Defining a new Italian role in Libya

In recent weeks, the Italian diplomacy tightened its bilateral relations with Tobruk in the attempt for a difficult stabilization. Libyan news sources continuously report about the efforts to stop smugglers escorting boats full of migrants, since Libya’s western coast has always been the departure point for the vast majority of migrants trying to reach Europe, and powerful smuggling networks have long operated with impunity in the area.

The issue of migration continues to draw special attention in the international and political agenda, specifically in Italy. On the Mediterranean side, the departures of migrants occur mostly from Libya: according to the International Organization for Migration, this year of 278,327 migrants arrived in Europe by sea, 106.461 arrived to Italy. This is precisely why, both for the European Union and for Italy, Libya is the main interlocutor when it comes to discuss migration policies and find long-term solutions.

Defining a new Italian role in Libya

The Memorandum of Understanding signed in February by the Italian Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, and Fayez al Sarraj, Prime Minister of the internationally recognized Libyan National Accord Government (GNA) based in Tripoli, stemmed precisely from the aim to fight illegal immigration. Nevertheless, the agreement has been rejected on 22 March by the Tripoli court. The action brought by six Libyans disputes the agreement both in substance and in form.

On one hand, Al Sarraj hasn’t effectively been recognized by the Tobruk Parliament, controlled so far by general Khalifa Haftar, therefore, he has no right to sign an international agreement on migrations. Moreover, the court of appeal of Tripoli also provided another argument: the agreement would have resulted in too onerous commitments, which are not contained in the Treaty of friendship between Italy and Libya signed in 2008, to which the memo refers.

The Libyans also raised doubts on the funding provided by Italy, which has not been quantified, in exchange for the commitment by Tripoli to control migration flows. Nevertheless, behind these formal justifications, there could also be the hidden tentatives to oppose the establishment of Al Sarraj as Libya’s representative in the international arena.

Criticizing the memorandum, no one expressed concern about the inhumane conditions that migrants continue to suffer, which has been strongly condemned by the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI). The memorandum in fact violates the European regulations on asylum, because it allows the refoulement of refugees to their country that does not recognize the Geneva Convention on Refugees of 1951 and that shouldn’t be considered safe.

On the basis of this memorandum, the agreement is divided into several points.

First, it plans to complete the training of the Libyan Coast Guard as part of Operation Sophia, started by the European Union. Secondly, it plans to establish a surveillance system for patrolling coast, in order to stop migrants in Libyan territorial waters, which will then be reported in Libya. In this regard, it will be essential to create reception centers, where human rights are met. In fact, conditions in the centers have been repeatedly described as inhumane, and the UN Support Mission for Libya has documented numerous abuses.  Finally, it also plans to tighten control over southern borders of Libya (namely the borders with Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan).

From this point of view, the peace agreement reached on 31 March between the heads of major Libyan tribes (Tabu and Awlad) acquires greater significance, as it aims at controlling 5,000 kilometer of southern border.

Centres of power in Libya - Italian role
European Council of Foreign Relations’s Map


It still remains unclear the impact of the rejection of the agreement on the cooperation between the two countries, nor it is clear whether it will affect migration flows. Nevertheless,various initiatives have been carried out for the implementation of the agreement: the EU promised at the last Malta Summit $215 million to train the Libyan coast guard , while on March 20, Al Sarraj participated at the Interior Ministers Summit in Rome between Libya, Italy, Austria, France, Germany, Malta, Slovenia, Switzerland and Tunisia, on human trafficking in the central Mediterranean. Furthermore, the European ministers confirmed their willingness to send economic aid and equipment to Tripoli, and Al Sarraj called for $800 million aid together with 10 rescue boats, 10 patrol boats, 4 helicopters, 24 rubber boats and 10 ambulances, among others.

Nevertheless, the UN and several other international organizations have repeatedly denounced the risks of entrusting the Libyan coast guard to patrol the coast. The Libyan coast guard has in fact been repeatedly accused of having attacked the boats who help migrants, shooting at refugees and causing their wreck. This sums up to the problem of detention centers for migrants in the country in which migrants have been reported, both the ones run by the government and those operated by the militias, where they have been victims of torture, abuse and violence of all kinds.

Within this framework, despite good intentions, the Italian relation with Libya clashes with a fundamental problem: Al Sarraj’s government has been struggling to gain control since it was set up, following UN peace talks last year. To date, Al Sarraj still does not have control over oil resources, nor land, not the entire area of Tripoli, therefore, he is not currently able to guarantee the political and security stability in the country, crucial prerequisites to address the issue of migration. On the contrary, general Haftar benefits from the confidence of the army, the Libyan National Army, and controls eastern Libya, as well as benefits of support from powerful countries such as Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Most importantly, Haftar maintained control of Libya’s key oil ports (Ras Lanuf and Es Sidr) since last September, after dislodging military units of the Petroleum Facilities Guard. The strategic area, which contains a large concentration of the country’s oil production, has been a point of contention among the rival factions fighting for control of the country.  Following months of failed attempts to gain ground in the area, the Benghazi Defense Brigade managed to capture the two ports in March after launching a surprise attack on forces loyal to Haftar. Losing control over the key oil ports could weaken Haftar’s position and shift the balance in GNA’s favour.

