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The Struggle for Libya: Italy's Balanced, Risky Path

Published 05 Mar 2019
Arturo Varvelli

he Palermo conference in mid-November seemed to have brought the UN back to the center of the Libyan crisis. Its greatest merit was that it set a clearer timetable for the various electoral deadlines. A few months later, however, we can say that this new promising phase has been followed by yet another disillusionment. Ghassam Salame, who leads the UNSMIL UN mission, has already had to postpone the National Conference (Al Multaqa Al Watani) that was scheduled for January / February 2019, while it has become clear that the issues that had not been addressed in Palermo are constantly being re-proposed, hindering a peaceful resolution. Eight years after the outbreak of the Libyan uprising, the basic political issues have not been resolved: the government of national unity (GNA) wanted by the United Nations remains extremely weak; the military aggression by Gen. Khalifa Haftar who seems to continually threaten the precarious political and military equilibrium; attempts to involve the militias in a more fruitful dialogue in an effort to bring them under the GNA seem to be unproductive; external interference continues, which includes violations of the arms embargo, and fundamental disagreements among the international actors interested in the country.

Haftar continuously puts the local actors and the international community in front of the facts. While discussing complex compromise formulas among the Libyan factions, the old general, with a good deal of boldness, declares himself available for dialogue but then speaks with the facts. The advance in southern Libya of his Libyan national army (LNA), an operation launched in January, seems to benefit from the support of a large part of the population in the region. In Sebha, the LNA has been able to reach agreements with various intermediaries of the Arab tribes of the city, as well as the Tuareg and Tebu. This allowed him to obtain key positions that were previously controlled by tribal fighters. With a similar audacity, Haftar has declared to have taken the area of Sharara and the El Feel field (Elephant), the most important fields of the Fezzan. In perspective, military action could improve security and stability in the south, helping to normalize oil production in this region. The production in Sharara has actually stopped for several months. However, the risks are many. Italian, French, Spanish and Russian energy companies are largely interested in these developments. The danger is not so much an unlikely “change of ownership” of these deposits, but rather possible military confrontations in the area that could end up blocking production or damaging infrastructures. More broadly (and politically), the LNA operation further marginalizes the role of the GNA in the south of the country and, by undermining the tribal equilibrium, runs the risk of sparking a war between the different components of the south, mainly among the Arabs and the Tebus. But Haftar seems to be strengthened more and more by becoming a champion of a future military reunification of the country.

With regard to the situation in Tripoli, the GNA is struggling to implement the security plans established in recent months, which also have the aim of putting an end to the power of the militia cartel that occupies key areas of the capital. The implementation of the “Security Plan 2019-One” has the actual task of bringing the wider area of Tripoli under a single command. The new Minister of the Interior, Fathi Bashaaga, intends to reorganize the administrative and operational structure by limiting inconsistencies and avoiding overlapping operational mandates by the multiple armed groups affiliated to the GNA. However, it is still unclear whether these measures will be able to bring greater security. It is likely that the Tripoli militias will continue to resist reforms, actively eluding the implementation of the plan and putting pressure on the most intransigent elements. At the same time, the militia groups in the peripheries of the city will continue to try to penetrate the capital. Entering it means being able to participate in the partition of the Libyan economy.It should be noted that Libya is a rentier state, or rather a state that bases its own income exclusively on the export of hydrocarbons. This aspect not only has an economic implication, but also has consequences on the social context, establishing a particular pact between those who govern and those who are governed. On the one hand, those who govern do not require the payment of taxes. On the other hand, however, it does not guarantee any representativeness. To simplify, who governs a rentier state must have both the stick, guaranteed by the control of the means of coercion (the monopoly of the use of force), and the carrot, represented by the redistribution of oil revenues. In today’s Libya the stick and the carrot are no longer managed by a single entity. Haftar, in his own way, is trying to reassemble the monopoly of the use of force. He more or less steadily controls most of Cyrenaica, and is trying to take control of the south and extend his network of influence even to Tripolitania. His not-too-secret goal is to enter the capital as the country’s savior, relying on the support of a population who is tired of chaos and warlords with a belly too full to fight. The General does not seem to receive funding from the authority of Tripoli but certainly enjoys the support of the Emirates, Russia and others. Much of the carrot, the proceeds, is instead still in the hands of the GNA and the economic institutions of Tripoli who are delegated to control resources. These, however, don’t have the ability to impose themselves on the militias and, as mentioned, are substantially subject to their constant blackmail. The carrot without the stick doesn’t work very well. Bashaaga, who is becoming more and more important as a counterweight to Haftar, is making the best of a bad situation on the latter’s work to the south. The interior minister of the GNA has in fact declared that the general plays a role at a national level and that these operations are positive if they allow Libya to maintain unity and to release Libya from local feuds. In this context of Haftar’s great preponderance, the UN plans struggle to impose themselves, and the action of Haftar in the south has united (at least on paper) the militias in Tripoli against him.

In this context, Italy must manage a complex phase of its relations with Libyan actors. Choosing to establish a clearer dialogue with General Haftar, after other international actors like Egypt, the Emirates, Russia, and especially France, had already developed a privileged relationship with him, the government of Rome now risks generating a loss of credibility both to the East, among those who support General Haftar, and to the West, among the members closest to Rome, who have interpreted the Italian openness as a weakness or a tacit admission of the impossibility of sustaining its own strategy of support for the President of the Presidential Council of the GNA, Fayez Serraj and the UN mission. Therefore, Italy is trying to keep a balanced position. The recent tensions with France do not seem to favor a framework of rapprochement among the most influential international actors that can facilitate a peaceful solution. France has a privileged relationship with Haftar, saving his life last year by urgently taking him to Paris. Furthermore, France’s military presence in the area is significant. At the beginning of February, for example, at the request of the Chadian government, the French air force bombed a Chadian rebel convoy in the north of Chad that was escaping from Libya. Macron has a seat on the UN Security Council with a veto power capable of blocking any resolution that may be unfavorable to French interests.

Italy is finding creative solutions to maintain its grip on Libya. The Italian government is evaluating to reactivate the bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation signed in 2008 by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Qaddafi. The agreement provided for the construction of a 1700 km coastal highway that stretched from the Tunisian border to the Egyptian one on the route of the Via Balbia, with a cost of 5 billion euros in 20 years. A first part of the highway could be built in Cyrenaica, under Haftar’s control. This decision, together with the forthcoming reopening of the Italian consulate in Benghazi, would constitute a further step towards Haftar.

The Libyan crisis appears to be more and more the manifestation of the crisis of the international order. The American retreat from the Middle East area has essentially given rise to the action of regional actors often in opposition of one another. Yet, even today, only the United States has the leadership capabilities to act as a mediator between the divergent interests of European actors, while also  having significant leverage on regional actors who have acted unilaterally, fueling the Libyan chaos. Bashaaga, having also noticed this, has appealed for a greater US political presence. However, with the exit of Gen. Jim Mattis, the only member of  the Trump administration who had shown interest in the Libyan case, cast doubts on the actual desire for US commitment in a crisis that they have always wished to keep at a distance, as shown by the Obama administration’s ambiguous “leading from behind” policy during the now distant 2011 intervention.

Arturo Varvelli, Co-Head of the ISPI MENA Department

Maria Mancinelli translated this article from the original Italian version

This Article was First Published by the Italian Institute for International Affairs, on the 28th of February 2019. This Article was republished with permission