European Union foreign and defense ministers will meet late Monday in Luxembourg to discuss a plan to send security personnel to Tripoli to help train police and border guards for Libya’s new U.N.-endorsed unity government.
The security mission will only go ahead if requested by the Libyan Government of National Accord. Its first phase is to be restricted just to the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
“The EU stands ready to offer security sector support in response to possible Government of National Accord requests,” says an early draft statement prepared by diplomats for the Luxembourg meeting.
There is a growing urgency for Libya to be stabilized, with anxiety mounting that people-smugglers will exploit the chaos in the country and as many as 270,000 migrants may seek to travel across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy this year. That would prompt a new phase in a migration crisis roiling Europe.
Western fears are rising also about the expansion of an affiliate of the Islamic State terror group in Libya. U.S. officials told VOA they estimate the affiliate now has 6,000 fighters, mainly Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans.
The Libyan government has not given the green-light for the security mission. The country’s putative Prime Minister Fayez Seraj will speak to ministers during a video conference, but he has been reluctant to approve the security mission, fearing it will compound opposition to his government.
Domestic foes argue the so-called unity government lacks legitimacy and has been foisted on the country by foreign powers.
Separate from the security mission, European ministers have been discussing whether to deploy a larger military stabilization force in Libya.
In March, U.S. ambassador to Italy John Philips told an Italian newspaper that Italy could send up to 5,000 troops as part of a broader European force.
“We need to make Tripoli safe and ensure that ISIS is no longer free to strike,” Phillips said.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi quickly shot down Philips’ remarks, saying conditions were not in place for an EU military intervention in what was once an Italian colony.
Last week, in London, British Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Crispin Blunt, accused Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond of failing to be “straightforward” about plans for the possible deployment of up to a thousand British troops. Hammond denied Britain is preparing such a deployment.
“The only reason for having the Government of National Accord installed in Tripoli is to have legitimacy to intervene in Libya, that is the only reason why the GNA is there,” says Olivier Guitta, managing director at GlobalStrat, a security and Geopolitical risk consultancy.
“The British, the French, the Americans, they all have special forces in Libya already. They want to increase them and have a much bigger operation.”
He adds, “Since November IS’s numbers in Libya have probably tripled. And there is evidence that IS is getting involved in the people-smuggling trade and forcing groups of asylum-seekers or migrant families to pay for their trips across the Mediterranean by agreeing to enroll a relative or a member of the group in IS. Potentially you could have 10,000 or 15,000 IS members very quickly that way.”
Both the more limited security mission, and a broader military intervention, appear to be dependent on the Government of National Accord being able to establish itself. Failure to do so, reduces the likelihood that European governments will agree among themselves to act. A key concern is mission creep and of European troops being drawn into wider conflicts with other armed groups and militias aside from the Islamic State.
“The progress the GNA makes in establishing its authority,” and succeeding in replacing two rival governments in Libya that have been in a standoff since 2014, will be “a crucial factor in how we proceed,” says a Brussels-based European diplomat.
But the GNA’s prospects took a turn for the worse at the weekend as heavy gunfire erupted in Tripoli amid clashes in three separate parts of the Libyan capital between militias supportive of the unity government and those opposed to it.
One militia leader warned in a phone conversation with VOA the clashes are just the beginning of a push against the unity government and its supporters. “We will not allow the GNA to move forward. We want elections and not a government imposed on us by the international community,” he said. He asked for his name not to be disclosed in this article.
Western officials are hoping war fatigue, the allure of foreign aid and development money, and the growing threat of IS in the chaotic North African country will help to build momentum for the unity government.
The rival governments the unity government is meant replace appear ready to concede to the unity government.
In another promising sign, several mainly Islamist militias who have been controlling Tripoli since 2014 either announced their neutrality or agreed to support the new government, but the weekend clashes have upended the early hope it will face no violent obstruction.