Haftar’s advance reopens Italian-French contest for Libya

by Michela Mercuri

These are momentous days for Libya. After the Palermo Conference on Libya held on 12-13 November 2018, in which the foundations (albeit shaky) of a dialogue between some of the main local players had somehow been laid, balance seems to be changing again – but definitely unfavourably to Italy. What has happened and what are the actual risks for our country?

Let’s start from the facts. Since early January, the Libyan National Army (Lna), headed by General Khalifa Haftar, has succeeded – according to many – in taking control of the vast majority of the southern regions without meeting any resistance from the main local tribes. After conquering the oil field of El Sharara, the largest oil field in the South-West of the country, the forces of the field marshall have also included in their payroll the militias controlling the oil facility of El Feel, run by a joint venture set up by the Libyan National Oil Corporation (Noc) and Eni.

Haftar seems to have accomplished what nobody else could, i.e. unifying militarily a vast and heterogeneous land that spans from Cyrenaica to the harsh Libyan desert. Only a few hundred miles separate such territory from the capital.

By presenting himself as the champion of the fight against the extremists camped in the Fezzan region, Haftar obtained the consent of a large part of the international community. The very same scheme was seen at play between June and July 2018, when the war for the control of the Sidra, Ras Lanuf and Brega terminals erupted: the General then secured his control on those oil fields, justifying his actions with the excuse of the fight against extremist groups. In other words, Haftar claims to be fighting for the security of the country and against extremism, but in actual facts he has been carrying out such campaigns only in oil-rich regions.

However, it would be at least naive to think that the strongman from Cyrenaica is playing this game all alone. The General enjoys the favour of many regional and international actors – among which the Emirates, which had been supporting him financially for years, and France, whose interests in marginalizing Italy in the Libyan context have been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.

Seen from this perspective, Haftar’s advance may be the umpteenth “trick” Paris has played on Rome. It is worth remembering that there have been several spats between the Élysée and the Italian government, while Macron misses no opportunity to cause troubles to the Five Star – League government: the wrangle about the migrant issue, the block of Fincantieri’s acquisition of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique, and the recall of the French ambassador to Italy, to name a few.

Libya is a blessing and a curse for the French since the 2011 war – which was ignited in order to get rid of Italy’s major ally –, and it is also one of the most useful pawns through which Paris can thwart Rome’s strategies. The offensive of Haftar’s army almost exactly coincided with incessant bombings carried out by French Mirage fighters on the area between Libya and Chad, with the aim of supporting the Libyan General in his advance towards controlling the country. Such French move took place without any form of coordination with Italy or the international community in general.

But there is more. On 8 November 2018, after only three days from the conclusion of the summit in Sicily, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Le Drian, met high level officials of the city of Misrata – which has now become a sort of third power in Libya – to discuss perspectives for the future stabilisation of the country. According to rumours that began circulating a few days ago, Macron’s advisor on Libya and some other officials of the Dgse secret services are said to have been sent on a mission to Tripoli to support Serraj in the daunting task of curtailing the influence of local militias.

Rather than supporting Haftar, Paris seems motivated to present itself as “the peacemaker” of the country: this time Macron has decided to act on the ground, skipping useless summits that end up in mere photo-ops.

What options are left to Italy? In other words, have we lost Libya? Although a diplomatic collaboration with France appears rather unlikely given the current situation, there are other players with whom dialogue could be viable. The Unites States have expressed their concern regarding the continuing tensions in southern Libya, urging once again that pressure should be relentlessly put on terrorist groups, in coordination with the Government of National Accord.

In addition, after Trump’s breakup with Macron, the US President seemed more inclined to support a renewed Italian commitment in the Libyan crisis.  So far, also Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared to be in line with the stance of the current Italian government.

And then there is Egypt. President al-Sisi – who had not been on an official visit to Italy for four years owing to the tensions that followed the murder of Giulio Regeni – seemed particularly cooperative, while mutual visits to Rome and Cairo have become increasingly frequent as of late.

Italy may win back its axis with Russia and Egypt, and may count on the US, which – in spite of their disengagement from the Libyan theatre – remain the only power capable of mediating between the contrasting interests of the European powers and those of some of the local players. Moreover, Italy has recently reopened its embassy in Tripoli, the only “Western point of contact” in the country: this may help promote a better dialogue with local players, most notably with Haftar.

It should be also noted that, in spite of any “political squabbles”, business goes on unhindered. Last October, the President of NOC and the CEOs of British Petroleum (Bp) and Eni signed a letter of intent, which announced the start of the process allocating to Eni 42.5% of Bp’s Exploration and production sharing agreement (Epsa) in Libya. The aim of such a understanding was to relaunch oil exploration activities. Eni and Total have recently finalised exploration agreements in Algeria and Lebanon, and similar understandings are highly likely to be reached with respect to Egypt as well. As for Libya, the two above-mentioned companies could definitely benefit from a stronger cooperation.

In brief, Italy still have some cards to play, but it is up to us to choose if and how to play this game.


Michela Mercuri

Professor of Geopolitics at SIOI. Member of the CIPMO Scientific Committee

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