Italy and the Libyan quagmire

Posted on May 21, 2017



Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Serraj meet in Brussels in June 2017. © Palazzo Chigi

The toppling of the Gaddafi regime dealt a serious blow to Italy’s then-unchallenged position as Libya’s most important economic partner. The somewhat rash interventionism of France and Britain left a domestically weak Berlusconi government struggling to quickly find a clear strategy on how to best deal with what was virtually a fait accompli by London and Paris. As the first American, British, and French strikes hit government targets in Libya, Italy found itself having to wear a rather uncomfortable interventionist hat in order to maintain its position of influence in the North African country. Indeed, it was only after considerable pressure from the U.S., France, and the UK that Italy finally agreed to carry out bombing raids, despite fears that this might resuscitate anti-Italian feelings in Libya, where resentment over Italy’s colonial legacy was still simmering.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s foreign policy was tangibly more assertive than that of his post-Berlusconi predecessors and the foreign ministry slowly but surely reinstated Italy’s position as an important player in Libya.

Despite numerous attempts by General Khalifa Haftar to woe Italy into supporting his bid for supremacy in Libya by playing the anti-Islamist card (especially after ISIS entered the fray) Italy has consistently thrown all of its political support behind the UN-backed Presidency Council in Tripoli. For a few months in early 2016, then-foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni went as far as to declare that the Italian government was ready to intervene militarily in order to stabilise Libya should the Tripoli government formally request it.

With the recent defeat of ISIS in Sirte, negotiations involving the competing players in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica are now the priority. However, the fragmented nature of the current playing field is clearly problematic, especially considering that there appears to be little incentive for some factions to engage in serious talks geared towards a new political settlement. Government of National Accord (GNA) head Fayez al-Serraj has jokingly been described as the ‘mayor of Tripoli’ and lacks the muscle to convince rival players in the east of the country to lay down their arms and submit to the UN-backed GNA’s control.

The power struggle in Libya is not only played in terms of east and west. Indeed, the fall of Qaddafi left a dangerous power vacuum in the southern tribal region of Fezzan, which has remained largely out of the spotlight but is the highway through which arms and migrants are smuggled into Libya. Thus, in the context of the so-called EU migration crisis, Italy has an interest in Fezzan being once again under the effective control of a central government. On March 31, the Italian government announced that secret talks had been held in Rome involving Fezzan’s tribal leaders and resulting in an agreement aimed at securing Libya’s porous southern border in order to limit migrant smuggling. 

As the guarantor of this deal, Italy may have managed to strengthen its role as the foremost Western stakeholder in Libya, but the fact that the UN-backed NGA was unable to mediate such a deal is possibly a symptom of just how little control al-Serraj can exert outside of the immediate hinterland of Tripoli.

France, the UK, and the U.S. have all withdrawn from the Libyan quagmire and there are no signs that they will make a substantial return in the short and medium -term. On the other hand, Egypt remains the only other regional power with a stake in the Libyan conflict. Cooperation between Cairo and Rome could prove to be an effective remedy to the ongoing political impasse, but tensions remain high between the two countries following the killing of an Italian Ph.D student in Egypt – allegedly by Egyptian state security.



Sarkozy and Cameron after addressing a crowd in Tripoli, 15 September 2011. Both countries have disengaged from the Libyan quagmire. © Number 10

On May 2, al-Serraj and General Haftar met in Abu Dhabi for the first time in over a year and reportedly agreed – albeit unofficially – to reconstitute the UN-backed Presidency Council (PC) by reducing the member of PC members from nine to three, handing the role of chief of the armed forces to Haftar himself.  

There were no public statements confirming the authenticity of the aforementioned agreement and, in any case, there are no signs that the conditions are right for the various pieces to fall into place. First of all, Haftar must recognise the GNA as the legitimate government of Libya, but it is unlikely that he would do so in the absence of clearly advantageous conditions. Haftar is in a relatively strong position in the east of the country: he can field an efficient fighting force while relying on Egyptian, Russian, and Turkish backing; recognising the legitimacy of the GNA and a temporary position as chief of the army might not be enough to entice him to join the UN-backed government.

Italy is now virtually the only Western power still involved in Libya and the only major foreign player that still backs the UN-sponsored government as it was conceived in December 2015’s political agreement that spawned the Tripoli-based GNA. Italy should continue to support the GNA while also encouraging dialogue between Haftar and al-Serraj. Because neither is able to defeat the other militarily, a political settlement is the only possible solution; both are aware of this. I argue that Italy and Egypt must resume diplomatic cooperation in order for them to jointly sponsor further talks between Haftar and al-Serraj. Italy needs to sponsor talks where it can continue to be a strong advocate for an outcome in line with the UN-sponsored political agreement of 2015. As a strong voice for a UN-sponsored route is needed in order to ensure that a new agreement provides for a reasonable power-sharing arrangement that can be last in the long-term. ISIS was defeated in Sirte, but the longer instability is allowed to fester in Libya, the more fertile the ground for a comeback.