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Operation Irini and Arms Embargo in Meditteranean

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

Since April 2019, Libya has witnessed an internal civil war between forces of the UN-sponsored Government of National Accords (GNA) and forces of Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifah Haftar. Libya certainly has joined the league of countries like Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan where internal turmoil and conflicts have been triggered by foreign interventions leading to severe materialistic destruction of the country, civilian casualties and rendering countries as an arena for proxy wars, power projections, and for foreign countries to safeguard their interests in the region.

On June 5, 2020, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2526 (2020).[1] The resolution authorized member States to act nationally or through regional organizations to conduct an inspection of vessels off the coast of Libya, bound to or from other countries on basis of reasonable evidence to believe that the UN arms embargo is being violated. In effect since 2016, resolution 2292 which has been extended second time (first time renewed as resolution 2473 in 2019) has been a complete failure in regards to implement an arms embargo. Since Libya has become an arena for proxy wars and power projections, foreign countries send in drones, sophisticated missile systems, armoured vehicles, and other military hardware and equipment, to support the military forces or parties they approve. UAE, Egypt, Russia, and France (not overtly) could be found supporting Tobruk based General Khalifa Haftar's LNA, on contrary Turkey being a staunch supporter of UN and EU backed GNA, backs forces of PM Fayez Al-Saraj. These arms and military hardware bought in by foreign countries are the sheer reason for the escalating conflict between Tobruk based LNA and Tripoli-based GNA.

Operations Sophia and Irini

The EU has been the primary entity to implement the UN arms embargo. In June 2015, 'EUNAVFFOR MED Operation Sophia' was put into effect as part of the European Union's comprehensive approach to migration. The primary objective of Operation Sophia was to inspect naval vessels and vehicles us by migrant smugglers and traffickers thus restricting and avert human trafficking and loss of human life at sea.[2] Secondary tasks/ objectives of Sophia were:

  1. Training Libyan Coastguards and Navy

  2. Enforce the UN arms embargo along high seas off the coast of Libya

On March 31, 2020, Operation Sophia was ceased and was called off completely. Following the Berlin Conference in January 2020, the decision was taken by high tables of the EU to implement the UN arms embargo allied with maritime, aerial, and satellite assets. As part of the new launch of CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) military operations for the Mediterranean, European Union renewed/revived Operation Sophia as Operation Irini.[3] "Irini' is a Greek word that stands for 'Peace'. The primary objective of this operation can be stated as to implement the UN arms embargo which has been extended since 2011, through various resolutions. Secondary tasks involve:

  1. Collect information and data regarding the illicit export of petroleum and crude oil from Libya

  2. Training Libyan Coastguards and Navy for law enforcement at seas

  3. Takedown the business model related to human trafficking and smuggling

The relevance of Operation Irini

Operation Irini has been excoriated on several grounds. In a phone call with Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, the office of GNA's Prime Minister, Fayez Al-Sarraj mentioned how Operation Irini would not be able to monitor the supply of arms to Khalifah Haftar since most of the military hardware imported by LNA is from land and air from UAE, Egypt, and Jordan, while Irini would monitor the routes only of the sea. The PMO added the point as well that 'comprehensive monitoring' must be carried out not only on the sea but also on land and water.[4] On the contrary, GNA seems to be more vulnerable because it imports military aid and hardware mostly through sea routes from Turkey.

Operation Irini came into effect with many intra-European arguments and negotiations. Austria and Hungary were worried about the 'pull factor'[5] on one hand while Malta Government seems to withdraw support from the operation if the question between rescue operations and disembarkment of refugees is not cleared. [6]

Rescue operations remain a grey area for Operation Irini. While its predecessor Sophia was clear on Rescue Operations, Irini does not mention clearly about rescue operations. According to Maritime Law, distressed vessels can be rescued, but if EUNAVFOR officials engage in a migrant’s rescue operation, the data and information of refugees (where they are disembarked to) will remain confidential. Thus, Libyan Coast Guards and Navy might not disclose the data of migrants and send them back to detention camps in Libya. This grey area of Operation Irini has raised scepticism around the pioneers of migrant rights and activists.[7]

