to Haftar and his backers such as Egypt and UAE in Libya continues unabated. It is also an open secret that all those stakeholders in Libya maintain contingents of forces or military advisors both on the East and the West of Libya.
It is also true that there is a proxy war ongoing in Libya to shape the future of the country and maintain the vested interests of those powers involved in the Libyan imbroglio, certainly including but not limited to Turkey.
It is extremely peculiar to see some EU members seeking their interests by aligning with Russia in support of Haftar against Sarraj. Those same countries, however, rightfully see Russia as the source of challenge emanating from the East toward Europe. There is at least unanimity on that within NATO. In that regard the relevant question is how they see Russia operating in the South both in Libya and Syria against divergent interests of the West at large. What has been the driving motivation to depict Russia as an irredentist power seeking further outlets of influence in the Mediterranean, including Libya, in myriad intelligence reports of the competent authorities and international organisations such as NATO and the EU?
Another related issue that must be addressed by the EU partners is why Turkey has been seen by some of them as almost an adversary in solving the Libyan crisis. France reiterated President Macron’s stance on this issue as recently as 14 June 2020 that Turkey displays an ‘aggressive intervention in the Libya conflict’ and accused Turkey of ‘violating the UN arms embargo.’ This is a clear manifestation of perceiving Turkish position in Libya as ‘inimical’ to France’s interests. It must be stated, however, that Turkey has its own legitimate interests in Libya just like France and other European powers maintaining presence there.
Turkey has from the very beginning of the crisis supported the Government of National Accord now led by Sarraj and recognized by the UN as the legitimate authority in Libya for political, economic, and ideological reasons. The ideological aspect of Turkey’s attitude has been controversial in Turkey itself. And it is still being debated. However, Turkish interests in Libya should not be underestimated since at least the Qaddafi era, not to mention centuries-old ties between the two countries. Those Turkish interests cannot simply be cast aside, particularly for a nation having one of the longest coastlines in the Mediterranean.
There is yet another issue of direct concern for the EU in terms of Turkish position vis- a-vis Libya. And it stems from the EU acquis per se.
Many in the EU circles tend to forget their commitments incorporated into the EU acquis back in December 2002 coined as the Nice Implementation Document, which should guide EU led operations where NATO is not involved as a whole or in partial terms.
That document in the annals of the EU states, inter alia , the following:
“As agreed at the Nice European Council, the EU will have permanent and continuing consultations with the non-EU European Allies, covering the full range of security, defence and crisis management issues.”
“In considering the options for response to a crisis, including a possible EU led operation, the EU would take account of the interests and concerns of non-EU European Allies and consultations between them would be sufficiently intensive to ensure this was the case.”
“In a specific case when any of the non-EU European Allies raises its concerns that an envisaged autonomous EU operation will be conducted in the geographic proximity of a non-EU European Ally or may affect its national security interests, the Council will consult with that Ally and, taking into consideration the outcome of those consultations, decide on the participation of that Ally…”
Following the Berlin Conference on Libya in January 2020 and prior to launching Operation Irini there had been no consultations with Turkey on its participation in that EU led Operation, which, in essence, is diametrically opposite to the clear commitments undertaken by the EU. This type of EU ignorance was also valid in EU led missions elsewhere such as in Georgia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine.
The disrespect for the clear commitments on the part of the EU to take on board Turkey in its missions and operations has been a trademark certainly with the ensuing implications and costs for each side. It is also in this regard that the EU has once again demonstrated its notorious ambivalence or lack of vision thereof in accommodating Turkish security concerns and interests in Libya. That was another political frailty when the decision was taken to launch Operation Irini.
For many even within the EU, Operation Irini has successfully morphed into Operation Janus.
Military planners agree that in mounting such an operation designed to impede arms trafficking or to be precise to fulfil the UN mandate to that effect, including the aspect for monitoring human trafficking, it is a golden rule that one needs combined and joint forces to conduct a successful operation of that type.
It is a fact that Operation Irini is a combined operation. But it is not of a joint nature where you need all military services at play.
It must have been too costly for the EU powers to put their soldiers at harm’s risk when one plans an operation to implement arms embargo.
Using maritime assets only, and neglecting the necessary land forces, including special forces, and air assets signify a disservice to the main objective of Operation Irini. Under such circumstances, that Operation lacked unity of purpose and sense of direction in military terms. Hence the emergence of discord and a recipe for failure.
In conclusion, if it is the common desire of the EU to achieve a headway in Libya to reach a political settlement there, it should come to its senses to prepare the grounds, thus better accommodating concerns and interests of its Allies and partners in an inclusive manner and redesign its course with a new broader and inclusive paradigm toward Libya.
Fatih Ceylan, Turkey’s Former Ambassador to NATO, EDAM Non Resident Fellow