Libya: As EU Plans Greater Embargo Enforcement, Stage Set for Escalation

By February 2020Libya

There has been an uptick in interest in Libya in Europe in recent months, after a long spell when few there were willing to engage. Germany’s peace initiative, known as the Berlin process, has helped focus minds, as has the arrival of Josep Borrell, the outspoken Spaniard who replaced Federica Mogherini as the EU’s foreign policy chief. From the outset, Borrell has shown keen interest in Libya and has not minced words on how assertive he believes Europe should be there. His plans to visit Libya for his first overseas trip foundered last month, however, when the Government of National Accord (GNA) said that it was not ready to receive him after more of Khalifa Haftar’s audacious attacks on Tripoli, including the airstrike on a military academy that killed dozens of cadets.

At various forums, most recently the Munich Security Conference, Borrell has sought to use Libya when discussing the possibilities and challenges of a common EU foreign policy in a world of realpolitik. Nathalie Tocci, a former advisor to Mogherini who also has Borrell’s ear, has argued in favor of putting “European boots on the ground in Libya” in recent op-eds. The head of the EU’s military committee, Italian Gen. Claudio Graziano, also recently sounded muscular on Libya, arguing that Europe needs to be more “assertive in the arena.” 

This was the backdrop to the agreement by the EU’s 27 foreign ministers to approve a naval and aerial operation to monitor and ultimately help enforce Libya’s arms embargo, which is violated on a near-daily basis by the foreign backers of both Haftar and his opponents. The operation, which Borrell hopes will commence by the end of March, will be predominantly naval in scope and will focus on the coast along eastern Libya. Aerial and satellite surveillance will monitor flights in and out of the country. In recent weeks, there have been several major airlifts from the UAE into eastern Libya, believed to be carrying weapons for Haftar.

The question of monitoring overland supplies from Egypt is more challenging. However, the EU is insisting that this operation is a start when it comes to stanching the flow of weapons fueling Haftar’s almost yearlong war to capture Tripoli. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the EU’s move on 19 February, accusing Europeans of “interfering in the region” – a very hypocritical statement given how much Ankara has been meddling in Libya in support of anti-Haftar factions in recent months, including sending Syrian fighters to Tripoli. There are signs of growing unease in Turkey over Erdogan’s adventurism in Libya. Horizon’s contacts in Ankara questioned why Turkey is getting so involved and raised concerns that the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

Our contacts in Tripoli, meanwhile, were worried that the European naval operation would affect their side – the anti-Haftar camp – more than Haftar, given that most of the latter’s weapons arrive not by sea but overland and by air. Some believe that the operation is inherently tilted toward Haftar and suspect French machinations behind it. Our contacts in Brussels dismissed that, however, and said that while much of the operational detail had yet to be hammered out, the goal is to stem weapon flows to all factions. 

Erdogan also lauded the GNA’s decision to withdraw from talks with Haftar’s camp in Geneva following an attack by Haftar’s forces on the Tripoli port on 18 February. In remarks that stirred controversy in Libya, Erdogan added that Turkey would continue supporting the Tripoli authorities to “establish dominance” over the entire country.

American officials were left embarrassed as the Tripoli port attack, which killed three, coincided with a visit by the US ambassador to Haftar in eastern Libya. Haftar turned up in Moscow the following day to meet with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu – a notable development given that relations had become strained after Haftar paid lip service to Russian efforts to forge a lasting deal with GNA head Serraj in the city last month.

In our view, the stage is set for a likely escalation in the coming weeks as both Haftar and his opponents attempt to project their power and create new facts on the ground before the European naval operation launches. Haftar made it clear in a recent televised speech to his base in Libya that he is not backing down. The question is how far Erdogan is prepared to go in response.