The failure of the European Model of Conflict Resolution in Libya

The German Chancellery through the Berlin Conference, which took place on January 19, 2020, called upon the major foreign stakeholders of conflict in Libya and focused on the political solution from all sides. However, between January 1-March 31, UNSMIL recorded a meteoric rise in casualties i.e. 45 per cent rise in casualties when compared to the last quarter of 2019. This 45 per cent rise included 131 civilian casualties (deaths-64, injuries-67). [8] With foreign aid to military hardware increasing, Libyan conflict seems to get worse. Hence European Model of conflict resolution in Libya seems to be a complete failure.

Words of Stephanie Williams, the deputy special envoy of UN to Libya, 'UN arms embargo is a joke' at a conference in Munich in February 2020, where foreign ministers of all major stakeholders were called upon is indicative of the failure of EU as a sole entity to enforce UN arms embargo.[9]

A Litmus Test

As Tobias Pietz, the deputy head of the analysis division of Berlin-based Center for International Peace Operations, mentioned in one of his articles, although the renewed operation is named as 'Irini', Greek Goddess of Peace, it should be renamed as 'Eris' Greek God of Discord and Strife.[10] As mentioned earlier, Operation Irini has been under scepticism for its limitations of jurisdiction and grey areas when related to rescue operations for migrants. The success of this naval operation could be discussed by 2021 unless yet another incompetent resolution to enforce arms embargo is adopted/renewed or extended.

European activities down the south of Mediterranean would be the litmus test for western democracies that have not seen war at their soil since 1945. Europe seems to have diverged on the conflict going on in African country Libya. Till now, sanctions have not been imposed on any of the foreign players responsible for the conflict between LNA and GNA. It is quite evident that UAE the most aggressive intervenor, due to proximity with Washington would not be subject to sanctions or even criticism. On the same lines, the presence of Turkish soldiers and mercenaries in Tripoli would not result in pressure from Washington or even European giants due to Turkey's membership in NATO.

Josep Borrel, EU's top diplomat in a joint statement with foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Italy had urged all foreign forces to agree to a ceasefire and withdraw their military equipment, mercenaries, etc.[11] However, Russia, Turkey, or even Egypt now seem to be in a position to provide mediation between the two parties. Russia and Turkey were supposed to hold talks on Libya and Syria on Sunday, but the ministerial-level talks were postponed.[12] Egypt proposed a new ceasefire last week, following rapid victories by GNA.[13] Countries like Russia, Turkey, and Egypt signalling the political process for negotiations and talks can be a result of LNA losing ground in Libya. Forces of GNA had successfully driven out LNA from Tripoli, pushed LNA towards the strategic Eastern City of Sirte, and also capturing Juffra base in Central Libya. General Haftar's forces instead of aggressive backing from UAE, Russia, and Egypt are not able to hold the ground.


Certain ambivalence can be seen within International Order to bolster negotiations for peace in Libya. Presence of Turkish and Russian mercenaries in Libya, post-Berlin Conference and renewal of Operation Sophia as Irini is the depiction of growing questions on legitimacy and relevance of International and Regional organizations and institutions. On one hand, UN cannot be seen imposing sanctions on any foreign intervenor while on other hand Operation Irini is limited only to the seas, not monitoring routes in air and land, rendering it handicapped.

Although Germany has done commendable job through initiating Berlin Conference which directly or indirectly is responsible for further negotiations and talks on a ceasefire between parties in Libya, all efforts of German Chancellery have not been able to amplify a consolidated and unified action to provide a political solution to Libya.

If countries like Russia, Turkey or even Egypt are able to initiate peace negotiations, what will be the stand of western European giants on it would be a subject to debate. Even if these foreign intervenors initiate a process of mediation and peace, it would be again an embarrassment on part of United Nations and European Union who have been attempting to establish peace and harmony in Libya since 2011 and 2015 (since Operation Sophia) respectively.



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