On June 10 the commercial vessel CIRKIN was sailing across the Mediterranean towards the port of Misurata in northwestern Libya. CIRKIN was reportedly carrying military equipment for the Libyan army under the command of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and was being accompanied by three Turkish frigates. When forces from the European Council’s Operation IRINI approached the vessel for inspection, the Turkish convoy rejected the request and kept navigating as per their initial route.
The incident has prompted controversy among EU officials, as it raised concerns around the actual efficacy and enforcement capability of Operation IRINI.
What is Operation IRINI?
IRINI (Greek word for peace) is a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operation in the Mediterranean which was launched by the European Council in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference on Libya in late January 2020. It came out of the conference where steps to end the Libyan conflict were discussed.
The predominant mission of IRINI is to ensure that the UN-imposed arms embargo in Libya is being implemented. This is achieved through the utilization of Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) and inspections of suspicious vessels in the wider region off the Libyan coasts. Secondary tasks include monitoring illicit exports of petroleum products from Libya, building and training the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy and constraining the human smuggling and trafficking networks in the region. The operation officially started on March 31, 2020 and is set to be completed by March 31, 2021, subject to further extension.
The deployed assets of the mission are three aircraft, provided by Luxembourg, Poland and Germany respectively and one frigate provided by Greece. The aircraft are mostly utilized for surveillance, reconnaissance, search-and-rescue and transport missions. The Greek frigate HS SPETSAI is the most crucial deployed asset of IRINI; it carries a single Sikorsky S-70B Aegean Hawk helicopter, which alongside SPETSAI, was involved in the aforementioned June 10 incident. We should highlight here that the number and the operational capabilities of the deployed assets are far from adequate, considering the vast area of operations they are covering and the scope of IRINI’s overall mission.
The Worrisome June 10 Incident
In the early morning of June 10, the Tanzanian-flagged vessel CIRKIN was sailing across IRINI’s area of operations. CIRKIN is a RORO ( Roll-on/roll-off, ship that carries wheeled cargo and vehicles) cargo ship and had set sail from Turkey on June 7, with destination the Libyan port of Misurata. The commercial vessel has been escorted by three ships of the Turkish navy and since its departure it has raised the alarm for a potential violation of the Libyan arms embargo. IRINI officials were monitoring the route of the ship and sought to approach it for an inspection once it entered the area of responsibility of the EU mission.
On June 10, in coordination with the Italian Commander, based in Rome, the Sikorsky S-70B Aegean Hawk helicopter launched from HS SPETSAI and approached CIRKIN. The helicopter crew requested over the radio that CIRKIN cooperate and allow the IRINI personnel on-board for an inspection. However, the reply came from one of the accompanying Turkish frigates, informing the helicopter crew that CIRKIN would not be inspected and that the ship was under the protection of the Republic of Turkey.
Back in Rome, IRINI Headquarters were immediately made aware of the sequence of the events; the command of Operation IRINI ordered the personnel in the area to comply with the Turkish request and HS SPETSAI was directed to monitor the route of the Turkish ships, following the convoy from a safe distance. CIRKIN reached the port of Misurata by June 11. Having completed its mission, as of June 13, the vessel is currently sailing back to Turkey, with final destination at the port of Samsun in the Black Sea.
The Lukewarm EU and NATO Reaction
The incident has raised substantial concerns across the Operation IRINI officials. Even though it has gained wide publicity in Greece, there has been an attempt to downgrade its significance. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis held a video conference with President of the European Council Charles Michel and the European Commission Vice President -and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. Despite the fact that the Turkish provocations, and particularly the latest incident in the Mediterranean, would presumably be part of the agenda of the top officials to discussm there were no relevant statements following the meeting. To the contrary, the only issues that have been reportedly discussed, moved around the long-term financial goals of the EU and the Recovery Fund as a response to COVID-19.
At the same time there are ongoing talks as to how NATO could contribute to the capabilities of IRINI through NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian. Sea Guardian is a NATO naval operation in the Mediterranean, with a mission to “maintain maritime situational awareness, deter and counter terrorism and enhance capacity building.” There are no indications if these considerations are taking place due to the June 10 incident, however because of this event there is no doubt that the operational limitations and inefficiencies of IRINI were highlighted publicly.
What is Turkey Trying to Achieve?
Once again Turkey is using the typical power projection tactics, with which we are all familiar by now. Ankara has been always aware that an arms embargo is implemented in Libya, however Turkish military material never stopped being shipped to the Libyan shores in support of the GNA forces. In fact, this very Turkish participation, through the delivery of light and heavy weaponry, military vehicles and sophisticated drones, has eventually helped tip the balance of the conflict in favor of the GNA and its leader Fayez al-Serraj. Furthemore, this has been happening overtly all along as Turkey is openly bragging about these developments through its state media.
The latest incident was a direct incitement towards the EU; by ignoring the role and mission of Operation IRINI and by sending military equipment to Libya with a Turkish navy escort, Turkey is once again flexing its muscles in front of the EU. Yet here we are with most EU major players facing Ankara as an equal partner, stressing the essential Turkish role in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and providing financial aid to the country instead of seeking to push it into compliance with the EU instructions by threatening to impose sanctions.
A last point we should consider is that the incident took place a few days after the Greek HS SPETSAI joined the operation. For the first months of the Operation, the FS JEAN BART of the French Navy was deployed without any similar incident. Therefore, we can assume that Ankara chose the June 10 timing on purpose, in order to send another provocative message to Athens. As the tension in Libya keeps rising, so does the Turkish aggressiveness in the Mediterranean, prompting serious concerns among Greek leadership.