Surveying Italy’s Position in Libya post-2011
By Ferhat Polat
This policy outlook aims to analyse Italy’s approach towards Libya post- 2011. Rome ’s various interests in Libya are assessed and used to explain Italy’s policy in the country and its effect on the Libyan conflict.
Italy’s interests are varied, from dependency on Libyan oil and gas to migration, to security. Rome has always regarded Libya as a field of primary interest. Therefore, for Italy, a stable Libya is crucial to preserve these interests.
Can Italy lead the EU’s efforts in Libya?
The EU formally supports GNA led by Fayez Al Sarraj. Despite the EU’s stand, France has established strong ties with Haftar, which has undermined the EU’s influence in Libya.
Italy has addressed this issue on numerous occasions. For instance, in Janurary 2019, Matteo Salvini, former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, said that France “has no interest in stabilising the situation in Libya, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy”.
As a result, the EU has not been able to take a strong position on Libya or advance significant policies for de-escalation given France’s antithetical position to the majority of other European states.
For Fabian, “Italy has a key role in the Libyan crisis, but its resources and hard power are very limited, inevitably making it less incisive than other players. Rome has an active role in shaping the EU’s foreign policy on this issue but needs France’s collaboration to be truly effective. These two European powers are the most involved in this matter, along with Germany, and only by working together they can be effective vis-à-vis Egypt, the UAE, Russia and Turkey”.
According to Giuseppe Dentice, “Italy has the opportunity to lead a European strategy in Libya, working with its allies (also France), and promoting a more relevant role for the United Nations to in the conflict and develop a comprehensive solution for the country. For example, in the recent past, the conferences that took place in Palermo, Paris or Berlin, aimed to strengthen international support and mechanisms and to create a roadmap for relaunching the UN-sponsored stabilisation process for Libya. All these failed due to the lack of a coherent European strategy. Cooperation and multilateralism among EU members are fundamental to pursue a peaceful solution in Libya”.
Do Ankara and Rome share similar interests in Libya?
In the face of Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, the GNA requested help from the United States, Britain, Italy, Algeria and Turkey. In practical terms, it seems only Turkey has provided tangible support to the internationally-recognised government.
Ankara has stepped up its efforts to provide considerable military assistance to Haftar’s opponents, including armed drones and air defence systems, which have shifted the balance on the ground.
Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi di Maio, stated that Italy had been slow to respond to the attack on Tripoli launched last April by Haftar.
In December 2019, the Italian foreign minister said “in Libya, we have lost a role. We disappeared from Tripoli for eight months. They will have taken it badly. We must recover. I do not hide it, and we must do so with a concrete and more realistic approach to the situation on the ground”.
Fabian has a nuanced standpoint. For him, “Italy and Turkey can corporate, for example in relation to their support for the GNA and rejection of Haftar’s attempted military takeover of Tripoli. What divides them is Ankara’s willingness to use military force to oppose the Haftar-led coalition. However, if Turkey is ready to take concrete steps to de-escalate the conflict and facilitate a diplomatic solution, the two countries will be able to collaborate even more closely with each other than before”.
For Profazio, “In promoting a new and diversified approach to the crisis in Libya that can gain momentum from the current peace initiatives, Italy should also try to bridge the gap with Turkey, now an ineluctable actor in western Libya. Despite both governments having a clear interest in supporting the GNA, Italy’s oscillations have paved the way for Ankara to assume a predominant role in sustaining the authorities in Tripoli. Moving on from here depends on several factors, including Italy’s ability to heal the rift with Ankara, which is seen sometimes as competing with Italy’s economic interest in Libya. Nevertheless, providing a linkage between the crisis in Libya and the rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s intervention and MoU with the GNA late last year has made such effort much more complicated”.
As stated by Fasanotti, “the interests of Italy and Turkey are similar, especially at the economic level, so the collaboration between Turkey and Italy should be stimulated. Libya is a country with extraordinary potential, but which needs huge investments. Collaboration between investing countries would benefit everyone in this case. The first step towards economic collaboration lies precisely in a common strategy towards peace which is necessary to attract investments. Without political and social stability, there can be no economic development”.
Dentice shares a similar view. “Italy has important relations with Turkey, like with Greece, Cyprus and all the Mediterranean coastal countries. To bring peace and stability is important as well as dialogue and cooperation among them, Italy cannot choose an alliance or a multilateral partnership. Italy can help both parties to favour dialogue in order to de-escalate tensions, such as that are happening in the Eastern Mediterranean”.
The Turkish government helped the UN-backed government in a moment of need while Italy has largely failed to provide practical support for the GNA, despite their official position of support.
