Fighting at Tripoli’s international airport was still under way when, in July 2014, the diplomatic missions of European countries, the United States and Canada were shut down. At that time Italy decided to maintain a pied-à-terre in place in order to preserve the precarious balance of its assets in the two-headed country, strengthening security at its local headquarters on Tripoli’s seafront. On the one hand there was no forsaking the Mellitah Oil & Gas compound, controlled by Eni and based west of Tripoli. On the other, the Libyan coast also had to be protected to assist the Italian forces deployed in Libyan waters and engaged in the Mare Nostrum operation to dismantle the human smuggling network between Libya and Italy, as per the official mandate. But the escalation of the civil war and the consequent deterioration of security conditions led Rome to leave as well, in February 2015.
While awaiting the US presidential elections, Europe and America watched but did not intervene, while Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia armed the West, and across the barricades Egypt, UAE and Jordan backed Haftar. Only in Sirte, where the fight against Daesh is still in full swing, have the US, Britain and Italy provided their support to Western Libyan forces on the front line.
Legitimated by the war against Daesh’s reign of terror, Italy returned to the forefront in Libya already last October, when it launched the Hippocrates operation to help the wounded in the city of Misrata. Here, many have voiced their objections against alleged “colonialist aspirations”, thus opposing Italy’s boots-on-the-ground approach, but the controversy was limited to the popular level, with no political implications.
The decision to reopen the Italian Embassy in Tripoli was announced by the Italian Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti during his official trip to Tripoli on January 9th. Bringing Rome back to the forefront next to prime minister-designate Sarraj was a hasty move, especially in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the new Republican President of the US - which offers Haftar room to maneuver for a rebound under Russia’s protective wing. In the meantime, the RADA armed group – Salafist forces supporting Sarraj – has gathered evidence of a purported involvement of Haftar’s men in the attack. But Rome knows that this is a trap and, in order to avoid a war declaration against Haftar, it has announced further investigation into the matter.
Today Libya is nearing collapse: the plunge of oil exports – owing to the fighting between local militias – has compounded the breakdown of the banking system due to corruption, thus giving rise to a serious liquidity crisis which in turn has led to galloping inflation on the currency black market. Public administration salaries are paid intermittently because of the lack of liquidity and the tertiary sector – the second source of income for the country’s middle class – is strangled by the depreciation of the Libyan dinar. The main source of income in Libya today is illegal trafficking.
Rome is aware of the situation on the ground, but it is evidently unwilling to take a step back and share its leadership on the Libyan territory with other powers. This applies, first and foremost, to France which has never abandoned Haftar since the beginning of the Karama operation against fundamentalist groups in the eastern region of Cyrenaica.
During his visit to Tripoli, Minniti announced that Italy will revive the Friendship Treaty between Italy and Libya signed by Gaddafi and Berlusconi in 2008, which also entails the provision of patrol vessels to the Libyan Coast Guard. In short, Italy will return to Libya four ships that were given by former Interior Minister Roberto Maroni to Tripoli before the revolution, were damaged during fights in 2011, and have been lingering in Italy for repairs since 2012. Due to the political stalemate in Libya, Rome has not returned the ships yet, but Minniti gave assurances that they will soon be handed back to the Sarraj administration.
While Europe trains Libyan coastguardsmen, Italy provides them with the equipment they need. This decision derogates from the UN Security Council resolution that has been in force since 2011 imposing an arms embargo in Libya in the absence of a unity government. Technically, Sarraj’s Presidential Council represents a national unity body, but it lacks executive power because it has not received the Tobruq Parliament’s vote of confidence. But Italy carries on, worried about losing its assets, should its former “overseas backyard” definitely implode.
Rome is also aware of the level of endemic corruption present also within the Libyan Coast Guard. In the framework of Operation Eunavfor Med, sufficient information has been gathered concerning the role of the Coast Guard of Zawiya – a city 50 km west of Tripoli – in migrant smuggling. Abdurahman Milad Aka Al Bija, currently the captain of Zawiya’s Coast Guard, has been controlling the migrant smuggling business from the West of Tripoli to the border with Tunisia since 2015. This is the stretch of coastline from where most of the over 172 thousand migrants who arrived to Italy in 2016 set out to cross the Mediterranean. Masoud Abdel Samad, Head of the International Cooperation Centre of the Libyan Coast Guard, has stated that soon Libyan coastguardsmen will be able to patrol Mediterranean waters up to 84 miles from the coast, very close to Italian shores, therefore carrying out search and rescue operations for migrants at sea. The issue that remains open is what will happen to the migrants once they are brought back to Libya, which is a transit country – not a country of origin – for migration flows.
Oblivious of the anarchy reigning in Libya today, during his official visit in Tunis at the end of January the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Angelino Alfano went even further, stating that Italy intends to sign an agreement with Libya soon, along the lines of the one signed between Europe and Turkey.
Those were incautious words, that immediately resulted in the bolstering of those militias interested in the business of cooperation with Europe on migration. In Tripoli, the armed groups that control detention centers for migrants, and in particular the Triq Siqqa Identification Center, have started to raid the city to gather and imprison migrants for the sole purpose of feeding to the international press and community impressive figures concerning cooperation.
But to Italy this is a minor detail. Clearly the ultimate goal is keeping a close eye on Tripolitania and resisting the shove that may be coming from France through the brand new Washington – Moscow axis. After all, the splitting of Libya is an option on the table, and Italy is aiming for Tripolitania.
Nancy Porsia, Freelance Journalist in Libya