When Joseph Borrell, the European Union’s diplomat-in-chief, announced the launch of Operation Irini last week, he noted: “Diplomacy cannot succeed unless it is backed by action.”
Irini – Greek for “peace” – is the bloc’s latest attempt at stemming the flow of weapons to war-torn Libya, a country in chaos since longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.
It has since been split between two rival administrations vying for power: the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital, Tripoli, and a parallel eastern-based administration allied to renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Both are backed by international actors, who have on numerous occasions pledged to end their support for the warring factions. However, they have continued to flout the UN’s arms embargo, using sea, air and land routes to replenish the war stocks of their allies and, thus, contributing to the prolongation of the conflict.
Analysts say the fact that the EU mission – itself the brainchild of a January peace summit in Berlin – deals primarily with naval violations of the embargo raises questions about its effectiveness.
“There are two entry points to Libya, the western maritime border which Turkey is using to ship in weapons to the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and the eastern border which Egypt and the United Arab Emirates [UAE] use to support Haftar,” said Anas El Gomati, founder and director of the Sadeq Institute.
“There is no doubt that Egypt and the UAE will emerge as the biggest winners. The Turks have no option but to ship their weapons by sea, and this is the terrain that is now being policed by the EU.”
Battle over resources, ideology
Already reeling from years of instability following Gaddafi’s removal, the North African country was plunged into further chaos after Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched a military campaign to capture Tripoli in April 2019.
At 48.3 billion barrels, Libya sits atop Africa’s largest proven oil reserves. This did not go unnoticed for the half a dozen countries that support Haftar and who see in the 76-year old a strongman capable of restoring order while rewarding them for their investment through generous reconstruction contracts.
His profile was made all the more appealing to Abu Dhabi and Cairo in light of his apprehension of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which they view as a threat to their rule at home.
Haftar’s battle for Tripoli, codenamed Operation Flood of Dignity, sent the GNA’s main benefactor Turkey scurrying to reinforce the UN-brokered government’s front lines at the capital’s southern outskirts.
Within a month of Haftar’s offensive, footage of new Turkish-made Kirpi armoured vehicles began making the rounds on social media.
Turkey has since gone public with its decision to support the GNA, saying it was acting within the framework of international law and at the request of Libya’s legitimate authority.
But the relationship between Tripoli and Ankara is shakier than it appears.
Analysts say Turkey suspended arms shipments to the GNA in August over Tripoli’s reluctance to sign a contentious maritime border demarcation deal that would have given Ankara the upper hand in the resource-abundant eastern Mediterranean.
That same month, Haftar made a renewed push for the capital. With hundreds of Russian mercenaries reportedly assisting his troops on the front line, eastern forces were able to gain ground, forcing GNA-aligned troops to withdraw from several southern Tripoli suburbs.
Developments at the time were said to have forced Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to concede to Turkey’s demands.
In late November, al-Sarraj and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed two memorandums of understanding to enhance security cooperation and delineate maritime boundaries.
According to El Gomati, that led to countries such as Greece and Cyprus reevaluating their relationship with the GNA.
“Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt have all laid claims to these waters, believed to be rich in natural gas. They are all willing to work together and cooperate to exclude Turkey,” he said.
“The most crucial element of the EU mission is that they are able to intercept the Turkish navy or any commercial vessels that want to enter Libya. It was designed by the Greeks to specifically target Turkey.”
Tarek Megerisi, a fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, said the operation would not deter Turkey from providing military support to the GNA.
“I’m sceptical that they will actually try and push for accountability with any evidence gathered by the monitoring,” Megerisi told Al Jazeera.
“If my cynicism is vindicated, then Europe will have played a paltry hand from which it gained nothing and lost everything by losing its credibility and pushing away the Turks.”
The GNA has already called into question Europe’s ability to mediate the conflict, particularly France, which it has accused of supporting Haftar.
Megerisi and El Gomati agreed a better option would have been to enforce the arms embargo on all parties, though both conceded such an operation would be expensive and difficult to accomplish.
Absent a comprehensive monitoring mission capable of imposing a no-fly zone, a simpler but far more effective solution would be to name those who violate the embargo.
“A monitoring mission doesn’t have to be a damp squib. The evidence gathered can be useful in expediting accountability mechanisms on violators, creating a ‘soft power’ pressure towards a diplomatic resolution,” Megerisi said.
“But it requires a degree of political will, unity and steadfastness to do this in an objective and strategic way.”
Echoing Megerisi’s comments, El Gomati said, from a diplomatic standpoint, there was little “being done to deter Haftar” by the UN and the EU.
“These are the only two bodies in the world that are working on Libya and that are able to sanction Haftar, and they’re not doing it.”