Malta courts Turkey in bid on migrant impasse with Libya

Malta unsettles EU in seeking Turkish hand to force Libyan government to control traffickers 

Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar and President Reccep Tayyip Erogdan
Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar and President Reccep Tayyip Erogdan

The Captain Morgan tourist ferry Europa II yesterday heeled and rocked in Force 6 winds from the Mistral: on board are 57 migrants rescued from a dinghy inside Malta’s search and rescue area by a government-chartered private vessel, the Dar El Salaam 1, and carried on the tourist ferry, which is now anchored at Hurd’s Bank on the high seas.

With ports shut in both Malta and Italy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maltese government yesterday kept the migrants outside its SAR in a bid to force the EU’s hand by refusing to take in the asylum seekers.

But overnight, Malta’s foreign strategy turned to Turkey, where its hard-line president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is actively supporting the Government of National Accord in Libya.

In a clear bid to end what government insiders are calling an “isolation from the EU on migration”, Malta has crossed over the Rubicon to reach out directly to Turkey, to influence the GNA to come down hard on traffickers.

But it also wants to force the EU’s hand, which is currently launching its naval operation Irini to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya, but which disproportionately affects the GNA, whose weapons are mostly supplied by Turkey by sea. 

The operation has little impact on the GNA’s rival, military commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army receives supplies by air and land across the Libya-Egypt border, as well as from the United Arab Emirates. These are harder to track, and impossible for Irini to intercept.

Malta’s rapprochement with Turkey will irk the European Commission and France, in particular, which supports Haftar, who currently controls Eastern Libya. 

“Malta faces a humanitarian crisis with the Central Mediterranean wide open for traffickers. Irini has replaced Operation Sophia and is not concerned with migrant rescues. So, Malta is courting Ankara in a bid to influence the GNA but also force Europe’s hand,” an insider said.

The first three months have seen a 400% increase in migrant arrivals in the Central Mediterranean but close to nil in the Eastern side of Libya, which is blockaded by EU vessels.

Operation Irini – Greek for “peace” – uses ships, aerial and satellite assets, to prevent arms entering Libya. But the operation is logistically coordinated by the Greek navy, which is itself inimical to Turkish military interests. 

On Friday, a request by the GNA’s coast guard to an Irini vessel to effect a migrant boat rescue was refused after the ship said this did not fall under its competence.

On Friday, Malta also announced that Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri had started informal talks with Turkish national defence minister Hulusu Akar, in a bid to build serious bridges with Turkey and ‘unsettle’ the EU’s big member states.

Malta imports over €300 million worth of goods from Turkey, and recently awarded a major roadworks project to a Turkish construction company.

“Malta will try to build on this goodwill to court the Turkish government’s favour: the Freeport is 50% owned by Yildirim, the Valletta Cruise Port plc is a subsidiary of Global Liman Isletmeleri, and there are around 500 Turkish-owned investments, even banks, in Malta,” a source said.

MaltaToday is also informed that the government could have actively encouraged law enforcement authorities to take action on the alleged breach of United Nations sanctions on Libya, by the arms dealer James Fenech, whose company Sovereign Charterers supplied rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIB) in Libya to a “very reputable and globally-known company operating in the UAE” in June 2019.

The suspicion is that the UAE company is a front to allow private military contractors access to Libya in support of Haftar’s forces.

Fenech, who denies the charges and is out on bail, insisted his company chartered the two vessels for companies in oil and gas. 

The police counterterrorism squad says the vessels were exported to Libya without the permission of the Maltese authorities, in case an emergency evacuation was required by the Emirati company.

Why EU’s Irini could help arm Haftar against GNA

The EU’s new Libya operation risks making matters worse for attempts to put diplomatic pressure on Khalifa Haftar’s backers for a ceasefire.

The EU could fuel more fighting and undermine Europe’s credibility as an honest broker, because the operation stops mainly weapons from Turkey to the GNA and not Haftar’s backers Egypt and the UAE. 

Egypt and the UAE have backed Haftar for many years, and more recently Russia has also provided him with support. Turkey only recently began backing the GNA with military assistance in exchange for a controversial maritime agreement that divides up much of the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Libya. 

And this has angered Greece, which is logistically running Operation Irini, because it cuts into its Exclusive Economic Zone around Crete.

Operation Irini replaces Operation Sophia, the maritime mission launched in 2015 to replace Operation Mare Nostrum, and to disrupt human trafficking from North Africa to Europe but also train Libya’s coastguard. 

Now Irini will only enforce the UN embargo, as well as police illicit exports of Libyan oil, curb human trafficking, and train the Libyan coast- guard. 

As usual, the EU is divided on these operations: right-wing governments in Austria and Hungary say European military vessels in the Mediterranean are a ‘pull factor’ by encouraging more migrants to try the dangerous crossing if there is a chance that they get rescued at sea. 

But while Irini’s focus is at sea, the operation has little impact on Haftar’s operations, who receives supplies by air and land across the Libya-Egypt border. These are harder to track, and impossible for Irini to intercept. 

So that means Irini could strengthen Haftar’s relative position. In fact, it could encourage him not to halt the siege of Tripoli or agree to a ceasefire. It also fails to put any pressure on Egypt or the UAE to restrain him at a time when the coronavirus pandemic spreads through Libya. 

If Irini weakens the GNA, it would indirectly make it possible for Haftar to overthrow an internationally-recognised government of the country. 

Further adding intrigue to the mix is that France supports Haftar because they see the strongman as a guarantee of stability in the region against terrorists. 

Turkey’s support of the GNA also has meant that Greece and Cyprus are turning towards Haftar, because their ultimate aim is to prevent Turkey from having influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

It is even questionable whether Haftar’s backing from Egypt and Russia makes him friendly to the EU. 

The GNA too has its flaws. But it is a UN-backed government and has recently said it would accept a truce.