Analysis: Italy, Libya and the Ghost of Antonino di San Giuliano

The case of Rome’s foreign policy on Libya has been an unfortunate one for Italy.

The relationship between Italy and Libya has always been an erratic one, dating back to the early 1900s when Antonino Paternò-Castello di San Giuliano, Italy’s hawkish Foreign Minister, attempted to annex the North African country during the Turco-Italian War.

On the one hand, the geographical proximity and cultural similarities make the two countries logical - if not indispensable - trading partners; on the other hand, a history of violence reverberating from Italy’s colonial ambitions and conflicting political interests have often overshadowed diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The current escalation of violence in Libya, resulting from Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army’s (LNA) advance on Tripoli, the base of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), has put yet another strain between the two countries.

Italy’s former Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, meets with Fayez Al-Serraj in Rome on February 2nd, 2017.

Italy’s former Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, meets with Fayez Al-Serraj in Rome on February 2nd, 2017.

Understanding Italy’s foreign policy after 2011

Giuseppe Perrone, Italy’s former Ambassador to Libya, was accused of opposing Libyan elections in an interview on Libya's Channel television on August 3rd, 2018. He was replaced by Giuseppe Buccino at the end of 2018.

Giuseppe Perrone, Italy’s former Ambassador to Libya, was accused of opposing Libyan elections in an interview on Libya's Channel television on August 3rd, 2018. He was replaced by Giuseppe Buccino at the end of 2018.

Post-2011 Italy enjoyed a level of trust that the majority of international players did not as a result of its lack of meddling during the Libyan Civil War, particularly when compared to that of France, the UK and the US.

Today, that level of trust and communication between the two countries is a thing of the past, washed up by a lingering resentment that turned to outright hatred after a series of diplomatic blunders. A telling example of this occurred in August 2018, when Italy’s former Ambassador Giuseppe Perrone was accused of opposing Libyan elections in an interview on Libya's Channel television on August 3rd, 2018. In a country that is divided on a cellular level, all Libyans participated in calls to remove the Ambassador from his post.

Thus, the question that begs to be asked is: how did Italy go from enjoying neutrality and credibility among Libyans, to losing all the privileges and good will it had achieved?

Italy and the Militias

One reason for the growing rift between the two countries can be observed when examining Italy’s relationship with the various militias in Libya. After 2011, Italy, like most international players in Libya, was forced to establish links with militias on the ground. However, as opposed to its European counterparts or American allies, Italy approached this particular diplomatic minefield head on, putting little thought to the potential repercussions of openly engaging with militias.

Indeed, unlike other European powers that kept their meetings with local militia secret, or carried them out via proxies, Italian officials would meet militia leaders in public locations, particularly hotels in Tripoli. This public approach resulted in Italy being seen as the most affiliated power to militia in Libya, particularly with the militia in the West.

The Italian Field Hospital in Misrata, Libya.

The Italian Field Hospital in Misrata, Libya.

Italian military bases

The decision to openly fraternise with militias barely scratches the surface of Italy’s miscalculated foreign policy tactics in Libya, and doesn’t quite explain the extent of the resentment felt by everyday Libyans towards Italy’s government.

One of Rome’s major miscalculations is not only its publicised interactions with militias, but the decision to sign agreements with them, despite the former not falling under the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) umbrella of ‘legitimacy’ at the time of the agreement.

Italy has for years now had a military presence in the West thanks to agreements with Misrata officials that resulted in it opening the Italian Field Hospital in Misrata’s Air Base and another base in Gaser Ahmed. Furthermore, in addition to Italy’s presence in Tripoli’s Naval Base, the Italians also were able to build a base near Zuwara to ensure the protection of Italian oil and gas interests in the region.

Italian soldiers in a training session with GNA forces. In addition to Italy’s presence in Tripoli’s Naval Base, the Italians also were able to build a base near Zuwara to ensure the protection of Italian oil and gas interests in the region.

Italian soldiers in a training session with GNA forces. In addition to Italy’s presence in Tripoli’s Naval Base, the Italians also were able to build a base near Zuwara to ensure the protection of Italian oil and gas interests in the region.

Members of the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, one of the main militias in the front lines against the LNA in Tripoli. Italy has provided support and legitimacy to the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the two powerful Sabratha based “Al-Ammu” and “Brigade 48” militias.

Members of the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, one of the main militias in the front lines against the LNA in Tripoli. Italy has provided support and legitimacy to the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the two powerful Sabratha based “Al-Ammu” and “Brigade 48” militias.

