Analysts: EU Mission to Enforce Libya Arms Embargo Faces Choppy Waters
Competing interests among regional and global powers, coupled with internal divisions in Brussels, are liable to forestall any negotiated settlement to the conflict
The European Union has agreed to launch a new mission to enforce a United Nations arms embargo on Libya. The decision, which was held up due to opposition from some members of the 27-nation bloc, comes just days after the UN’s deputy special envoy for Libya confirmed that the blockade was being “violat[ed] by land, sea and air” and described the situation as a “joke.”
“And a bad one at that,” Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line. “Nobody can really stop the flow of weapons in Libya. There were already so many arms to begin with and when considering the open seashores, it is almost impossible to [implement a monitoring mechanism].”
The overall lawlessness in Libya, Kedar continued, has created an environment whereby “anyone who wants to buy weapons illegally anywhere in the world can then bring them into the country overnight.
“So, all of these slogans about embargos have no meaning,” he said.
Indeed, weapons have reportedly been flooding into the oil-rich North African country amid failed efforts to forge a cease-fire between the primary warring factions.
For almost a year, strongman Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army has been waging an assault on the capital Tripoli, the seat of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
An estimated 2,300 people have been killed in the fighting, which has displaced about 150,000 others.
The conflict has assumed an international dimension, with Turkey emerging as the primary backer – both politically and militarily – of GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, and the United Arab Emirates and Egypt providing diplomatic and material support to Haftar.
Russia reportedly has mercenaries in the country and has taken a proactive role in trying to end the civil war, which erupted in the wake of the 2011 NATO-led ouster of Moammar Qaddafi.
While Moscow has spearheaded negotiations of its own, an international peace conference in Berlin in January ended without a truce agreement, while talks earlier this month in Geneva also resulted in a stalemate.
“It is unlikely that any [arms] blockade on Libya will succeed,” Zvi Mazel, Israel’s former ambassador to Sweden, Romania and Egypt, told The Media Line. “The problem is that too many countries are involved and even the EU opinion is divided. France, for example, has voiced support for Haftar,” he explained.
“The UN has a mission to forge peace and it is trying to do so. But the most important nations are not in the same camp,” Mazel elaborated.
“Take Turkey, which almost immediately began sending weapons to Libya [after the war broke out]. Then, when Egypt understood that Haftar is a kind of defender of the shared border, it started doing the same. The dynamics suggest it is more probable that the war expands than a deal is reached between the [rival] parties.”
The EU has a vested interest in Libya given that the war-torn country is the primary jumping-off point for African migrants.
“Libya is a thorn in the flank of Europe. Located at the gates of the continent and torn by civil strife, it is a source of an endless supply of migrants and potential terrorists,” Eli Barnavi, Israel’s former ambassador to France, told The Media Line.
“Hence, the need to stem the inflow of arms, mainly from Egypt and the Gulf, that fuels the conflict. Until now, the efforts to do so were largely unsuccessful. [This accounts for the] the decision to beef up the European naval and air presence in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said.
Adding to the complexity for Brussels is the ongoing spat between Greece and Cyprus, on the one hand, and Turkey, which occupied the northern part of Cyprus in 1974 in a move not recognized by the international community.
Both Athens and Nicosia argue that Ankara’s recent maritime border deal with the GNA ignores their claims to areas in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Greece, Cyprus and Israel are currently pushing forward with a plan opposed by Turkey to construct a 1,300-mile pipeline to transport natural gas from the Mediterranean to Europe. Brussels has gone so far as to threaten Turkey with sanctions over its contentious oil and gas explorations off Cyprus’s coast.
The EU’s move to launch a Libya mission has already been rebuffed by a Turkish presidential spokesman, threatening to further destabilize relations with a country Brussels is already paying to help stem the arrival of primarily Syrian migrants to Europe.
Barnavi emphasized that the intricacies associated with the Libya crisis have been partially masked by the bloc’s seemingly united front.
“Italy, the former colonial power [in Libya], and others, support al-Serraj, while France has sided with Haftar, whose Libyan National Army [controls] most of the territory,” he said. “However, the 27 governments of the EU did manage to put aside their differences and agree on the terms of the naval and air mission.”
The compromise, though, was only reached after Austria dropped its refusal to back the initiative – and thus agree not to wield its veto power – over concerns that the prospective naval deployment by the end of March would actually increase the rate of migration to Europe as the vessels are technically required to bring intercepted individuals onto the continent.
The EU could, therefore, soon be navigating choppier waters both abroad, literally, and in Brussels, figuratively.
In November, the UN named Turkey, the UAE, Sudan and Jordan as violators of the Libya arms embargo.