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Italy’s New Approach to Libya

Dario Romano Fenili
Commentary, 24 August 2020
Libya, Europe
The updated approach to the Libyan civil war could help Italy regain the influence it once had in the Mediterranean, and the ceasefire announced last week could provide grounds for action.

On 21 August, the prime minister of Tripoli’s interim Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al-Sarraj, announced a ceasefire across the country and the cessation of all hostilities. Aguila Saleh, speaker of the rival Tobruk-based House of Representatives, backed the request. It is unlikely that the ceasefire will last long. However, it could be a unique opportunity for Italy, one of the EU countries most affected by Libyan developments, to relaunch its approach to the conflict and regain influence in the country.

Libya has always been a foreign policy priority for Italy. Between 2015 and 2016, Rome has been one of the main supporters of the UN process that led to the Skhirat agreement and the creation of the GNA. Italy has significant historical and strategic interests in Libya and Rome tried to stabilise the country by promoting a government of national unity. The Skhirat agreement was a major success for Italian foreign policy in the region. Rome, however, has not managed to successfully capitalise on its influence in the GNA, and it has lost ground to more active and dynamic players better prepared to take a leading role in the conflict.

Afraid of being seen as too close to Tripoli’s Islamist government or worried about backing the wrong horse, Italy has tried to establish connections with the increasingly powerful Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who is also backed by Russia, France, the UAE and Egypt. While formally backing the government of Al-Sarraj, Rome has officially recognised Haftar as a legitimate actor. However, this approach has been counterproductive as it has weakened relations with the GNA and failed to create significant links with Haftar. As a consequence, the GNA, looking for more reliable partners, has moved closer to Turkey. Ankara’s military support has enabled the GNA to launch Operation Peace Storm, which broke the siege of Tripoli and allowed GNA troops to take back control over territories lost during Haftar’s campaign. Simultaneously, Italy has been marginalised from the Libyan theatre.

A Fresh Look

However, Italy seems to have returned to a more dynamic approach to Libya. This is a result of four main reasons.

First, the balance of power on the ground has dramatically changed. Italy tried to establish connections with Haftar when the field marshal had the upper hand in the conflict. Rome wanted to hedge against the possible fall of the GNA, and therefore officially acknowledged the rival faction. Today, the tide has turned, and the GNA's troops are on the threshold of the Libyan oil crescent. Italy has shown its support for the GNA now that it is in the ascendancy and is actively assisting the interim government in demining the city’s districts.

Second, Italy’s new dynamism is a reaction to Turkey’s increasing influence in the civil war. In January, Turkey started to send troops to the country. Ankara has helped the GNA in a moment of need, when Haftar was in the outskirts of Tripoli, and Operation Peace Storm has been possible only thanks to its support. Turkey now has significant influence on the GNA, with which it has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Mediterranean maritime boundaries which is thought to allow Turkey greater access to the oil- and gas-rich waters off the Libyan coast. A number of countries have been highly critical of the MoU, which may jeopardise the position of the GNA in the international arena. Earlier this month, Greece and Egypt signed a maritime agreement in direct opposition to the Turkey–Libya MoU: if not an explicit backing of Haftar, Athens’ signing was a bitter blow for the GNA. Italy wants to rebuild strong relations with the GNA to limit Ankara’s influence in the country and to avoid the international marginalisation of the interim government in Tripoli.

Third, the flow of migrants and refugees on the Mediterranean is a crucial issue in Italian domestic politics. Every year, thousands of people arrive in Italy from the Libyan coast. In July, the Italian government renewed an immigration deal with the GNA, according to which Rome will continue funding the Libyan coast guard to control the departures. Italy wants to strengthen its relations with Tripoli to limit the flow of migrants and refugees from Libya.

Fourth, Rome wants to remove the blockade on oil fields that has been in place since January 2020. Oil imports from Libya cover a significant part of Italy’s energy demand, and Eni, the biggest Italian oil and gas company, has a lot at stake in the country. In 2019, Eni produced around 37-million barrels of oil and 10.6-billion cubic meters of gas in Libya. In January, militias close to Haftar shut down several onshore oil fields, an operation that has caused major disruption to Eni’s production. The oil fields were reopened in early June, but they were closed again a few days later. Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio has often stated that the reopening of the oil fields is a priority for Italy, and that Italian diplomacy will work towards this goal.

Italy, therefore, is highly motivated to regain influence in the Libyan crisis. In order to reacquire a prominent role, however, it should act immediately, before major developments overturn the situation once again. Clearly, Italy cannot provide Tripoli with the same support provided by Turkey. Moreover, a further military escalation would be against Italian interests. Rome wants a stable and unified country, and this could be a reasonable time to mediate between the parties and find a compromise. It is true that the GNA is incentivised to build up momentum on its recent victories, but it may not want to gain more territory than it has the capability to hold. Besides, although Haftar has never encouraged a compromise, the House of Representatives could have a different opinion: the different reaction to last week’s ceasefire perfectly highlights the frictions between Tobruk and the field marshal.

In this context, Italy should promote a comprehensive approach and take into consideration the regional dynamics of the conflict. The Eastern Mediterranean pipeline, a natural gas pipeline project between Greece, Cyprus and Israel that excludes Turkey, was one of the main reasons Ankara intervened to back the GNA and sign the MoU. Earlier this month, Turkey sent the Oruç Reis, a research vessel, in search of potentially rich oil and gas deposits in disputed waters off the Greek coast. France, which has always backed Haftar, seized the moment to officially state its support for Greece and openly criticise Turkey. Paris has also sent two Rafale fighter jets and the naval frigate Lafayette to the region.

Italy should help find a solution that covers all the intertwined issues in the area. In doing so, Rome should act with the EU, as past experience has shown how bilateral initiatives are doomed to fail. The High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, has stated on several occasions that he wants to pursue a more assertive EU foreign policy: the Libyan crisis could be the perfect occasion.

At the moment, there is a convergence between Italy, France and Germany’s interests in the country. Rome, Paris and Berlin all want to limit the international dimension of the conflict, contain migrants flows and reopen the oil fields. A unified coalition would definitely be better equipped for this task, but Europe should hurry. The window to act in Libya is not closed yet, but it could be soon.

Dario Romano Fenili is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science. He regularly writes for Orizzonti Politici, a think tank based in Milan, and he joined RUSI as an intern in July 2020.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, do not constitute legal advice and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Cipiota

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