Monday

6th Apr 2020

Interview

Libya is test of EU geopolitics, ex-UN inspector says

  • Moncef Kartas left the UN panel in February after declining to renew his mandate (Photo: Moncef Kartas)

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Egyptian and Emirati air strikes.

Old warplanes and helicopters rebuilt with parts from former Soviet states smuggled in by Egypt and the UAE.

And legions of Toyota trucks, used to bear machine guns, brought in by sea by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

"That's the story of Libya today," according to Moncef Kartas, a former UN weapons inspector.

"One almost has the feeling that the conflict has been taken out of the hands of the Libyans," he added, referring to the level of foreign intervention.

Kartas, a Tunisian-German affiliate researcher at a Swiss academy, the Graduate Institute in Geneva, spoke to EUobserver shortly after ending his mandate with a UN "panel of experts" on Libya.

The panel has documented violations of a UN arms embargo that was imposed in 2011.

But when asked if the violations it reported were just the 'tip of the iceberg', Kartas said: "Yes. And we knew it".

"We can only report things we have sufficient evidence of. Weapons are flowing into Libya, but we don't have enough evidence to report on it. That doesn't mean the weapons aren't flowing," he said.

"There's absolutely no respect for the arms embargo. There's none," Kartas said.

The former UN expert spoke amid EU plans to revive a naval mission to curb Libya arms smuggling.

He also spoke after Turkey sent troops to Libya in January to fight for the UN-backed government of Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, in what Kartas said "completely changed the dynamic" of the war.

"Operation Sophia [the EU naval mission's old name] could make a very important contribution to intelligence gathering for the UN panel," Kartas said.

Sophia, in the past, gathered information on migrant and fuel smugglers.

But in the future, EU intelligence could be used for UN sanction designations of "individuals inside Libya who we identified as spoilers of the peace process", Kartas added.

And if EU navies interrupted even just some of the maritime smuggling to Libya, that would make a mark even if land and air smuggling routes stayed open, he said.

"Bringing armoured vehicles by plane, for instance, is extremely costly. To compensate for just one ship, you'd have to do hundreds and hundreds of flights," Kartas said.

Major powers' proxies

Violence escalated in Libya in April last year, when Khalifa Haftar, a foreign-backed warlord, launched an assault to overthrow al-Sarraj.

And there were one or two moments when Haftar's sponsors, Egypt and the UAE, and other foreign backers, including France and Russia, thought he might do it, Kartas noted.

But Turkey's intervention meant Haftar could now never win by force, Kartas said.

"Turkey's commitment means there'll be no military solution. Haftar won't make any more military progress and won't overthrow the government in Tripoli ... that's the message," Kartas said.

Ankara's move opened a new chapter in the Libya crisis, he said.

"It was already internationalised, now it's become Mediterranean-ised. It's become highly relevant for any countries for which the Mediterranean has strategic importance," Kartas said.

How the EU deals with Libya is the most "urgent" test of its joint foreign policy, the former UN inspector said.

But with Germany and most EU states backing the UN-led peace process, while France backed Haftar, the EU was "very divided" and was "struggling to forge a common policy", he added.

"France, it seems, unconditionally supports Haftar, which fundamentally contradicts the logic of the UN-led process," Kartas told EUobserver.

"The Turkish government clearly has a strategy for Libya, but at the moment they seem to be the only ones," he said.

Weapons come to light

The recent flare-up in fighting meant "a lot of the [military] material" that has been smuggled into Libya "became visible", Kartas added.

And what it showed was that five years of UN embargo violations meant "Haftar has, almost from scratch, been able to arm, train, and equip his forces, and somehow to finance all of that", Kartas said.

Looking back, he said the Libya conflict began with the "uncontrolled diffusion" of arsenals after the fall of Libya's late dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

"Until 2014, the UN's major concern was that weapons were flowing out of Libya," Kartas said.

"We saw a paramilitarisation of criminal groups, such as smuggler groups, which risked destabilising the region," he said.

"The infantry wagon of choice were Toyota trucks mounted with 14.5mm machine guns. The number of them you had became a status symbol," he noted.

But in 2015 and 2016 there was a "real shift" in arms flowing in the other direction - mainly to Haftar in Libya, Kartas said.

"The lack of respect for the arms embargo is nothing new," the former UN investigator said.

"But the scale and intensity of it has changed. The way it [arms smuggling] is being conducted, they're not even making any effort to cover it up any more," Kartas said.

EU set for new Libya naval mission

Foreign ministers reached a political agreement to create a new EU naval force to replace Operation Sophia. It aims to enforce an UN arms embargo on Libya and operate in area where migrants do not take boats.

Analysis

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While the European Union was too divided to help resolve Libya's civil war, Russia filled the gap. It managed to get the fighting parties to Moscow, but without result.

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