A historic ally of the Tripoli Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Rome has changed its strategy and opened up to “all the players involved”, including rebel leader Khalifa Haftar.
At the time of Covid-19, diplomacy often plays out through people in white coats. Thus, on 18 May, in the midst of the health crisis, a plane carrying a dozen Libyan doctors landed in Italy. Was it an attempt to relaunch cooperation between Tripoli and Rome?
A few days earlier, Ahmed Miitig, vice-president of the Presidential Council of the GNA, told the daily La Repubblica: “Italy no longer knows what it wants in Libya, it no longer has a strategy.”
Official statements reiterating the country’s support for the GNA in the previous months clearly did not convince the Libyan official, who continued “At the end of 2019, when Khalifa Haftar was taking over the capital, Italy did not support us politically.”
Indeed, the former colonial power seems today to display a certain ambiguity on the Libyan scene.
On 29 April 2019, a few weeks after Haftar’s launch of the military operation on Tripoli, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, on an official visit to China, declared “not to support either Serraj or Haftar, but the Libyan people”.
Although a historical ally of Tripoli, Italy recognised Haftar’s political role at the end of 2018 and at the Palermo Conference. At the time, it was still trying to promote “dialogue” by presenting itself as a possible mediator between the two parties.
And in January 2020, there was the diplomatic incident: Serraj had to travel to Rome to meet Giuseppe Conte. But the head of the GNA canceled his visit when he learned that Contel has just had a meeting with Haftar, dressed in civilian clothes, like a head of state.
It was a fiasco that made the headlines and irritated Tripoli. Around the same time, Italy’s foreign minister shook hands with President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Cairo, one of the Haftar’s main allies.
Towards a common European agenda?
Launched by the European Union in March 2020 after the Berlin Conference with the aim of “enforcing the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations on Libya”, the Irini military mission, led by Italian Fabio Agostini, has not changed the situation on the ground: ships monitor the coasts, but planes carrying arms and mercenaries as well as land borders escape surveillance.
But according to Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institut Prospective et Sécurité en Europe, “a common European agenda is being set up. After the diplomatic failures of Palermo and Berlin and the military intervention of other international powers (notably Turkey and the United Arab Emirates), the lesson has been learned. This is one of the elements that was missing in Syria.”
While an intra-European divide between the so-called “frugal” states of the north and the “spendthrift” of southern Europe is widening, “we are finally seeing a policy of convergence between Italy, France, Germany, Spain and even Greece, in Libya as well as in the eastern Mediterranean,” he continued.
According to this specialist, there is a rapprochement between the French and Italian positions, former “rivals” not only on the Libyan issue but also in the eastern Mediterranean and the Sahel.
During the visit of Jean-Yves Le Drian to Rome in early June 2020, the Libyan crisis was discussed. On the Italian side, it is deputy minister of foreign affairs Emanuela del Re who is in charge of this issue. “Italy and its EU partners are now looking at both sides,” said Dupuy.
Immigration and oil
With a “national cartel government officially supported by the EU but de facto increasingly isolated”, Italy’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the Haftar camp is “the result of fears of a possible change of government in Libya and a possible renegotiation of the agreements between the two countries,” wrote analyst Mattia Giampaolo in a report entitled “Relations between Italy and Libya: risks and interests” published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
The stability of Libya has a direct impact on Italy’s domestics policies, which is now being played out on the issue of migration.
According to Oxfam’s latest report on Italian funding for Libya, the bilateral agreements signed three years ago and renewed in 2020 with the aim of “combating illegal migration and human trafficking and strengthening the borders between the Libyan and Italian states” have brought the GNA about 50m euros per year. In exchange, the “Libyan Coast Guard” tries to control departures.
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As the only Western country that has not closed its embassy in Tripoli, the Italian government keeps an eye on the GNA for two main reasons: its military hospital in Misrata, where 300 Italian soldiers are currently operating on medical missions, and above all the Mellitah gas complex, located near Zwara and managed by the Italian oil company Eni.
It is a site of key importance: 10 billion cubic metres of natural gas transit every year via the 520km-long Greenstream submarine pipeline to Gela, Sicily.
Despite the drop in production, Libyan gas and oil still provide 10% of Italy’s energy needs. And Haftar’s advance has directly threatened these strategic assets.
Italian diplomacy is trying to defuse tensions by opting for an “avant-garde opening” towards “all the actors involved”, as Prime Minister Conte stated.
But has the recent change in the balance of power on the ground – since Turkey’s intervention in support of the GNA, Haftar has had to abandon several cities – reshuffled the cards? Yes, according to Dupuy. For him, the common solution could involve the legitimisation of “new interlocutors”, while Haftar and Serraj are increasingly criticised.
Among the names that are beginning to circulate are those of the president of the Tobruk parliament, Aguila Salah Issa, who was hosted by the Italian parliament on 14 July, the current Minister of the Interior of Tripoli, Fathi Bachagha, and the president of the National Oil Corporation, Mustafa Sanalla.