Defining a new Italian role in Libya

Precisely Sarraj’s lack of control over Tripolitania, without considering the non-recognition from Tobruk, hampered the implementation of the Rome agreement forcing the new Italian government to accelerate on the ethnic and tribe recomposition in the region. The agreement could represent a turning point in the consolidation of the Italian presence in the Fezzan and the resumption of full production capacity for Italian companies.

Libya is not simply a strategic country for Italy; in recent years, Italy had a central role in UN efforts to pacify the country and has been among the main promoters of the UN agreement, which led to the formation of Sarraj’s government.  In its former colony Italy exports products derived from the refining of hydrocarbons, general-purpose machinery, wiring devices, special purpose machinery, fruit and vegetables, all sectors that after 2014 had seen a drop from 15 million to 7.

Italy is also looking with great interest at Russia’s recent involvement in Libya on Haftar’s side. Since the mid-seventies, during the Cold War, Gaddafi turned to the Soviet Union to seek protection against the American interference. The Libyan government was at that time already one of the largest buyers of Russian weapons and Gaddafi signed contracts to have thousands of Russian engineers and military instructors to come to Libya. After two decades of relative isolation, also due to Western sanctions, Gaddafi resumed close relations with Putin signing new contracts for billions of dollars, while during the 2011 intervention, Russia abstained from voting the resolution to impose a no fly zone over Libya. In the post Gaddafi era, Russia’s attitude has been initially cautious, and Russia’s support to general Haftar started growing only at the end of 2016.  Russia certainly has its own economic interests in Libya (tied to oil and arm trade), but above all it is attempting to return to be a great power. It would be misleading to argue that Russia’s interest in Libya is mainly due to economic reasons. In recent years the Russian government has shown, they want to make a more aggressive foreign policy than in the past, clear examples are the annexation of Crimea and massive intervention in Syria to support Assad.

Another element of uncertainty over Libya’s future is the new American administration: if Barack Obama previously supported the efforts of Italy in favour of Sarraj, there is not much clarity on Trump’s position. Despite the declarations of friendship to Russia he made during the election campaign, in recent weeks the US administration seems to have stepped back. During the joint press conference between Trump and Gentiloni on 20 April, Trump affirmed he does not foresee a US role in the future stabilization of Libya, despite reaffirming the US central role in the fight against Daesh.

According to the Guardian, a senior White House foreign policy official, Sebastian Gorka, has pushed a plan to partition Libya in 3 areas (east Cyrenaica, west Tripoli and South Fezzan).  In doing so, analysts such as Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, warned about the existence of a concrete risk of making the same mistake: applying the categories of Western culture to a socio-cultural situation that does not understand them. Already at the time of the Italian conquest of Libya in 1911, it was clear that tribal ethnic joints were very articulate and complex. Gaddafi, in his 40 years of ruling, did not try creating an administrative structure, but based his power on a direct relationship with local contacts, as any other type of institutional relationship would have seemed like a stretch. After the end of the Gaddafi’s era, centrifugal forces have emerged, generating a situation of widespread anarchy, greatly facilitated by the availability of weapons, accumulated by Gaddafi in exorbitant amount. The fragmentation has little to do with geography, contributing to making the situation even more fragile and evanescent. For example, Zintan, situated within the Tripolitania region has always maintained a pro-Tobruk attitude, probably more for the desire to highlight its own autonomy than for a real sympathy towards Cyrenaica. In the southern region, the historical conflict between Tuareg and Tebu, has regained strength in recent years, also for the control of the lucrative trade across the Sahara, both of smuggled goods and migrants from the south.

From this picture, it is quite clear that the attempts of the international community to achieve a stable political framework are the result of a Eurocentric vision, unfamiliar to the Libyan society.

Undoubtedly, there is the need for a new initiative, which cannot leave out any actor, external and internal: there have been talks over the setting up of a contact group, which will include Egypt, UAE, Qatar but also Russia, Turkey, as well as the western powers. However, it is in the internal arena, where a radical change is most needed: there is the need to avoid reducing Libyan internal dynamics as a competition between Sarraj and Haftar, as the Libyan society is much more complex. it is necessary a large autonomy for individual holders of local power, held together by the strengthening of the two unitary authorities, the NOC, National Oil Corporation, and the Central Bank, which are able to meet the financial needs of each individual community. It is a process, which requires a lot of patience, but in particular, on behalf of those who are considered the key players, such as Sarraj and Haftar, who should all step back for the future of their country.


Pilar Buzzetti

Master’s degree in Government and Policies (LUISS “Guido Carli”)




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