Italian logistics support

The Italian government has been at the forefront of the European campaign to battle the migrant crisis. However, public perception in Libya is skeptical regarding Italy’s efforts. Italian intelligence agencies have long been accused of supporting the same militias that play an active role in the migrant crisis, steal state funds, smuggle oil and engage in people trafficking.

In fact, the militias and coastguard that Italy funds are the same actors accused of facilitating the transportation of migrants from Libya to Europe. Furthermore, it did not bode well for the Italian state that the same militias it has supported since 2011 - that is, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the two powerful Sabratha based “Al-Ammu” and “Brigade 48” militias - have risen in notoriety, becoming Libya’s biggest crime kingpins. Indeed, there are extensive reports of these militias arresting civilians, as well as breaking and entering in both civilian households and government institutions all while holding Prime Minister al-Sarraj’s government at gunpoint.

Italy’s success in cutting off the flow of migrants from Libya is partly due to the deals it has cut with the two Sabratha militias and the GNA. In exchange for the militias renouncing their trafficking services, Italy provided the al-Dabashi brothers that run both militias with salaries for their 500 fighters along with equipment, boats and recognition by the GNA defence ministry, so that they could ‘legally’ interact with foreign nations. Bashir Ibrahim, the spokesperson for the al-Ammu militia, described the arrangement as a partial truce that depends solely on the continued stream of funding and support, and that they will revert back to the smuggling business should the agreement fall apart. It is crucial to note that the al-Ammu militia has been repeatedly reported to be the key facilitator for human trafficking by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya. Since then, the militia has gained several contracts to guard the Mellitah oil complex in western Sabratha, home to a series of joint Italian-Libyan oil projects.

Such transactions were what made the Italian state fall in standing vis-à-vis its European counterparts.

To be sure, although the majority of states active in Libya have funded militias or conducted similar arrangements with their leaders in order to protect their respective national interests, the latter were never openly publicised and remained within certain inner circles. Indeed, perhaps one of Italy’s biggest shortcomings was dealing with parties that failed to keep things secret, whereas other international actors were able to conduct themselves similarly without losing face with Libyan decision makers.

In point of fact, Italian deals with Sabratha militias were publicised by the militia leaders themselves, forcing the Italian Foreign Ministry to deny such claims time and time again. By contrast, the US was able to strike agreements of its own without word getting out, so much so that just last week they withdrew an unknown battalion of military troops from Libya, catching even local militias and LNA by surprise. Such transgressions heavily impacted the state of Italy’s reputation in Libya.

Unholy Alliances

In contrast to Italy, France - which is still held responsible by Libyans for planting the seeds of discord during the Sarkozy presidency - finds itself enjoying somewhat of a less stigmatic reputation as a result of its choice of alliances in Libya.

From left: Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s renegade general and head of the Libyan National Army; President Emmanuel Macron of France; Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Paris during a peace summit on May 29th, 2018.

From left: Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s renegade general and head of the Libyan National Army; President Emmanuel Macron of France; Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Paris during a peace summit on May 29th, 2018.

Italy famously allied itself with militias in the west of Libya, while France chose the Libyan National Army in the East led by Libya’s renegade general, Khalifa Haftar. In doing so, both countries’ standing became factionalised and reflective of their choice of alliances on the ground. While militias in the west were growing in prominence as criminals, smugglers, and thieves, they produced little to no accomplishments for the Italian state to advertise.

In the meantime, Haftar’s forces successfully freed Benghazi from extremists and brought a sense of stability to the east of Libya in general. This was followed by a successful campaign in the south that assisted in what the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ghassan Salame described as a “positive and stabilising development”.

Such successes by the LNA allowed France to refresh its negative image and gave them the higher ground when talking about Libya on the international level.

The rise of colonial era rhetoric

From left: Khalifa Haftar; Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister; Fayez al-Sarraj.

From left: Khalifa Haftar; Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister; Fayez al-Sarraj.

Ever since the rise of Salvini, Italy began suffering from a deficiency in diplomatic sensitivity, breaking away from international norms of decency and developing a Trump-like attitude of ‘saying it as it is’. Case in point, the Italian deputy prime minister referred to Libya as “Italy’s responsibility” -- adding insult to the already injured Libyan pride.

Although the Libyan political scene is one full of politicians ready to sell themselves to whatever foreign power may come their way, the everyday Libyan is known to be proud and nationalistic. These characteristics, coupled with Italy’s former role as Libya’s colonisers, re-opened old wounds.

The lack of a unified government back in Rome, particularly with the incoming ‘Five Stars’ and ‘Lega Nord’ MPs, proved to be a problem for the Italian Foreign Ministry itself, with clear divisions between it and the Ministry of Interior. By failing to uphold the international norms of mutual respect and diplomacy that first act as the basis on which the international community interacts, Salvini has time and time again put the Foreign Ministry in the awkward position of having to clean up his mess.

