Bellona, the sister of Mars, was the Roman goddess of war. In one of her rare incarnations she materialized in an unlikely place: Brussels. Born in 1973 in Rome (of course), she is also known as Federica Mogherini, de facto Foreign Minister of the European Union. Since the days of Silvio Berlusconi, the world has become accustomed to seeing pretty and young Italian lady ministers. When Prime Minister Matteo Renzi presented in 2014  his good looking Foreign Minister Mogherini to succeed the somewhat bland British Dame Catherine Ashton as Europe's equivalent of a Secretary of State, some regretted Ashton's departure.

   Hardly anyone would have expected Italy's new Vice President of the European Commission to shake the foundations of the Union. In proposing a European military engagement in North Africa against criminal gangs sending thousands of refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe, Mogherini is trying to lead the Union into the first war of its history, labeled EUNAVFOR Med.

   In some ways, Europe's proposed war against the human traffickers would be a replay of America's Barbary Wars between 1801 and 1815 when the U.S. navy, for the first time in overseas action, shelled the ports of Algeria, Tunisia and Tripolis (Libya) whose rulers had tried to extort payments from American commercial vessels passing through the Mediterranean.

   In those days, the Maghreb countries were nominally under the souzerainty of the Ottoman empire but were in practice ruled by pirate emirs who captured ships and sold their passengers as slaves. After the U.S. intervention, the French were also forced to intervene and, to introduce law and order, ended up taking Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as colonies. In 1911, Italy colonized Libya.

   Nowadays, Algeria and Tunisia manage to maintain their post-colonial statehood, although both are weakened by periodic insurrections and revolts. Libya, liberated after World War II, maintained statehood during the years of the Idrisi monarchy and Ghaddafi's dictatorship but fell apart as soon as the central power ceased to exert pressure. Cynics would say: it returned to its natural state of anarchy.

   Mogherini's plan envisages maritime and aerial action to destroy the smugglers' boats before they are loaded and start sailing. Boats which are already sailing are to be intercepted and passenger to be returned to the shore they came from. This action involves the creation of some pied a terre on the Libyan shore.  No matter how limited these European bridgeheads would be, they will constitute a violation of Libyan sovereignty and could provoke military reaction by whatever government or local tribe feels responsible and attacked.

   Of course, Mogherini's plans are heavily criticized. She is suspected of  breathing neo-colonialism and imperialism. In view of Libya being full of armaments, including the modern and heavy weaponry from Ghaddafi's arsenal, defense by local militias and the powerful smuggler clans could lead to losses of European personnel and equipment.  Also, the European intervention could serve as an argument favoring further expansion of the radical IS forces which already control small parts of the Libyan coast.

   At present, Libya sports two governments -- an official one in Tobruk and an Islamist one in Tripolis, supported by Turkey and Qatar -- plus a variety of autonomous militias. Tobruk seems to agree to Mogherini's plan, Tripolis is violently against it.

   In order to launch military action, most probably coordinated by Italy with headquarters in Rome-Centocelle, Mogherini is presenting the scheme to the United Nations, seeking the support of the Security Council which she is likely to obtain.

   Since Europe is risk-averse and afraid of heavy collateral losses among migrants and European personnel, Mogherini's chances of getting her plan approved can currently be estimated at fifty-fifty. However, some new development might change the situation.

   On 17 May, the BBC in its 5 live Investigates program;, interviewed a somewhat shady Libyan weapons dealer by the name of Abdul Basit Haroun, said to be an adviser to the Tobruk government. He reiterated what Tobruk had  said before: that the human smugglers are in cahoots with the Islamic State chapter in Libya, trying to smuggle among the migrants terrorists to Europe .

   Haroun provided some details. He said he had spoken to smugglers active in IS dominated ports.  In order to be allowed to operate their business, the smugglers had to yield half of their profit to the IS, and to include IS staff among their passengers. The European operation Frontex which mainly works to keep refugees out, had already sounded alarm that the IS could use the migration business to send potential terrorists to Europe.

   If Haroun's story is credible, Italy should be highly concerned. The right-wing Northern League party and even Berlusconi's close friend Daniela Santanchè urged to bomb the boats instead of admitting the migrants. Any proof of terrorists having been allowed to enter Italy could turn the tables against Europe's current efforts to save migrants.

   Wars, once started, tend to develop their own and unexpected dynamics. Mogherini's war could well develop into a direct confrontation with the IS. Also, the Tripolis based Fajr Libya Islamists are, according to other sources, actively pursuing the human traficking business in a profit sharing collaboration with the smugglers as a major source of revenue which they are going to defend, counting on Turkey's assistance.

   However, there are signs that the smuggling business is already reacting to Italy's hardline attitude. Libyans know Italy from the colonial days, and vice versa. One of Mogherini's most convincing arguments is the narrative that Italy's secret services already have detailed knowledge about all actors on the Libyan coast, as well as those in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Thousands of Italians were working in Libya during the Ghaddafi years; many Libyans have been educated and trained in Italy; thousands of successful migrants have been interviewed by the Italian services and have spoken freely, thinking (often erroneously) their oppressors would be powerless in Europe.

   Also, the migrants themselves are reacting to the strengthening of Frontex and other means to defend Europe. Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Egyptians seem aware that the period of relatively easy crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa could be over, and are shifting to Turkey where some Greek islands are close enough to be visible on the horizon. In recent weeks, arrivals from Turkey have multiplied and Greek coastguards are overwhelmed, treating migrants badly, trying to return them to Turkey.

   With the political refugee problem moving toward Greece and Bulgaria, the migrants waiting on the North African coast -- half a million, according to an estimate by the United Nations -- will be dominated by sub-Saharan Africans. With the exception of Eritreans and Sudanese, most of these migrants are economic rather than political refugees and would not be eligible for asylum in Europe. They will be at the center of military operations if Mogherini's plan is approved and implemented.

Ihsan al-Tawil

Update

(Wikileaks press release, 25-5-15)

"EU plan for military intervention against "refugee boats" in Libya and the Mediterranean

Today, WikiLeaks is releasing two classified EU documents, outlining the planned military intervention against boats travelling from Libya to Italy. The more significant of the two documents was written by the combined military defence chiefs of the EU member states. The plan was formally approved by representatives from all 28 countries on 18 May 2015.

The documents lay out a military operation against cross-Mediterranean refugee transport networks and infrastructure. It details plans to conduct military operations to destroy boats used for transporting migrants and refugees in Libyan territory, thereby preventing them from reaching Europe. The EU member states' military chiefs advice is that there is a need to:

"[draw] on the full range of surveillance, intelligence and information capabilities available to MS [member states] and Partners, and supported by Brussels (inter alia EEAS [European External Action Service] Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity – SIAC)".

The plan also acknowledges the possibility of EU military use of force against groups such as ISIL "within the Libyan sovereign area":

"the threat to the force should be acknowledged, especially during activities such as boarding and when operating on land or in proximity to an unsecured coastline, or during interaction with non-seaworthy vessels. The potential presence of hostile forces, extremists or terrorists such as Da'esh [ISIL] should also be taken into consideration".

The documents mark a departure from previous EU military strategy in its overt targeting of civilian infrastructure in Libya. Numerous EU countries, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom participated in NATO-led air strikes on Libya in 2011."

 

Update II

 

The UN Security Council approved the resolution authorizing the European Union against the people smugglers in the international waters outside Libya.

Il Consiglio di Sicurezza dell'Onu ha approvato la risoluzione per autorizzare l'operazione dell'Unione europea contro i trafficanti di migranti e rifugiati nelle acque internazionali al largo della Libia.  (9 Oct 2015)