Rome is trying to shape the future of its onetime colony, but may get elbowed aside by local strongmen and their foreign partners.
- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
Italy this week became the first Western country to reopen its embassy in Libya since foreign diplomats evacuated in 2015, a move meant to bolster the faltering unity government and reclaim Italy’s position as a power broker in its former colony.
With a local strongman gaining strength and courting international support, some say deeper Western engagement is sorely needed if the U.N.-backed government is to survive. In particular, some analysts worry that Libya could end up looking a lot like Syria, with Russia co-opting peace negotiations and elbowing the U.N. and Western countries to the sidelines.
“The timing of this move tells me that the Italians think the political situation inside Libya is coming to a head,” said Matt Reed, vice president of Foreign Reports, a Washington consulting firm focused on oil markets and the Middle East. “Whatever happens next, they will be best placed to mediate and represent the international agenda on the ground.”
Italy’s approach is also the latest effort to find a solution for a problem that continues to vex Europe: an unrelenting stream of migrants leaving Libya and crossing the Mediterranean. European leaders speak of muscular policies, like training the Libyan coast guard to intercept boats; coordinating anti-smuggling operations on the other side of the Mediterranean; and even copying the Turkey deal that successfully stemmed Aegean flows last year.
But there’s one glaring hole in all those plans: There’s no stable government in Libya to act as a partner, as former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi once did, on migration controls. Instead, three dueling governments, all with limited power or support, vie with a patchwork of militias, private armies, and Islamic State fighters for control over the population. What’s more, smuggling networks have taken advantage of the instability to become deeply entrenched in local economies, making them even harder to interrupt.
Angelino Alfano, Italy’s foreign minister, put his country’s goals in reopening the embassy succinctly: “A great gesture of friendship to the Libyan people. Now more controls on migrant departure,” he wrote on Twitter.
He might be disappointed. Italy and the United Nations insist that the internationally recognized government, the inaptly named Government of National Accord (GNA), is the only possible partner with whom to negotiate a solution. But the legitimacy of the 1-year-old government, led by technocrat Fayez al-Sarraj, is in tatters.
On Thursday, just two days after the Italians landed in Tripoli, members of a rival militia claimed to seize government ministries there in a minicoup. In the east, another group based in Tobruk regarded the reopening of Italy’s embassy (accompanied by a navy ship) as a foreign occupation, “a clear violation of the U.N. charter and a form of repeated aggression.”
That underscores the continued instability among Libya’s rival factions that Italy will have to navigate.
“This is indicative of the general situation in Libya, in that it’s a deeply fractured, deeply divided country with lots of competing groups,” said Joshua Meservey, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “Everything is so jumbled, and so complex, and so opaque that the chances of the United States or any other country engaging with Libya and bringing about positive outcome is very low.”
The United States has taken a backseat in Libya ever since the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in 2012. U.S. airstrikes helped run the Islamic State out of Sirte in December, but otherwise Washington has ceded leadership to Europe.
And there’s little clarity on how U.S. policy in the region might change when President-elect Donald Trump takes office. He and his cabinet picks have stressed the need to fight terrorism, but have not outlined any plans for stabilizing Libya. The strife-torn country has been absent from foreign-policy discussions by incoming Trump officials. A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
For Italy, though, Libya has been an important strategic partner and a huge headache. Just a few hundred miles from Sicily, it remains Rome’s main foreign-policy interest, not least because stabilizing Libya is essential to dealing with a host of thorny problems affecting Europe: migration, arms trafficking, drug smuggling, and terrorism. And there are economic interests, too. During the revolution and its chaotic aftermath, the Italian oil company ENI has continued operations in Libya. But over the last year it’s experienced some major setbacks, including local labor disputes that shut down fields.
“Regardless of oil, the Italians have every reason to act now, before things get worse,” Reed said.
In seeking to reassert its influence there today, though, Italy is handicapped by the weakness of the unity government it is trying to prop up. Since installing itself in Tripoli after U.N.-brokered peace negotiations a year ago, the GNA has been unable to provide security or basic services to citizens. It controls little territory and is at the mercy of militias that have pledged allegiance to it — but could abandon it at any time.
“I think Europe and Italy have put all their eggs into this Government of National Accord,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council based in Tobruk. “So they have no option but to push hard and try for the best, despite the fact that all signs are telling us that this government is not going to work.”
A weak GNA could open the door for a different kind of leader — one who could make it harder for Italy to claim its place as a power broker in the country, and some say could end up turning Libya into another Syria situation, escalating tensions between Russia and the West.
Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who has commanded the Libyan National Army since 2014, has fought extremists in the eastern part of the country, snapped up oil fields, and refused to cooperate with the U.N. To many Libyans terrorized by the Islamic State and suffering from blackouts, empty banks, and lack of medical services, he looks like a “law and order” answer.
“Security issues are paramount. The circumstances do not permit the slower approach required by politics,” Haftar told the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera on Jan. 2. “Once we have defeated the extremists, we can get back to talking about democracy and elections. But not now.”
That kind of talk appeals to regional strongmen, including Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Egypt, which has a huge stake in Libya’s stability, wants to acknowledge Haftar’s position and try to marginalize Islamists. Mattia Toaldo of the European Council on Foreign Relations said Cairo might find a sympathetic ear in the incoming Trump administration for a plan framed as “the only way to fight ISIS.”
And while Russia nominally supports the U.N. peace deal, it has kept an open dialogue with Haftar, who visited Moscow twice in the past seven months to ask for military aid and help lifting the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. On Wednesday, the general toured Russia’s aircraft carrier chugging off the Libyan coast, and held a video call with Russia’s defense minister about counterterrorism efforts. In an interview last month, Russia’s deputy foreign minister called Haftar “a leading political and military figure.”
As a result, experts are increasingly worried that political negotiations in Libya could end up looking a lot like Syria. Trump has said he wants to cooperate with Russia to fight terrorism and applauded Moscow for taking a leading role in Syria, opening the door to just such a strategy. Russia’s military support for the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria has contributed to the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of civilians.
“Russia saw [Syria] as a successful model of backing a strongman in return for increased influence, military bases, and high-value contracts,” Toaldo wrote in December. Now, it is “exporting this model to other countries that hold the potential for strategic gains.”
One person close to the U.N. Security Council expressed similar concerns. “However we see the Trump administration tackling Syria will show how things may work or evolve in Libya,” he said.
Photo credit: ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images