Italy’s dilemmas in Libya

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Matteo Renzi and the Libyan flag

On 12 September, the Italian Senate approved the deployment of 100 paratroopers to the Libyan city of Misrata to protect a field hospital that will be created to provide healthcare to those fighting ISIS in Sirte. Despite being the first deployment of foreign ground troops to Libya since the closure of the US Wheelus Field base in the late 1960s and Italy’s first solo military mission in many years, the decision passed with a large majority and with less-than-expected attention from the domestic media. Yet, it comes in a difficult moment both for Libya itself and for Italy’s policy in the country.

Libya has been divided by a civil war since 2014 and marred by chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi five years ago. Initially, the anti-Islamist Dignity operation led by pro-Egyptian General Khalifa Heftar faced Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist and anti-Gaddafi militias led by the militias of the city-state of Misrata. Most armed groups in Libya respond indeed to their own city, much like it happened in Medieval Italy. Each coalition set up its own government, in Tobruk and Tripoli respectively, but only the government and parliament sitting in Tobruk were recognized by the international community. Libya Dawn fragmented when, in January of 2015, the leadership in Misrata decided to break ranks with the rest of the coalition and join the UN-brokered talks aimed at creating a national unity government.

Italy was at the forefront of the negotiations, with its embassy in Tripoli remaining open until the last minute, the only major foreign presence in the country (even the UN mission had left). Not by chance, the signature of the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement in Skhirat in December of last year was preceded by an international summit co-convened by Italy and the US in Rome. The Rome summit secured the backing of all regional powers, of the major European countries and of the P5 to the newly established Presidency Council, a collective leadership that was meant to represent all the major Libyan factions and lead the country to new elections with a new constitution.

When the Presidency Council finally established itself in Tripoli on 30 March 2016, it had lost two of its nine members, notably one of them the representative of General Heftar. The House of Representatives, still the internationally-recognized parliament under the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), was meant to approve the new cabinet. Two successive lists of ministers were voted down in January and then again in August, while the agreement was never transformed into a constitutional amendment, leaving even the legitimacy of the House in limbo since its mandate had expired last October.

The implementation of the LPA has effectively stalled because the east of the country, under the control of Heftar, refuses to approve an agreement that in its article 8 of the final stipulations says that Heftar himself should be fired as chief of the armed forces and replaced by a new military leadership. Heftar has refused to meet the UN envoy Martin Kobler while Italy has met regularly to discuss a way out of the deadlock with a group of five other countries: US, UK, France, UAE and Egypt. Publicly, both Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault have stated that Heftar must be part of the solution.

While negotiations dragged on inconclusively and the implementation of the agreement was blocked, Heftar created new facts on the ground by consolidating his grip on Cyrenaica and, right after mid-September, conquering the Oil Crescent, the area east of Sirte where most of the country’s oil terminals are located. The US, Italy and other European countries immediately reiterated that control of oil terminals was useless unless the oil would go through the National Oil Company (NOC) in Tripoli, loyal to the Presidency Council. Heftar, to the surprise of many, complied and the NOC immediately declared that exports could re-start, significantly boosting revenues for the Central Bank in Tripoli that pays salaries to all Libyans – including Heftar’s men. These terminals had been blocked for more than a year and a half, even though they had been previously under the control of the Petroleum Facilities Guards, nominally loyal to the PC in Tripoli.

These moves create a window of opportunity to unlock the political stalemate. Now all the Libyan factions have something in common: the bank account where all the oil revenues go and which is used to pay everyone’s salaries. In fact, without oil revenues the only way to finance the government budget is by tapping into the Central Bank’s reserves, which at current rates of expenditure and revenues would reach zero in two years or even less.

Italy could take the lead in the international community by harnessing this opportunity to broker a new agreement between the factions that use oil as a driver for de-escalation rather than a reason for war. On the ground, the status quo should be preserved without new military action while factions work together to restart the economy and negotiate a deal on politics and security. For Foreign Minister Gentiloni, the opportunity to create consensus for a plan (provided he has one) will be the meeting on Libya on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on 22 September.

Exploiting this window of opportunity is a tall order as Heftar, in light of his recent military moves, has the upper-hand and could be less keen to negotiate, knowing that the PC in Tripoli has to face many political and practical responsibilities as it struggles to provide basic services to the population.

In doing so, Italy will have to reward its partners in Libya, first of all the city of Misrata which has gone to great lengths first to support the UN-backed LPA and then to eradicate ISIS in Sirte. To this end, the creation of the field hospital is an important show of support which has to come together with the strategy described above, lest risking introducing troops in a country where fighting is escalating. Ultimately, the city of Misrata (with its allies) is the only Arab political entity that has chosen the West in the last two decades, supporting a power-sharing agreement and fighting ISIS. A lack of Western support would just reinforce the view in the whole region that only Russia’s Vladimir Putin can stand by his allies.

This is all easier said than done. First of all, Gentiloni will struggle to capture the attention of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who in the next two months will be engaged in an existential domestic battle to win the constitutional referendum and save his cabinet. Secondly, Libya is particularly tricky for Italy because its national interests in the country (preserving stability and energy security, fighting illegal immigration and ISIS) are not always the same as those of its regional allies, starting with Egypt and the UAE. Both countries are the staunchest supporters of General Heftar and will continue this support even if he decides not to go along with negotiations.

Gentiloni will have to square the circle between Italy’s interests in Libya and its alliances in the region. He will have to face this dilemma without having much attention from his Prime Minister or from a distracted public. A tall order, given Libya’s importance for Italy, but one he cannot refuse.