Wednesday, April 27, 2016

US Warships May Join EU in Patrolling Waters off Libya
Meeting of G5 proposes EU and Nato work together off Libyan coast to shut down networks smuggling refugees from Africa

Patrick Wintour in Hanover
Guardian
Monday 25 April 2016 18.55 EDT

American warships may join European Union vessels off the coast of Libya by the summer in a Nato-led attempt to slow the flow of refugees from Africa into Europe, it emerged at a meeting of the G5 world leaders in Hanover.

Until now, the EU, through Operation Sophia, has been entirely responsible for policing the international waters off Libya and Nato has been patrolling the much narrower Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.

Officials at the G5 meeting said it was now being proposed that the EU and Nato work together off Libya sharing intelligence and assets to close down the smugglers’ networks. EU leaders, especially Italian ministers, are deeply concerned by a potential surge in the number of refugees reaching Europe from Africa, even though there has not yet been a spike in the figures this year.

The wider Libya mission is likely to be approved by alliance leaders at a Warsaw summit on 7 July, according to the Italian defence minister, Roberta Pinotti.

“At the Nato level, we have asked for Operation Active Endeavour to be recalibrated from an anti-terrorist operation in the eastern Mediterranean to one which oversees the Libyan coast,” said Pinotti.

Asked if she expected a green light at the Warsaw summit, Pinotti said: “Yes, certainly for the coordination of missions in the Mediterranean. At this summit, the proposal should become an effective decision.”

In a statement after the meeting, Downing Street said David Cameron “made the case for seeking to work with the new Libyan government to build the capacity of the Libyan coastguard to help stem the flow of illegal migration across the Mediterranean into Europe”.

Operation Sophia, stretchingfrom the territorial waters of Greece, south of Crete, to the Egyptian coast, is limited to gathering intelligence on smugglers’ networks and helping vessels in distress. The expansion of Nato’s role would be a further sign of US president Barack Obama’s recognition that the migration crisis is destabilising European politics and, as a result, US interests.

More than 350,000 migrants from all over the world have reached Italy on boats from Libya since the start of 2014.

It was being stressed that, in the short term, no naval blockade against Libyan refugees would be possible in Libyan sovereign waters unless and until there was a request from the Libyan government, and possibly a UN security council resolution.

The new UN-recognised Libyan government, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, is struggling to gain political authority after years of civil war. It cannot be seen to be too dependent on the west and is not keen to accede to western demands such as allowing Nato warships interdicting vessels off the coast of Libya.

The Italian media reported that the Libyan government was likely first to ask for western help on Libyan soil to be focused on protecting Libyan oilfields from attacks by Islamic State fighters. The intervention could be seen as an effort to protect Libyan resources from fighters in Islamic State.

At the relatively brief G5 meeting, Cameron and Obama were joined by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and the French president, Fran├žois Hollande.

For historical and geographical reasons, Italy has been leading the coordination of a force capable of operating off the Libyan coast and also on land to help train a Libyan national army. Nato is now likely to take over some of this planning including the building of reception centres for Africans who have been turned back from Europe.

Richard Lindsey, head of security policy at the Foreign Office, recently admitted to parliament that Operation Sophia had been working to date without a significant partner in Libya. He said: “If that changes, it changes the whole dynamic of what Operation Sophia can achieve. There has been to date a gap in our comprehensive strategy and that has been in Libya.”

Obama briefed the four EU leaders on his plan to send a further 250 special forces to help train Kurdish forces mainly in the north of Syria.

He said: “They are not going to be leading the fight on the ground but they will be essential in providing the training and assisting local forces as they continue to drive Isil [Islamic State] back.”

Obama sent 50 US special operations forces to Syria last year in what officials described as a counter-terrorism mission rather than an effort to tip the scales in the war. He said: “These terrorists will learn the same lessons that others before them have, which is: your hatred is no match for our nations, united in defence of our way of life.”

The insertion of further US troops is hardly a counter balance to the large-scale Russian and Iranian presence in Syria and does not represent a total abandonment of a negotiated settlement. Talks in Geneva broke down last week over breaches of the cessation of hostilities and Obama again said he was pressing the Syrian regime’s chief ally, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to reinstate the ceasefire.

Obama’s use of the word reinstate is taken as a clear sign that the White House believes the ceasefire has all but disintegrated; regime and rebel bombardments claimed 26 lives on Sunday.

Eight weeks into the declared truce between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and non-jihadi rebels, violence has escalated around Aleppo, with dozens of people killed by government airstrikes and rebel rockets.

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