Federica Saini Fasanotti and Anas El Gomati
The recent turmoil in Sudan, involving Haftar, further complicates the situation and the potential for increased migration to Europe through Libya, could position Haftar to play a role in ending the conflict, or reduce potential migration from Eastern Libya of Sudanese refugees.
However, Haftar’s influence over the conflict remains limited, and he is overshadowed by the role and power of his foreign allies whom he remains dependent on at home and is thus unable to coerce an end to the conflict.
The key players in Sudan’s war, the UAE and Russia’s Wagner Group, supply weapons and training to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) from military bases they control in Haftar’s Eastern Libyan territory, whilst Haftar has delivered intelligence and fuel supplies to the RSF.
Despite Haftar’s involvement in the Sudanese war, his heavy reliance on the UAE and Russia’s Wagner Group to secure territory in Libya against his rivals, which they in turn use to intervene in Sudan, significantly undermines his ability to play a role in ending a conflict that could result in a rise in migration, as it remains a key transit and source of migration travelling across the Mediterranean.
Haftar’s role in the Sudanese civil war is primarily focused on facilitating Russia and the UAE through his territory in Libya.
One might expect that this position would provide him with leverage over his foreign backers, yet his lack of political legitimacy when compared with that of the Tripoli-based internationally recognized Government of National Unity (GNU) prevents him from ever formally requesting his backers’ to withdrawal from Libya as it would choke a critical supply line for the war in Sudan. Moreover, Haftar lacks the necessary military strength to coerce his foreign allies into leaving Libya and prevent them from utilizing their military bases in the country to exert influence in Sudan.
Haftar depends on his powerful backers for military support, diplomatic protection, and financing in order to reach his ultimate goal: the seizure of political power in Libya, which he often seeks to obtain through coup’s and power grabs.
He may exploit his strongman image to suggest he can stop migration flows from the source and leverage Italy’s impending migration crisis to obtain diplomatic rehabilitation and political support from high level meetings in Rome. However, due to his limited political power and military control, he lacks the ability to stop his backers’ involvement in the civil war in Sudan.
As a result, the root causes of the conflict, which have led to a significant increase in displacement numbers exceeding one million people and the potential migration from Sudan, including through his smuggling network in Libya, remain unresolved.
Recent developments have revealed that Haftar’s forces were involved in clashes with smugglers and staged a mass deportation of Egyptian workers and migrants. In a highly orchestrated display of power, approximately 4.000 migrants were left to cross on foot to Egypt on the Eastern border, demonstrating Haftar’s purported commitment toward reducing migration from Eastern Libya to Europe.
However, this spectacle serves as a mere show, since Haftar has not actually left the smuggling business. On the contrary, the LNA has consolidated its control over the smuggling network by requesting smugglers to operate in Benghazi under their control, eliminating any rivals and redirecting migrants who had paid rivals to get them to the Egyptian border.
Meanwhile, migrants and refugees who pay the LNA continue to arrive from Damascus, to Benghazi and on to Europe.
Today, even if the LNA were to cease their involvement in the network of human trafficking in Cyrenaica, unlikely given the financial returns, and new political leverage, departures at best would merely shift to the network of smugglers in Western Libya responsible for the other 40% of arrivals to Italy, leaving Italy grappling with an ongoing migration crisis from a different portion of the shoreline.
Consequently, the meeting with Haftar primarily grants him leverage to extract political concessions, but it does not provide a reliable or long-term guarantee for resolving Italy’s migration objectives.
How should Italy navigate Libya’s complexities
Considering these predicaments, it becomes evident that Italy’s engagement of Haftar offers little tangible reward and opens significant strategic risks. To effectively address these risks, Prime Minister Meloni should reassess Italy’s approach in navigating the complexities of Libya and their implications across crucial policy objectives.
While Italy’s inclusive engagement with all parties in Libya is commendable, it is vital to acknowledge that Haftar’s LNA are not a regular military, nor a single entity within the Libyan conflict, but rather an informal network of armed groups.
This distinction is significant because the LNA operates under the influence and control of external backers, which hinders their ability to engage productively in bilateral security discussions with the international community or gain legitimacy among the Libyan public.
The LNA requires urgent structural reform to turn it from an informal network of militias, mercenaries and migrant traffickers that serve the highest bidder, into a neutral institutionalised military that serves the state and works with its partners.
The well-publicised United Nations 5+5 military track, that includes the rival network of militias in Western Libya also requiring urgent reform, remains the option to do this; but requires Italian and international assistance to ensure its objective is to create a functioning security institution that can serve Libya and work effectively with its partners, rather than unify two rival informal networks who are largely responsible for destabilising the country.
Haftar and his political rivals across the board should be incentivised to conduct such structural reforms in order to be eligible to stand for elections or hold future political office. Only by seeking an institutional structure and settlement in Libya, Italy can hope to promote stability, combat human trafficking, and safeguard its long-term energy interests.
Italy’s multifaceted interests in Libya demand a careful and nuanced approach that balances immediate concerns with long-term strategic goals. While Haftar may appear as Italy’s saviour in the short-term, he has been the catalyst of its long-term troubles, burdened by his alliance with external powers that limits his strength.
Haftar’s alignment with Russia, control over illicit trafficking networks, and influence on Libya’s oil supplies all pose risks to Italy’s standing within NATO and Europe, intensify the migration crisis, and threaten its energy security. Italy should remain vigilant, ensuring that immediate pressures do not overshadow its broader strategic objectives.
Moreover, it is essential to see beyond and unpack the reality of Haftar’s strongman façade, which conceals the reality of his weakness; that he is a cog in the intricate machinery of a foreign mercenary network.
Operating outside of any legitimate government structure, Haftar and his band of mercenaries are incapable of fulfilling the role of a dependable security provider for Libya or serving as a credible interlocutor for Italy in the long run. Instead of unilaterally engaging Haftar, Italy should prioritize the transformation of the LNA into a fully functioning security institution.
This can be achieved through a revised UN 5+5 military track that places greater emphasis on structural reforms to establish a viable security and military institutions as per the initial Berlin Agreement rather than immediate political unification of rival networks that have exacerbated the political and security problems in Libya.
Italy can also leverage its relationships within the European Union and NATO to shape the UN’s state-building and political processes in Libya. By adopting a collective approach, Italy can minimize its exposure to unilateral leverage by opportunistic Libyan factions.
It is crucial to prioritize structural reform and establish a solid foundation for security in Libya and bilateral engagement rather than engaging with non-state actors like Haftar outside of such a process. This approach will contribute to long-term stability and ensure that Italy’s engagement in Libya aligns with its own needs and broader international efforts.
Italy must navigate Libya’s complexities while safeguarding its strategic objectives, counteracting Russian influence, effectively managing migration, and securing its long-term energy interests.
This can only be achieved through a comprehensive political and institutional settlement that promotes stability, combats human trafficking, and safeguards Italy’s interests in the region.