Turkey the key to unlocking NATO help for EU naval operation

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European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks during an online news conference following a video conference of European Foreign and Defense Ministers meeting at the Europa building in Brussels, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. The ministers are discussing the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean, which is helping to enforce a UN arms embargo on Libya, as well as how to keep the bloc's security operations functioning in spite of the impact of the coronavirus. (Olivier Hoslet/Pool Photo via AP)

BRUSSELS – Turkey is hindering European Union attempts to secure NATO’s help for the bloc's naval operation in the Mediterranean as its tries to enforce a U.N. arms embargo on conflict-torn Libya, according to diplomats and officials in Brussels.

The operation — dubbed Irini, the Greek word for “peace” — was launched on April 1. The European Council said it has as “its core task the implementation of the U.N. arms embargo through the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets.”

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But Turkey, a NATO member whose efforts to join the EU have stalled, suspects that Irini focuses too much on the internationally recognized Libyan administration in Tripoli and not enough on rival forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter, who launched an offensive in April 2019 to capture the capital.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a NATO-backed uprising toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since been split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and different foreign governments.

Hifter is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The government in Tripoli led by Fayez Sarraj is backed by Turkey, which sent troops and mercenaries to protect the capital in January, as well as Italy and Qatar.

On Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the bloc and NATO “are discussing how to establish a new arrangement of cooperation – not participation – cooperation between Operation Irini and NATO, once again in our shared interest.”

“I hope that this cooperation agreement can be set up on the next days,” said Borrell, who is set to take part in a video conference with NATO defense ministers on Thursday.

But two NATO diplomats raised doubts about whether Turkey would let such an arrangement happen, and because the 30-nation military alliance operates on the basis of unanimity, NATO’s support cannot be guaranteed. The diplomats’ job descriptions do not allow them to speak on the record about in-house deliberations.

Asked Wednesday what the response might be, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said "we are looking into possible support, possible cooperation, but no decision has been taken. There is dialogue, contacts, addressing that as we speak.” He noted that NATO did provide support to the EU's previous naval operation, which had a different mandate to Irini.

So far, Turkey does not seem to be entirely helpful to the EU operation, and a recent incident highlights the limitations of Irini, which only has two ships and three planes and needs more.

Borrell said that Irini personnel tried to make contact last week with a “suspicious” Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship that was being escorted by two Turkish warships. He said the ship refused to respond, but its Turkish escorts said the cargo was medical equipment bound for Libya.

He said the personnel contacted the Turkish and Tanzanian authorities to try to verify the information, and they also informed the United Nations. Borrell added that had Irini received no reply from any of the ships, it could have taken other action. He refused to elaborate.

“It is only in the cases in which the ship is not answering that we can take another kind of activities, we can do something more,” Borrell said. “We cannot do anything more than to transmit this information to the United Nations. It is the United Nations who gathers this information in order to control the implementation of the arms embargo.”

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