As the tiny island nation lies in the middle of a popular migration route, Maltese interests lie in ensuring a stable Libya capable of securing its borders.
In a recent visit to Libya, Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, met his Maltese counterpart, Evarist Bartolo, alongside Libya’s Head of the Presidential Council, Fayez al Sarraj.
The trio discussed the latest developments in the country and the various ways to set the stage for a political solution to the war in Libya.
In the past few months, Turkey and Malta have ramped up their cooperation in order to bring stability to Libya and help stop the flow of migrants from the country making the risky journey across the Mediterranean.
Malta’s minister for Home Affairs, Law Enforcement, and National Security, Byron Camilleri, has described the Mediterranean as one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. He called for a solution to the circumstances that were forcing people in the area to leave.
In this regard, Turkey has confirmed that it will provide concrete and effective assistance to Malta. The Maltese government has long complained that the EU does not give enough support to the country on the issue of migration, as many people who are fleeing Libya end up in the nation’s search and rescue zone.
Failure of the EU’s Operation IRINI
Malta, Turkey, and the UN-backed Libyan government have issued a joint statement expressing reservations about the European Union's Operation, IRINI, one that is ostensibly tasked with the implementation of the UN arms embargo in Libya, but has failed to calm the situation in the country.
There are several reasons why the IRINI operation has not been effective.
Firstly, the EU has been unable to take a strong position on Libya or advance significant policies for de-escalation because of divisions among member states.
For instance, Malta withdrew from the mission in May 2020 after reaching its own agreement with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) on the prevention of the flow of irregular migration towards Malta.
Second, the operation has been limited to stopping the flow of weapons to Libya. Since there were already so many arms at the start, combined with the fact that Libya’s coastline is over 1,700 km, such a mission is difficult to carry out effectively.
Third, launching a mission with a focus on enforcing the UN arms embargo around Libya has not prevented the transfer of arms to the country, as various others have provided significant military assistance to warlord Haftar’s LNA militias by air, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which reportedly used Saudi and Egyptian airspaces.
Malta has, therefore, come to see Turkey as a key stabilising player within the Libyan arena.
Turning the tide
With Turkish support, the internationally recognised government in Tripoli has managed to fend off and claw back territory from the warlord who is backed by the UAE, Russia, and France.
Nevertheless, both Turkey and Malta have repeatedly stressed their support for the UN-backed government and the idea that there is no military solution to the conflict in Libya.
Recent UN-backed victories shifted the balance of power and prompted recalculations among Haftar’s backers.
The UN-backed GNA is determined to liberate Sirte and the Jufra military base which are considered a useful launchpad for attacks on Misrata. Both Sirte and al Jufra have been used by Haftar’s foreign supporters as operational hubs.
Additionally, Sirte is a strategic city that could enable UN-backed government forces to take control of the Libyan coastline from the capital in the west to Benghazi in the east.
Financially, Sirte is a gateway to much of Libya's vast energy reserves. Controlling Sirte could allow the GNA to project power towards the oil crescent, which is a lucrative strip of oil exports terminals.
Alarmed by this reversal, Moscow seems determined to increase its effort to prop up Haftar’s LNA in Sirte and Jufra.
Not long ago, reportedly Russia deployed fourteen fighter jets to Libya, and in the weeks that followed, a number of flights were seen flying between Syria and Benghazi and suspected to be transporting Syrian mercenaries recruited by Wagner, a private paramilitary contractor from Russia.
They were sent to help Haftar’s militias seize Libya’s largest oil field. Russian cargo planes have additionally been flying constantly between a Russian air base in Syria and Libya. Haftar’s backers, which include Egypt, the UAE and Russia, have stated that the Sirte and Jufra front is a red line that cannot be crossed.
Turkey and Russia seem to be involved in behind-the-scenes initiatives and talks to bring about a ceasefire.
However, for the GNA, both Sirte and al Jufra are crucial as political tools, and taking them would help them return to the negotiating table from a position of strength. The military situation will remain unsettled so long as Haftar’s militias are in Sirte and retain control of economically significant oil fields.
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