The EU's Creative Power

As mediator in the Libyan war, Berlin failed in its ambition to enforce a ceasefire.

BERLIN/TRIPOLI (Own report) - German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has announced new German initiatives to end the war in Libya and declared that the EU's "Irini" military operation is an "example of the Union's political creative power." Germany has so far failed in all its efforts to achieve a ceasefire in that North African country. This is particularly significant since the German government assumed the role of mediator in the Libyan war in the eyes of world's public at its Berlin Libya Conference on January 19. Instead of laying down their arms, the Libyan belligerents have since escalated their combat. Following initial successes of the East Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar's militias, troops of the "Government of National Accord" (GNA) were finally able to achieve a military breakthrough and advance toward the strategically important areas of Sirte and al-Jufrah. Now, Egypt is threatening to intervene. Experts believe that, at best, Russia and Turkey would be able to enforce a ceasefire but not Berlin and the EU.

Offensives in the Libyan War

Following Berlin's Libya Conference on January 19, 2020, the war has continued unabated in Libya. Whereas East Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar's troops had initially been on the offensive, in early April, the militias of the Government of National Accord (GNA) - enjoying Turkey's support - succeeded in stopping their advance, forcing them to retreat, and taking, themselves, the offensive. According to the London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Ankara has now sent up to 15,000 Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya.[1] Turkey is also supporting the GNA forces with drones and Turkish naval operations off the Libyan coast. Tripoli's militias have almost reached the strategically important areas of Sirte and al-Jufrah. Sirte is considered the gateway to the oil installations at the east Libyan coast, which are still under the control of Haftar's units. Al-Jufrah has an airbase.

Egypt's Threat to Intervene

The situation has been escalating since last weekend. On the one hand, Egypt is now threatening to intervene. The country has an obvious interest in having Libya's east more or less stabilized, to prevent jihadis from crossing the Libyan-Egyptian border. So far Haftar has provided that stabilization. Cairo is also opposing the GNA because it cooperates with the Muslim Brotherhood, the domestic archenemy of Egypt's putsch generals. Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi threatened to send his troops to Libya, if the GNA militias enter Sirte and al-Jufrah.[2] This is a "declaration of war" according to Tripoli. On the other hand, it has repeatedly been reported that Russian fighter aircraft are stationed at the al-Jufrah airbase. It is difficult to expect that these would voluntarily make way for Libyan militias.[3]

Mediators: Russia and Turkey

Diplomatic solutions for the war are currently nowhere in sight. The German government, which had sought to present itself as a mediator in the conflict with its Berlin Libya Conference has, so far, completely failed. In the past two weeks, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been making a new attempt to explore possible initiatives in telephone and video discussions with Egypt's President el-Sisi, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - to no avail. Experts believe that, at best, Moscow and Ankara would be capable of making progress. Whereas Egypt and the United Arab Emirates - another major supporter of Haftar's troops - are "hostile to Turkey," i.e. of little use for negotiations, Russia and Turkey "can cooperate, even though they are on different sides" just as in Syria ( reported [4]), according to a recent analysis of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).[5] Even though it is unlikely that "a Russian-Turkish condominium ... could consolidate itself" in Libya, it is nevertheless "conceivable" that an agreement "on Sirte and Jufrah" between the two powers could end "major disputes between the Libyan parties."

EU: Lost Influence

SWP, however, sees Berlin's and the EU's perspectives of currently exercising any kind of influence in Libya as very negligible. For years, "Europeans" stood by and watched as "Libya’s war raged on and foreign intervention reached unprecedented levels," explains the think tank in an analysis. This "unwillingness to apply leverage" also marked German diplomacy.[6] In fact, Berlin had even systematically furnished arms to one of the parties to this war - the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Use of German weaponry in Libya has been documented. ( reported.[7]) After "Turkey and Russia filled the vacuum," the "Europeans lost credibility and influence," observes the SWP. This will now "limit their ability to mediate" or to prod the "GNA" in Tripoli into "taking urgently needed reforms."

Empty Words

In this situation, the German government is banking on the military - the EU's "Operation Irini," which has the task of monitoring at sea and in the air the UN's Libyan arms embargo. During his trip to Rome on Monday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited the Italian command headquarters from which "Irini" is being operated, and declared the operation "an example of the EU's political creative power."[8] If he is taken literally, his "creative power" leaves much to be desired. Officially, "Irini" needs at least five warships to be able to enforce the arms embargo in the Mediterranean. Until now, there is only a single Greek frigate at its disposal. According to reports, one of the three maritime reconnaissance planes, provided by the Bundeswehr, operating from its home base in Nordholz, at the coast of the North Sea, is apparently only of limited operational capability due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Its tour of duty ends in August, when the German Navy will dispatch a frigate off the Libyan coastline. Though Maas has scheduled "many more talks" this week, to deescalate the war, there are, of course, no results.

Operation to no Avail

In addition, it is completely unclear how "Operation Irini" is supposed to halt arms supplies to Libya's warring parties. The supplies to the Haftar troops are arriving either by air or overland via the Libyan-Egyptian border. "Irini" can watch, but not prevent them. Supplies from Turkey to Tripoli's troops are also carried out by air or via the Mediterranean. Recently the Greek frigate, the HS Spetsai, detected a ship on its way to Libya, suspected of transporting weapons. The Greek naval vessel's attempt to capture and inspect it was prevented by two Turkish warships accompanying the cargo ship.[9] If they should avoid military skirmishes with their NATO ally, Turkey, the EU operation is doomed to failure. It can, at best, be "used as a deterrent against illegal oil exports," benefiting Haftar's East Libyan troops, according to SWP, which is crucial "for preventing partition" of Libya.[10] Stopping arms shipments to Libya, would therefore only be possible through political channels. For this, on the other hand, Berlin and Brussels lack the clout.


See also our video column "Berlin: On Armed Alert".


[1] Edward Yeranian: Egypt Warns Forces Fighting for Libya's Tripoli Government to Stay Out of Sirte. 20.06.2020.

[2] Borzou Daragahi: 'A declaration of war': Egypt's threat to enter Libya conflict risks regional clash with Turkey. 22.06.2020.

[3] Jared Szuba: Intel: Russian-built aircraft actively using Libya's Jufra air base. 18.06.2020.

[4] See also The German-Russian Treasure and Die Berliner Libyen-Konferenz.

[5], [6] Wolfram Lacher: Libyens internationalisierter Bürgerkrieg. SWP-Aktuell Nr. 49. Berlin, Juni 2020.

[7] See also Arab Brothers in Arms.

[8] Johannes Leithäuser: Auf gute Normalität. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 23.06.2020.

[9] Turkish ship suspected of carrying arms to Libya spotted in central Med. 10.06.2020.

[10] Wolfram Lacher: Libyens internationalisierter Bürgerkrieg. SWP-Aktuell Nr. 49. Berlin, Juni 2020.