MILAN — Italy is pulling out all the stops to secure stability in Libya to protect its business interests and ward off another potential migration crisis on its southern shores.
It’s a tough mission given the chaos that has engulfed the North African country since the 2011 toppling and killing of Muammar Qadhafi.
Over the past two years, divisions among Libya’s political forces, each backed by its own militia, have deepened, and the country is split between two governments: The internationally recognized one in eastern Libya and the Islamist-backed one in the capital, Tripoli.
Then on Wednesday, a third government — or at least part of it — landed in Tripoli.
It’s backed by the U.N., the U.S., and the EU, with Italy at the forefront.
In December, the U.N.managed to get some, though far from all, rival lawmakers to agree to the formation of a unity government. The deal saw the formation of a nine-member Presidency Council.
The new government is led by a little known technocrat, Fayez Serraj, who allegedly sailed into Tripoli on an Italian boat from Tunis on Wednesday, after militias exiled him from the Libyan port city of Tobruk.
So far Serraj, who insists he returned home on a Libyan vessel, has been confined to a naval base amid increasing hostility from rivals in the east and in the capital. His backers hope he will put an end to political rivalries and infighting, and save the country from the chaos that has been exploited by ISIL. The militants have captured oil terminals and fields, the main source of Libya’s wealth, and swathes of territory near the coast to control the migrant smuggling network.
Serraj has pedigree. His father, Mustafa, held office under King Idris, whose 18-year monarchy ended in 1969 when he was overthrown by Qadhafi. Al-Jazeera described Mustafa Sarraj as “one of the founders of the modern state of Libya after its independence from Italy.”
A new, but better, relationship
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has high hopes for the younger Serraj, who worked at the housing ministry during the Qadhafi regime and was chosen as a compromise prime minister as he is not affiliated to any political party involved in the power struggle.
Renzi wants cooperation between Tripoli and Rome that recalls the Qadhafi era, with a Libyan leader able to crack down on people-smugglers on the high seas and take on ISIL while he’s at it. He’s highly unlikely to get that any time soon when rival parties have greeted the unity government with gunfire rather than greetings.
On Friday, three top Libyan politicians linked to the Islamist-backed leadership in Tripoli became subject to European Union sanctions for obstructing the formation of the unity government. The three face travel bans and asset freezes.
“We hope to reach new and better agreements with the new Libyan government,” Domenico Manzione, undersecretary at the Italian interior ministry, told POLITICO, playing down the amount of contact between Italy and Serraj’s people. “For now, we have informal talks with the members of the Tobruk government.”
While they wait to see if the Libyan unity government survives, the Italians are talking to other countries on the central Mediterranean route, to avoid a scenario where southern Italy becomes overwhelmed with migrants when the warm weather kicks in and the seas become calmer.
Last month, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano signed an agreement with Albania on cooperation in the fight against smugglers, with Tirana promising to tighten controls on the Albanian side. Talks on similar measures are underway with Montenegro.
During last month’s European Council, when the EU-Turkey deal was struck, Renzi sought assurances that concessions made to Ankara in exchange for its cooperation to curb the migrant flow to Greece would be extended to other non-EU states — such as Albania and Montenegro — if another EU member faced a similar situation.
The number of migrants reaching Italy from Libya is rising. In March, 8,405 refugees arrived, almost triple the number in the same month last year, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). More are waiting on Libya’s coast to cross, although the number varies considerably depending on who’s counting: 36,000 according to the UNHCR; 800,000 says French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
“We have gotten used to an increase of the refugee flow when approaching summer,” Manzione said. “We are waiting to see if the Turkey-EU deal will succeed. If not, there could be some problems for Italy.”
In 2015, a total of 153,841 migrants came to Italy from Libya, according to the UNHCR. In the first three months of 2016, some 18,400 arrived compared to 10,165 in the same period last year.
Chasing smugglers into Libyan waters
Since last May, the Italian Navy has been leading Operation Sophia, a 22-country patrol mission in international waters off the coast of Libya. In addition to rescuing stranded migrants on the high seas, its mandate includes boarding and searching vessels, and seizing and diverting those suspected of being used for human trafficking.
In 10 months, Operation Sophia vessels have apprehend 58 suspected human smugglers and delivered them to Italian authorities. They also destroyed 98 boats and rescued more than 11,500 migrants stranded at sea, according to the European External Action Service.
Prices for crossing from Libya to Italy range from $800 and $1,200 per spot on a dingy, experts say.
But the operation could be more successful if allowed to operate closer to the Libyan coast and to chase smugglers into Libyan waters. That can only happen if the U.N.-brokered unity government is in place, and requests help.
