Last Updated on Thursday, 27 April, 2023 at 11:35 am by Andre Camilleri
Recently, the High Representative Josep Borrell appointed his former Chief of Staff H.E. Pedro Serrano to an EU Ambassadorship. The appointment is quite telling. Mr. Serrano and I got to know each other through the nature of our work in Brussels. He was a managing director at the EEAS in charge of the crisis response operational coordination unit when I was appointed Ambassador to the Political and Security Committee. Afterwards, he was appointed Chef de Cabinet of Josep Borrell when the latter was chosen as High Representative to the EU back in 2019. They are both of Spanish origins and surely connected through their diplomatic circles.
My first encounter with H.E. Pedro Serrano was a few days after my PSC appointment. Mr. Serrano and I spoke over the phone about a text that needed some revisions. Back then, Italy was objecting to the interpretation of the disembarkation of migrants at its ports. It was in the run up of the 2018 Italian elections. Matteo Salvini was pushing a narrative that Operation Sophia was contributing to the increase in crossings and serving as a pull factor for additional migration flows. Such EU military operation was established as a consequence of the April 2015 Libya migrant shipwrecks. The primary tasks of the operation were to neutralise established refugee smuggling routes in the Mediterranean.
Recently, Prime Minster Georgia Meloni stated that Italy must work on breaking smugglers models and human trafficking routes. Certainly, I got the impression that Prime Minister Meloni might be touting the idea of revising Operation Irini’s defunct core mandates. Operation Irini was established in early 2020, and H.E. Serrano had a great role in the revision of the core mandates. The operation’s primary task is mainly to contribute to the implementation of the United Nations arms embargo in Libya. Au contraire, Operation Sophia’s primary task was to target and break smugglers routes operating in Libya.
With the current military and humanitarian crises unfolding in Sudan, and the ancillary conflicts emanating from food insecurity in the region, as well as the instability in the Sahel, we must rethink the mandate of Operation Irini. In my opinion, the mission is currently dysfunctional relative to its purpose, that of properly monitoring and implementing the established arms embargo. Nevertheless, my understanding is that the EU might be cooperating with NATO to gather additional intelligence on Russian military movements in the Mediterranean Sea through this mission.
Plainly, the reason why Operation Irini is dysfunctional is certainly because it has restricted powers and the inspection of vessels is limited. Evidently, the smuggling of arms is mostly happening through land and air. For instance, Egypt shares a border of more than 1,100km with Libya, and it is impossible to control the transfer of military weapons to the Libyan National Army. As I already stated in my preceding opinion pieces, the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, is operating in the Eastern side of Libya. Recent media reports indicated that the Wagner Group were granted full control of an airbase in Libya to be able to use it for the smuggling of arms. Indeed, a specific aircraft class known by NATO as Candid, flew back and forth from Khadim airbase in Libya to the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. Russia seems to have a major airbase in Latakia. In tandem, there is also a complex situation unfolding in the Fezzan region, where smugglers continually use the unsecured area to traffic military equipment to both sides in Tripoli and Benghazi, as well as to the civilian population.
Certainly, what is happening in Libya is not limited to just the Libyan territory, but it might risk a regional spill over. It is important to mention that the head of the Sudanese RSF paramilitary, Dagalo has been operating in the south of Libya for quite a long time. This means that if Dagalo manages to win the war in Sudan it would also seal a Russian win and strengthen Haftar’s position to entrench an internal political divide. Unquestionably, Haftar would be tempted to abandon the idea of the elections, because he would reposition himself stronger if his henchman wins the war in Sudan. Militarily, it might put Haftar and his allies on a stronger political trajectory to possibly rethink Tripoli.
Undoubtedly, it would also strengthen the position of the Wagner group in Sudan. Let’s not forget that the Wagner Group were given a concession to explore for gold in Sudan. The extraction of gold was used as a means to circumvent sanctions that were imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea back in 2014. Additionally, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the activity in gold exploration and extraction plummeted. Not to mention that if China and Russia are trying to create a basket of commodities using their reserves, as backing for their money, gold is an important variable in the equation if they are to create their own system to counter the dollar.
Undoubtedly, Operation Irini has become irrelevant to the enforcement of arms embargo. Its raison d’etre is slowly fading to irrelevance because the focus of the area of transfers of military weapons is now further to the south, sandwiched between the north of Sudan and the southern part of Libya. Operation Irini cannot control the Russians other than monitoring their movement because they have supplementary air capabilities to transfer weapons from Syria, with the luxury of choosing between two airbases. Besides, I am sure that Operation Irini is not using UAVs to monitor the land movements, as they are too costly in a dire situation of budgetary constraints.
However, it saddens me to learn that EUBAM Libya has been dormant and paralysed for a while. The EU must support the Libyan authorities through its civilian operation, too. EUBAM Libya is crucial to work with Libyan authorities in developing border management and security not just on land but also at sea and air borders. Back in 2021, I was pushing for EUBAM Libya to establish its presence towards the south of Tripoli. The idea was primarily to cover the areas, whereby different armed groups were stepping it up, including the militants known as Janjaweed who gave birth to the RSF the paramilitary under the control of Dagalo also known as Hemedti. The Janjaweed militants have been operating in the south of Libya for a long time now, largely serving as allies of Haftar. They were also used as mercenaries in his extended offensive on Tripoli in 2019.
Sadly, the EU made the Ukrainian war its own and this is leaving the southern Mediterranean exposed because the focus is entirely on Ukraine. Lastly, I truly hope that the Sudanese war does not become another protracted war, and a proxy one that would induce additional instability in the region.
And now you cannot ahem instruct civil servants to close my private email account!