Matteo Salvini, the Italian Interior Minister caused a diplomatic crisis by stating that France “has no interest in stabilizing the situation [in Libya], probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy”. France, in turn, denied the statements describing them as “ludicrous” and summoning the Italian ambassador to Paris for an explanation.

Matteo Salvini, the Italian Interior Minister caused a diplomatic crisis by stating that France “has no interest in stabilizing the situation [in Libya], probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy”. France, in turn, denied the statements describing them as “ludicrous” and summoning the Italian ambassador to Paris for an explanation.

A barrage of statements from the Italian government made through the second half of 2018 reached critical point when former ambassador Giuseppe Perrone was interviewed on August 3rd by Libya’s Channel and was accused of suggesting that Libya was not ready to hold elections, a comment that was perceived as colonial condescendence by the Libyan people. Although the points made by Perrone were well founded and much tamer than that of his ministers back at the time, his condescending tone immediately led to a recall of historical and colonial baggage that Libyans worked so hard to forget. This resulted in protests requesting Perrone’s replacement and statements of condemnations from the House of Representatives in the East, the High Council of State in the West, the Libyan National Army, and the Presidential Council - what could be, to this date, the only time all four bodies have agreed on something.

Such is the state of Italy’s foreign policy in Libya, a series of miscalculations and bad decisions that, albeit for a moment, had warring rivals unanimously agree to condemn Italy’s actions. Moreover, this happened in a country that has been torn apart by ten different foreign powers which all engaged in similar behaviours, if not worse, but were able to maintain a diplomatic facade.

“No clear plan”

The question that fails to be answered by all Italian officials is “what is your plan?”. Indeed, Italy has become the head commentator and opposition on all proposed peace plans in Libya.

Whether it is Ghassan Salame’s peace conference that received fierce resistance from the Italians up until the September war in Tripoli - serving as a stark reminder of Libya’s fragile state- or Rome’s attack on France’s surprise Paris meeting that had all major Libyan players on the negotiating table for the first time, Italy has never failed to slow down the peace process in Libya.

These harsh positions had many asking Italy what their plan was, a question which would only be met with an empty “peace and stability in Libya” statement. As to how Italy plans for that peace and stability to be achieved, the answer is still unknown.

As a result of Italy not proposing concrete roadmaps to leading Libya out of its current crisis, and acting as an opposition for any attempt by other parties to do so, it informally gained the nickname of “The Spoiler”.

An image of the conflict south of Ain Zara, Tripoli. Credit: Mahmud Turkia/AFP — Getty Images

An image of the conflict south of Ain Zara, Tripoli. Credit: Mahmud Turkia/AFP — Getty Images

Italy’s standing today

Out of all foreign players in Libya, Italy finds itself in the most uncomfortable position.

Its allies in the west of Libya are on the defensive, scrambling to respond to the LNA’s military operation to take control of Tripoli, and mired by internal disarray as thugs, extremists and local criminals join the fray.

While most foreign governments have already begun directly intervening to support their proxies, Italy, however, cannot risk to do so without due consideration — meaning it will potentially lose a chance to ensure its local allies come out on top. Specifically, Italy’s reputation as a spoiler coupled with its colonial legacy will lead to a much more heated response from Libyans, one that could risk it receiving a major blow. As Italy is actively intervening to assist the GNA and Misrata, this could result in both losing what support they have left and giving more legitimacy to Haftar’s operation.

To add fuel to the fire, Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, Italy’s Deputy Prime Ministers, have both accused France of contributing to the migration crisis. In an interview to Italy’s RTL radio station, Salvini remarked that “it would be very serious if France had blocked an EU initiative to bring peace to Libya for economic or commercial reasons”, adding that “as minister of the interior I will not stand by and watch”. This came just a few days after the Italian Interior Minister caused a diplomatic crisis by provocatively stating France “has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy”. France, in turn, denied the statements describing them as “ludicrous” and summoning the Italian ambassador to Paris for an explanation.

Italy’s next move will need to be meticulously thought out as it could risk losing all it worked to achieve. Libya Desk has theorised some scenarios by which Italy could get back within a position of trust in Libya, concluding that there is hope for an Italian comeback. More so, Italy could end up playing a decisive role in getting Libya out of its current state of chaos — the solution, however, despite being more achievable than one would think, would require a fundamental shift in the country’s approach that we do not predict the powers that be in Rome would be willing to accept.


For more info and analysis, follow @LibyaDesk on Twitter or subscribe to Libya Desk Memos to receive a curated selection of insights and updates from Libya, delivered straight to your inbox every month.