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EU backs Libya naval mission to save fragile ceasefire

Security forces stand guard during a celebration of the 9th anniversary of the revolution against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya February 17, 2020
Security forces stand guard during a celebration of the 9th anniversary of the revolution against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya February 17, 2020 REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

EU foreign ministers have agreed to a naval mission in the Mediterranean to enforce an arms embargo in Libya that has been repeatedly violated. Experts doubt the operation will lead to a lasting ceasefire.


"We all agreed to create a mission to block the entry of arms into Libya," Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said Monday following an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.

The talks, a follow-up to Sunday's Munich conference and last month's Berlin summit, had been undermined by wrangling between member states about whether to revive an EU-led naval mission to uphold the arms embargo in Tripoli.

Austria and Hungary were against the idea fearing that it could create a "pull effect" for migrants hoping to cross into Europe.

Di Maio and his Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg insisted the new maritime mission was not a repeat of the 2015 Operation Sophia, an EU military response to human smuggling rings.

"There is a basic consensus that we now want a military operation and not a humanitarian mission," Schallenberg said, referring to the rescue fleet that ended up ferrying migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said there had been a long discussion about whether a naval element was needed but finally it was agreed it was "necessary to get a complete picture."

Flood of weapons

"But it will be only in the eastern Mediterranean, where the weapons routes run," Maas said.

On Sunday, UN deputy special envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams, described the current arms embargo in place as a "joke", calling on those who breach it to be held to account.

It is unlikely the EU's revamped maritime mission will end the comedy.

"In order to make an embargo work you need to have the political will to convince those that are sending weapons to Libya to stop," reckons Mitchell Belfer, head of the European Gulf Information Centre in Rome.

"For example, the United Arab Emirates is only supplying [General Khalifa] Haftar because Turkey has not stopped supplying [Fayez al] Sarraj. If you cannot stop one weapon flow, you cannot stop the other and there's no country in Europe that is willing to get their hands dirty on this," Belfer told RFI.

Foreign weapons have flooded into the North African state almost a decade after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.

Turkey intervention

Violence escalated in April last year when renegade General Khalifa Haftar launched a bid to take the capital, Tripoli, from the UN-recognized government, led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Haftar and his Libyan National Army are backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia, whereas the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) of premier Fayez al-Sarraj is backed by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy.

The standoff has intensified with the intervention of Turkish troops last month to shore up al-Sarraj who has lost control of most of Libya's oil facilities.

The race to rearm has seen the combatants violate a truce signed at last month's summit in Berlin more than 100 times, with the UN warning that it is "holding by a thread."

The series of talks have done little to produce a lasting solution to Libya's crisis, partly because the main protagonists have been absent.

"Neither side has been able and willing to meet each other for a very long time," comments Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for European Prospective and Security in Paris, suggesting EU leaders should look for a representative to speak on behalf of the warring rivals.

Ambivalent approach

"At the last African Union summit, there were calls for an African solution to Libya's crisis, notably led by Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso," Dupuy told RFI, referring to the upcoming Inter-Libyan Reconciliation Conference.

For Belfer, more cohesion and less division on Europe's part is needed.

"If the international community wants to see a more Islamist dominated or a more Muslim Brotherhood dominated Libya, then support the Sarraj Government. If they are interested in a more secular form of governance in Libya, then it should be Haftar, but decisions have to be made. "

Prime minister al-Sarraj on Saturday warned that foreign backing for his rival would only "prolong the war and create deeply rooted hatred that will be difficult to overcome."

Belfer however, reckons that "artificially freezing the conflict" through ceasefire deals is what is prolonging the conflict and that it is high time that world leaders settled on one clear victor.

"The current ambivalent approach to Libya is just prolonging the conflict for generations to come," he said.

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