For the last nine years Libya has been gripped by chaos. The European Union has proved inadequate to the task of bringing stability to an area of strategic interest on its very doorstep.
Turkey’s intervention in the civil war three months ago has begun to turn the tide in what had looked like a relentless advance by ‘Marshal’ Haftar. Ankara has sent the UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNA) in Tripoli weapons, advanced drones and Syrian rebels as reinforcements.
A fly-past of Turkish Air Force F-16s recently was militarily, as well as politically, significant. Military experts had questioned whether Turkey’s military had the operational range to take a potent part in the Libyan war without Nato support.
Haftar’s forces, which control most of east and south Libya, lost a series of western towns recently as the GNA fought back. A few days ago, Haftar declared that his forces would cease hostilities for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan following international calls for a truce. The GNA has yet to respond.
Both sides in the Libyan civil war are supposed to be under a UN arms embargo policed by an EU naval task force. Although it claimed that its arms embargo mission was ready to be launched, the main EU powers have been slow to react.
What needs to happen and what part should Malta play?
The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has announced that agreement has been reached by EU member states to launch Operation Irini with the aim of halting the flow of arms into Libya. Following a spat between Italy and Greece over who should command the naval operation, the task force of three naval ships, three aircraft “and satellites”, is about to deploy its first vessel to the area.
Operation Irini has replaced Operation Sophia, which in 2015 had the specific role of stopping people-smuggling through the central Mediterranean. The precise operational ‘rules of engagement’ of Irini in preventing arms reaching Libya has not been elucidated.
But, given that the respective international backers of the opposing forces in Libya are Turkey and Russia, it seems, on the face of it, the task force will be of limited value operationally in dealing with the far more salient issue from Malta’s perspective of stopping irregular immigration into the EU.
Malta should be pressing for greater clarity about Operation Irini’s role, with specific reference to people-trafficking and the stemming of migration flows. The unstable situation in Libya poses threats for Europe far beyond Mediterranean shores. Malta should be ensuring that Brussels extends Irini’s operational role to include protecting Europe’s southern borders but it is equally important to provide protection to those seeking asylum.
The EU’s High Representative’s scant knowledge of the plea three weeks ago for significant humanitarian aid to be given to Libya does not fill one with confidence that Malta’s diplomatic voice is being heard at all in Brussels.
Our Foreign Affairs Minister is one of Malta’s most seasoned politicians.
He has an important role to use all diplomatic means at his disposal to ensure Malta does not bear the migration load alone and especially emphasising the human tragedy taking place in our seas. He should be pressing hard for Irini’s operational terms to be extended to handle the unfolding catastrophe at sea as well as equitable sharing of those rescued at sea among EU states.
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