The unity government, if it can become fully established, would have the full legitimacy to ask for Western help in dealing with ISIL. It would almost certainly need it.
According to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, published in May 2015, ISIL made around $300 million from human smuggling 2014. There is no available estimate for ISIL’s profits from the migrant trade for last year, but with oil prices plummeting, experts say smuggling could be one of the major sources of income for the extremist group in Libya.
“They are not moving people themselves, but they are taxing the people who are,” said Tom Keatinge, director of the Center for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
Prices for crossing from Libya to Italy range from $800 and $1,200 per spot on a dingy, experts say. Most refugees and asylum seekers who pay to take the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean come to Libya from Eritrea, Somalia and sub-Saharan Africa. Increasingly, however, with the Balkan route no longer reachable from Turkey through Greece, more Syrians and Afghanis are headed to Libya with the aim of entering the EU through Italy.
‘The reason is ENI’
How Italy manages the migrant crisis depends on Libya’s stability. Along with U.S. President Barack Obama, few leaders in Europe appear eager for another military intervention to achieve political change there. The reluctance on the part of some European countries appears to be down to poor prospects for the long-term stability that would pave the way for business investments.
For Italy, Libya is already big business. ENI, the Italian oil and gas giant, has a near monopoly in the North African state. ENI has been operating in Libya since 1959 and is the sole international oil and gas company operating in the country at full capacity. Its continued presence in Libya is of vital strategic importance for Italy. Keeping it there, despite huge security costs, is perhaps the biggest reason behind Rome’s efforts to pacify Libya — with or without allies.
According to recent figures released by ENI, total oil production in Libya has increased from pre-conflict levels of 240,000 barrels per day to an average of 300,000 barrels per day in 2015. Last year, ENI announced that it had discovered two oilfields off the Libyan coast.
ENI wants that new oil, which is why Renzi’s government is trying to keep its distance from France and the U.K., the two EU countries least opposed to another military intervention in Libya.
Rome fears that Paris and London could be motivated to take military action in order to stake a claim on Libya’s natural resources — the largest proven oil reserves in Africa and the fourth largest gas reserves on the continent.
“The West can train the military, supply arms, provide logistic and intelligence support, but the Libyans are the ones who have to be in the front line fighting Daesh,”
“There is a general mistrust among decision-makers towards a French and British intervention in Libya,” Massimo Artini, a member of the Italian parliament and its defense committee, said. “And the reason (for it) is ENI.”
However, some security experts said military intervention against ISIL would become easier with the backing of a strong unity government in Libya.
In February, Peter Ricketts, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s former national security adviser, tolf the BBC the likelihood of British forces being deployed in Libya was remote, “but supporting the Libyans to do a more effective job in governing their own space, I can certainly see a case for that.”
In Rome, there’s a realization that Italy can’t stabilize Libya on its own — either politically or militarily. That’s the reason Renzi needs to make sure Rome has the leading role in international efforts to install the unity government in Tripoli, and protect it from rival militias and ISIL, and in naval operations against human smugglers.
“There is only one strategy Rome can pursue in Libya,” said Vincezo Camporini, chief of defense staff of the Italian Armed Forces until 2011. “It has to play a leading role within the international coalition even though this might not be its preferred option.”
And in that, the Italians have full backing of the Obama administration, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly praising Renzi’s leadership on Libya. Renzi’s government has supported U.S. airstrikes on ISIL positions in Libya, but there is concern that any broader intervention against the militant group would prompt ISIL to send tens of thousands of migrants to Italy from the 200-kilometer stretch of the Libyan coast under its control.
‘Something needs to be done’
Despite its reluctance, plans have been drawn up in Rome for military intervention and its aftermath. Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni hosted a meeting of military leaders from around the world to ponder the establishment of a stabilizing force for Libya.
“There is consensus that something needs to be done,” Artini said. However, he added, there is no agreement on how it should be done: Declare a no-fly zone over Libya? Send a peacekeeping force? Provide training for its forces? “Nobody really has the perfect solution,” Artini said.
Bernardino Leon, former EU special representative and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, said the international community “needs to help the Libyans help themselves” to crush ISIL.
“The West can train the military, supply arms, provide logistic and intelligence support, but the Libyans are the ones who have to be in the front line fighting Daesh,” Leon said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.”A large international presence on the ground could be counterproductive, rising tensions instead of lowering them and dividing the country more than uniting it.”
A spokesman for the Italian defense ministry confirmed that preparations are underway for a proper and prompt response to any request from a new Libyan government for help — should such a request ever come.
“Let’s say the new Libyan government asks for support to train the police,” the spokesman said. “We want to be able to respond and send men within 15 days of receiving the request.”
This article was written for POLITICO Europe