By Ibrahim Ahmed
France and Italy have had differences over how changes should be brought in Libya in the post-Moammar Gaddafi era.
But those differences have become public in recent months, raising concerns among some analysts that the ongoing tension between the two sides would derail the more important task of fighting IS-linked militants in the country.
The Islamic State (IS) terror group, which had been severely weakened and deprived of its main stronghold of Sirte in 2016 with the help of U.S. airstrikes, is making a comeback in parts of the country, according to local media reports.
“I think [the French-Italian dispute] will continue to make Libyans disagree amongst each other and this disagreement will open the way for the terror groups like Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State), al-Qaida, local groups and other fanatics we have here in Libya to gain the momentum again,” Moustafa Fetouri, a Tripoli-based analyst, told VOA.
“We saw this manifest itself in the attacks on the (Libyan) National Oil Company, where I happened to be just minutes before the attack,” Fetouri added.
The Islamic State group in Libya claimed responsibility for this month’s suicide attack on the heavily guarded headquarters of the Libyan National Oil Company in the capital, Tripoli, which killed two employees and injured several others.
The terror group also claimed responsibility for the May attack against the headquarters of the Libyan Election Commission in Tripoli, which killed at least a dozen people and injured many more.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said he believes the ongoing tensions between Italy and France over Libya could potentially undermine Europe’s counterterrorism efforts in Libya at a critical time.
“It’s possible that this clash [French-Italian] will lead to more disparate European counterterrorism policies toward Libya,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
“In the past, there was a relatively unified EU [European Union] front on Libya, even if some EU members would privately grumble about the thrust of these policies,” he added.
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, said he believes that the differences between France and Italy, both NATO member states, have roots in the France-led NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, which led to the creation of a no-fly zone and eventual ouster of Gaddafi from power.
“There is a strong belief in the Italian establishment that France hijacked Libya from Italy,” Mezran said. “France was very quick in deciding to go and bomb Gaddafi and dragging everybody else along. The Italians perceived it as a slap in the face,” he added.
Both countries have taken their dispute to media in recent months, with Italian Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta publicly criticizing France over its actions in Libya.
“It is clearly now undeniable that this country [Libya] finds itself in this situation because someone in 2011 put their own interests ahead of those of the Libyan people and of Europe itself,” Trenta was quoted as saying by AFP earlier this month.
She was apparently making a reference to then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who rallied other NATO member countries to intervene in Libya. France has not officially reacted to Trenta’s remarks, but the country has criticized Italy over its approach in Libya.
In May, French President Emmanuel Macron disregarded Italy when he invited Libyan factions to Paris, where they agreed on a French proposal for holding elections in December, a proposition that Italy disagrees with, citing that it is not the right time to hold elections in the country.
Differences over what needs be done in Libya has been a constant issue between France and Italy. Right after Macron took power in 2017, a senior French official, speaking to the Reuters news agency, expressed frustration with Italian diplomacy in Libya and charged that Italy had been wrong to back a Misrata-based militia.
“We can’t say anything to (the) Italians, because they think this is their subject,” the official said. “The Italians won’t be happy, but we will need to get them in the loop at the end.”
Ministries of foreign affairs of both Italy and France did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment for this story.
Sphere of influence
Some analysts believe that at the heart of the Italy-France row over Libya lies in the geopolitical interests of Italy, because Libya was once an Italian colony and the country considers the region within its sphere of influence.
“I think the part where that worries Italy at this point is France’s move to exert influence on the Libyan situation without Italy’s approval,” said Matthew Bey, a senior global analyst with Stratfor, a Texas-based think tank.
“For example, when French President Emmanuel Macron held the Libya conference in May … Italy was not happy about being left out of that conversation, or not consulted as much as they wanted to,” Bey said.
One point of contention between the two NATO allies is their disagreement over the timing of holding elections in Libya.
Agnes von der Muhll, a spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters last week that France supports efforts to hold elections this year.
“France will continue with its partners to support the efforts of the Libyan authorities … to ensure the continuation of the political process and, in particular, the conditions for holding elections by the end of the year,” von der Muhll said.
Meanwhile, Italy is rejecting the Dec. 10 elections deadline in Libya and is planning on organizing its own conference on the country.
“In agreement with U.S. President (Donald) Trump, I’m going to organize a conference on Libya,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters at the White House in July, after meeting the U.S. leader.
Conte made an effort to show that Trump supported his move, but the U.S. has not yet officially made any comment on the issue.
Some analysts also suggest Italy and France have conflicting interests in Libya, with the former more focused on preventing the flow of migrants from Libya and the latter more interested in counterterrorism efforts.
“Instead of having the entire Libyan factions united behind the idea of fighting terror, we’ll see kind of conflicting interests, not on the fact that terrorism has to be fought at any level, but in the fact of how to fight it,” Tripoli-based analyst Fetouri said.