Make-believe in the Med: Europe’s new Libya mission

Without aerial power, the ‘new Operation Sophia’ will simply upset Turkey and encourage the UAE and Haftar to go for total victory in Tripoli.

With a new burst of intent to bring Libya’s civil war to an end, the European Union this week agreed a mission in the Mediterranean to enforce the arms embargo on the country. Replacing Operation Sophia, whose aim was to prevent migration flows, the new mission seeks to restore some European control over the war – a conflict that countries across the Middle East and north Africa are fuelling.

The decision is the latest step in a process begun on 19 January in Berlin, where world leaders gathered and agreed to uphold the arms embargo, and to support UN de-escalation measures later enshrined in Security Council resolution 2510.

The move is a welcome reflection of high representative Josep Borrell’s desire for the EU to embrace action and the new language of power. But it is set to fail. Indeed, this is so clear from the outset that it raises the question of whether the European intent behind the mission is at all meaningful. The naval mission will disproportionately target one side of the conflict, Turkey, which backs Libya’s internationally backed government. It will do next to nothing to prevent ongoing arms flows from the likes of the United Arab Emirates to General Khalifa Haftar, who wants to oust the Libyan government.

Over the last few weeks instability and fighting have continued to rise in Libya. In a symbol of how seriously countries across the region are taking the recent German- and UN-led diplomatic drive, the UAE dispatched a plane-load of new arms to Haftar barely 24 hours after Emirati leaders themselves pledged in Berlin to uphold the arms embargo. Since then, the UN has recorded over 150 breaches and it says the embargo has been reduced to a “joke”.

Herein lies the key problem for the EU’s new mission. Most of the arms deliveries, particularly those going to Haftar, arrive by air or across Libya’s land border with Egypt. This means that the European mission will prove largely ineffective in halting this support. Instead, it will principally target Turkish naval support to the recognised government in Tripoli. Turkey also signed the Berlin communiqué, yet was always sceptical that its regional opponents would adhere to the process.  With reason, as it transpired: Haftar subsequently refused to accept a ceasefire and made clear he rejected the Berlin deal outright. As new arms shipments flowed his way, Turkey responded with stepped-up arms deliveries of its own.

The prospect of an EU operation that targets Turkey but not the other Libya players has caused consternation in Ankara. This is not only because the UAE and Haftar are the primary obstacles to implementing the Berlin measures. In fact, the EU decision could actually prompt a fresh escalation now that opponents believe the new mission will further weaken Tripoli, creating an unexpected chance to try for total victory.

In this vein, while the mission may be a welcome reflection of a willingness to step up its game on Libya, Europeans need to be far more honest with themselves. The EU has stipulated an operation that “comprises aerial, satellite and maritime assets”. But the aerial aspect of enforcing the arms embargo will likely be the costliest and trickiest to implement, and could mean the mission devolves into a simple naval blockade. This would force the whole undertaking into the Sophia trap: some policymakers in Brussels and national capitals would be content to believe that Europe is active on this file when, in reality, the impact would be minimal.

Barely 24 hours after pledging to uphold the arms embargo, the UAE dispatched a plane-load of new arms to Haftar

A meaningful approach would instead incorporate a sustained aerial mission, one that involves flying sorties into Libyan air space rather than merely patrolling European waters. This will entail having to enforce a credible deterrence capability, potentially intercepting cargo planes or even striking aerial or ground transports. But European countries (and the United States) are unwilling even to name and shame those countries supplying Haftar. So prospects for such an aerial component to the mission are non-existent.

The truth is that Europeans do not possess the political will to enforce an arms embargo worthy of the name. If Borrell and some member states want to advance an effective role here, they should widen their focus: in addition to the naval mission they must now raise the political pressure on the UAE to desist in its armed support for Haftar. This can begin with pressure in the public arena by levying a reputational cost on the UAE’s activities. But it could also encompass EU-wide or member state sanctions against some of the freighting companies that the UAE and others are using to send arms (information about which is publicly available).

Indeed, violations of the arms embargo are well monitored through social media. The UN Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts releases meticulously documented reports. And the legislation to target violators of the arms embargo and other Security Council resolutions is already in existence. So further mere monitoring is simply unnecessary. If Europe really wanted to lead the way in de-escalating the conflict in Libya, then willing European members of the Security Council should publicly announce their intention to use the sanctions committee panel’s accountability mechanisms against violators. A credible threat of such activity could deter the smaller states involved in sending arms and create leverage over more intransigent actors such as Egypt and the UAE. It would certainly have a greater impact than an unbalanced naval mission. The fact that the sanctions committee appears to have a degree of discretion in its review process means that such an approach could succeed despite the political malaise at the Security Council. This approach could provide a helpful shock factor, even if any gains are later rolled back.

Engaged European actors should back all this up by actively coercing Libyan actors towards a ceasefire and honest engagement with UN attempts to host political and military talks. There is precedent available for this, such as sanctions previously issued against individuals who ‘spoiled’ UN processes by engaging in disruptive or violent acts, such as Salah Badi and Ibrahim Jadhran. Europeans genuinely seeking de-escalation should deploy these precedents to threaten sanctions against Haftar, his senior commanders, and any other Libyan seeking to sabotage the UN process.

Europe is right to seek collective action to de-escalate the situation in Libya and give the UN support mission the protection it needs to conduct a genuine political process. However, the EU should not trick itself into believing it is taking meaningful action when it is not. Rather than gearing up an expensive new naval mission, perhaps Europeans could start by simply calling out and sanctioning the true violators of the Libya arms embargo and the wreckers of ceasefire attempts.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.