French ATL 2 maritime patrol aircraft is operating in Mediterranean Sea

As of May 2022, Operation IRINI (or EUNAVFOR MED IRINI) has been in effect in the Mediterranean Sea for just over two years, having been initiated on March 31st, 2020. The operation has attracted international criticism, and nations around the Mediterranean Sea are divided over whether it should continue. But what is Operation IRINI? What are its aims? And are they achievable?

Background

In 2011, the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, inspiring revolutions in many Arab-majority nations, and Libya was no exception. Diverse factions arose to oppose Muammar Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule, and the first of two bloody civil wars began. Before long, governments of other nations started supplying weapons to their favored factions, inflaming the situation further. In response, the UN announced an arms embargo still in force today.

The First Libyan Civil War ended in the same year, giving way to an uneasy peace. However, tensions remained high, with sporadic fighting continuing until 2014, when the violence escalated and the Second Libyan Civil War was officially declared. As the crisis continued, a refugee crisis began to grow, human trafficking and fuel smuggling became rife, and it was apparent that the arms embargo was having largely no effect.

By 2020, the crisis was having a significant impact on the EU, with waves of refugees exploited by human traffickers crossing the Mediterranean Sea. As the war continued with no end in sight, EU leaders met to discuss solutions. On March 31st, 2020, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EU Commission, announced a new initiative, known as EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, or Operation IRINI.

Operation IRINI’s Aims and Resources

Operation IRINI was announced as a “CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) crisis management operation in the Mediterranean Sea” and given the key goal of enforcing the UN arms embargo with the hope of bringing the long-running conflict to an end. Secondary tasks were to be:

  • Prevention of fuel smuggling
  • Building capacity for the Libyan coast guard and providing training ;
  • Supporting the battle against human trafficking networks.

These goals were to be achieved using a combination of naval and aerial military assets from EU nations, including France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland and Portugal, with varying degrees of contribution from each. This would include frigates, submarines, long-range surveillance aircraft, small patrol vessels and light aircraft.

Operation IRINI was only one aspect of a more integrated EU approach, including other EU civilian support missions.

France : one of the main actors

Although seven nations were providing the resources for Operation IRINI, the bulk of the commitment fell to Italy, Greece and France. The current task force includes three frigates, one each from Italy (ITS Grecale), Greece (HS Themistokles) and France (FS Blaison). French MPA regularly provides air support to the operation.

The French government has retained a keen interest in Operation IRINI, with two members of the National Defence and Armed Forces Commission of the French Parliament visiting the IRINI Joint Operation Centre in Roma in December 2021. The Rear Admiral Stefano Turchetto in charge of Operation IRINI was quoted at that time as saying that France was the “backbone of the operation, protecting the European interests, providing deterrence and at the same time promoting stability and security in the Mediterranean Basin”.

On May 2022, the Commander-in-chief of French Forces in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, Vice Admiral Gilles Boidevezi, visited the Headquarters to share with the Operation Commander their view and perspectives on several topics including Security Challenges and new Maritime Scenarios for the region. France reinforced also its leading position on staff level, holding the position of Deputy Operation Commander (currently Rear Admiral J.de Muizon).

Results

Since the beginning of operation, EUNAVFOR MED IRINI has monitored more than 800 suspected flights, 25 airports and 16 ports. 280 friendly approaches have been conducted and 22 boarding executed with one ship diversion.

Furthermore, 36 special reports to the UN panel of experts on Libya have been provided. Thanks to all his efforts, arms smuggling was clearly slowed down in Libya.

Criticism

Operation IRINI has not been without its critics by countries sharing different interests and points of view on Libyan conflict. The government of Malta pulled out of the operation in May 2020, complaining that not enough was being done to help with the country’s immigration problem. Russia and Turkey also raised concerns, claiming that the operation was not neutral and was, in fact, supporting factions in Libya seen as friendly to the EU.

Conclusion

If Operation IRINI seems to be a success in terms of its mission goals, Human trafficking remains a problem in the Mediterranean Sea, although not at its peak levels seen in 2020. It’s probable that the reduction in arms smuggling helped to end the Second Libyan Civil War, although the security environment in the country remains volatile. Unfortunately, the support for the Libyan Coast Guard has been terminated due to hostility from Libyan authorities towards Operation IRINI’s mandate.

For now, EUNAVFOR MED IRINI continues its mission of peace in the Mediterranean Sea.

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