As a result, Turkey has become a more reliable ally for GNA against Haftar and his backers. Consequently, Italy seems to have been marginalised in the Libyan conflict.
If Rome cooperates with Ankara to support the GNA, it may increase its chance of taking a more leading role and regain some of its lost credibility in the Libyan theatre.
What are Italy’s future intentions?
Until now, it seems that Italy has not been able to implement a coherent political strategy to provide more tangible support for the GNA.
According to Federica Fasanotti, “In the near future, I see only tactical actions, certainly not strategic, regarding the usual problems: energy, migratory flows, terrorism. Besides, Italian foreign policy has never been particularly brilliant in the course of its contemporary history. There is a lack of coordination between ministries and between the different offices. There is no clear and well-defined guideline. Furthermore, in my opinion, it has been years since we have had a strong, visionary figure at the head of the Italian foreign ministry. The result is there for all to see”.
Given the circumstances in Libya, Italy might provide support to the GNA under a NATO flag and in close coordination with Turkey in order to confront Russian and France’s influence in the country. Considering geostrategic interests, the Italian government may not afford to be marginalised further from Libyan theatre.
Profazio argues that “the rivalry between France and Italy is partly to blame for Europe’s loss of credibility on the Libyan file. Germany’s diplomatic efforts came with con-siderable delay and the blatant violations of the arms embargo in Libya, confirmed by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, showed the complete disregard for the conclusions agreed by the participants to the Berlin conference. Considered as biased actors, France and Italy seem marginalised. While Macron’s frequent accusations against Turkey suggest an attempt to divert the attention from the failure of France’s policy of support to Haftar in Libya. Italy still has some room to manoeuvre thanks to its close contacts with the authorities in Tripoli. Building upon the recent ceasefire announced by the GNA, Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj and Aguilah Saleh, Italy should try to promote dialogue in the different forums, pending the incoming appointment of a new UN envoy to Libya that should coordinate the various initiatives taken so far”.
For Riccardo Fabian, “Its domestic constraints mean that Italy cannot commit significant resources to this crisis. In addition, over the past years, the emergence of the migration crisis (combined with the economic downturn) has meant that Italian governments have had an almost obsessive focus on this issue, at the expense of anything else to the point that in the past there have been times when the interior ministry has ended up dictating Italy’s policy towards Libya. These limitations mean that Rome remains a relatively ineffective actor in this crisis, compared with the other powers involved. The focus is unlikely to move away from its current stance of support for the GNA and for reviving diplomatic talks to put an end to the conflict. This position is in line with Italy’s interests and its traditionally legalistic approach to international conflicts”.
For his part, Dentice contends that “Italy needs a clear and harmonious strategy according to the evolving regional and international context. In this sense, a sensible step forward is the bolstering of the EU IRINI mission. It could be useful for Italy and its EU partners to enforce this mission with a clear political mandate. For example, Italy and the EU can promote a deep process to enforce the arms embargo, respect for human rights, and punishment for those who violate UN peace efforts. In this way, Italy and the EU can improve their leverage towards local partners and build a credible and effective policy to promote a comprehensive peace process”.
The latest ceasefire call seems to be a significant development in Libya and opens a window of opportunity for renewed efforts to reach a political agreement.
However, it is unlikely that the ceasefire will last long as Haftar’s militias reportedly continue to violate the truce by firing grad rockets at GNA forces in Sirte and the eastern oil crescent, where much of Libya’s oil infrastructure is located. Thus, the situation in Libya remains unstable.
Italy’s approach towards Libya has been mainly driven by three main issues which dominate relations between Tripoli and Rome: preventing the flow of migrants coming from Africa via Libya, securing its energy contracts, and preserving and widening its economic interests, particularly in western Libya. However, until now, Italy has undertaken an approach to Libya that would see it become a significant player able to protect its interests in the face of interventions from regional and international players.
Although Italy strongly supported the UN-led peace process that led to the creation of the GNA, there have been occasions when the Italian government seems to have tilted towards Haftar and has recognised him as a legitimate actor.
This policy has been ineffective and has weakened the relationship with the UN-backed government. With significant Turkish support, the UN-backed government in Tripoli has managed to fend off and claw back territory from Haftar’s LNA.
Italy has, therefore, come to see Turkey as a vital player within the Libyan arena. Turkey’s growing presence in western Libya might encourage the Italian government to strengthen its partnership with Turkey in order to secure Italy’s interests in western Libya.
Both countries seem to have a clear interest in supporting the GNA to bring permanent peace and stability. Given this, the collaboration between Ankara and Rome must be stimulated.
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.