EU draws up options for boots on the ground in Libya
EU officials have drawn up plans to deploy European military observers to Libya if a cease-fire takes hold there — a potentially high-risk mission reflecting a drive by foreign policy chief Josep Borrell for the bloc to play a more active role beyond its borders.
A draft 10-page document prepared by the EU’s foreign policy arm and obtained by POLITICO sets out a range of options to bolster a cease-fire in the volatile North African country — from offering advice to a Libyan-led effort through to deploying a fully fledged EU Miltary and Observation Mission, complete with land and air elements.
The document even mentions the possibility of a military mission that would have the power to conduct its own operations in Libya, with up to two EU brigades comprising between 5,000 and 10,000 personnel in total. But the document says this option has been “excluded at this stage,” noting “the political and physical risks” of such an operation would be “far-reaching.”
However, some of the other options discussed in the paper would also carry major risks for the EU as a whole and for any personnel deployed to a country that has been riven by civil war for years.
“The threat level for EU military presence in Libya is assessed as very high,” says the draft, prepared by the European External Action Service (EEAS). “This is especially true for an EU Force positioning itself between the parties to the conflict. Due to the support provided by third states and proxies, the amount of military equipment available to both parties is significant.”
One of the most prominent outside actors in Libya is Turkey, which has intervened heavily on the side of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), further increasing Anakara’s influence in regions bordering the European Union. EU leaders are due to discuss relations with Turkey during a two-day summit in Brussels starting on Thursday.
“Turkey’s military build-up and, increasingly, direct involvement in the fighting is being matched by Russia, with the deployment of fighter jets,” the draft EU document also notes.
Borrell used a shorter version of the draft, reduced to around four pages and classified as “sensitive,” at an informal meeting of EU defense ministers in Berlin late last month to explain possible options in Libya, according to two diplomats.
No one responded when the former Spanish foreign minister raised the prospect of a mission, according to two people familiar with the meeting. But some ministers later told Borrell the plans were “crazy” and should be dropped while others said the right conditions were not yet in place, according to diplomats.
The prospects of a durable cease-fire being established in Libya any time soon look highly uncertain. The two main sides are currently observing a shaky truce, but it has yet to be converted into anything more permanent. And a United Nations Security Council mandate for any observation mission also faces considerable obstacles — including possible opposition from veto-wielding Russia.
But Borrell has held up the idea of greater EU involvement in Libya as a sign that the bloc is now more willing to follow up on words with concrete actions.
“If there is a cease-fire in Libya, then the EU must be prepared to help implement and monitor this cease-fire — possibly also with soldiers, for example as part of an EU mission,” he told German magazine Spiegel in January.
In a paragraph on the “strategic effect of EU engagement,” the document stressed that an aim of greater EU involvement would be to “reinforce EU credibility as a security actor in the Southern neighborhood.”
Libya has for years been torn by a civil war between the U.N.-backed, Tripoli-based GNA led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the rebel General Khalifa Haftar, the strongman of the east and leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
EU countries have pursued diverging interests in the country. Italy, the former colonial power, supports al-Sarraj whereas Paris has been accused of giving support to Haftar. Germany attempted to get key players on the same page by organizing a conference in Berlin in January that committed all the parties to respecting a U.N resolution on an arms embargo and a cease-fire.
Since the Berlin conference, however, “the landscape in Libya has changed markedly, with the balance of power shifting in favor of the GNA and its ally Turkey” and Russia also becoming more involved, the EEAS document says.
The document outlines three main options for the EU in the event of a durable cease-fire — supporting a Libyan-led mission, contributing to a U.N-led cease-fire monitoring mechanism or establishing an EU monitoring mission. Both of the latter two options would take place under a mandate from the U.N Security Council.
The first option foreseees that talks among Libyan factions “crystalize into a formal agreement on a Libyan led ceasefire monitoring mechanism” and that the EU would provide some help by changing the mandate of its civilian mission in the country, EUBAM. The mission would “advise the Libyan parties on their approach” to monitoring the cease-fire.
A second option is a U.N.-led “ceasefire monitoring mechanism.” The document then explores various ways to implement this option. That could include contributions in the form of money, personnel and expertise. This would make the EU presence more visible but the document notes the EU would have “no control over the action.”
Another way to support a U.N.-led effort would be to strengthen the mandate of Operation IRINI, the EU naval and aerial mission charged with policing a U.N. arms embargo in the central Mediterranean. The mission’s mandate could “be amended to support the ceasefire monitoring through aerial surveillance over Libya,” the document says.
The third option is the establishment of a standalone EU Miltary and Observation Mission. It would follow U.N. rules of engagement and it would need, among other things, a clear exit strategy to avoid ending up in quagmire, the text makes clear.
Such a mission would need to use Libyan airspace and require “full force generation by EU member states” to produce a mix of intelligence, surveillance and military observer assets. It would need “force protection for EU installations.” It would also hold many risks, including “an asymmetric threat from independent militias and terrorist groups, which may lead to casualties.”
Asked to comment on the document, an EEAS spokesperson said “we do not provide any comments on factual or alleged internal documents and various drafts.”
However, the spokesperson pointed to remarks from Borrell following a meeting with EU foreign ministers earlier this month.
“Whatever has to be done to monitor the cease-fire in Libya has to be done under the United Nations framework,” Borrell said. “We are ready to participate in the implementation and the control of the arms embargo and this has a political and or diplomatic side and it has a military [side for] intervention on the ground.”