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The role-playing in Lybia

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There’s no more choice between Serraj and Haftar: which side we need to take in a strife whose prize is not just Tripoli?

Lybia, Serraj and Haftar: there’s no more choice

Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

It is very easy to commit mistakes in the choices related to international politics, in particular the ones regarding our national security. At the same time, it is instead extremely difficult to openly recognise them when necessary to avoid further troubles. Or, it is even more complicated to try to fix adequately our wrong choices, if there is a way to do so in a way to avoid the consequences of our previous actions. In Libya, since the beginning of the strife between the two factions that – despite the Covid-19 pandemic – are still fighting in the outskirts of Tripoli, we made a tragic mistake supporting the Prime Minister, Serraj. It is necessary, however, stress the fact that we effectuated that choice when it appeared as obliged, especially in order to remain adherent to our traditional foreign policy alignments. Indeed, we have to consider that since the beginning the UN considered the Tripoli’s government as the only legitimate one, and that for us it has always been natural to adhere to the UN position, almost in a rigid and dogmatic way. Even if such a position appeared, since the beginning, in potential contrast with our national interest.

Our strict adherence to the so-called international legal framework, together with other factors, gave us also an hope to effectively play a role guide in the management of this issue. A role that would have been substantial and not merely formal, recognised as such by all the direct and undirect parts in cause. Then, for a while, there is also been present the illusion that our deployment could have been able to defend ENI’s interests, threatened, in theory, by the French company Total. Finally – maybe our most important concern – we thought that our support to Serraj would have consented us to better control the flows of illegal immigrants, who mostly depart from Tripolitania and not from Cyrenaica.

At the end of the day, after some years of constant support to Tripoli, we now face a conflict where there more numerous, intrusive and demanding undirect actors – following a partial discredit to the eyes of Libyans and of the international community, due to our production of ambitious, but ineffective, diplomatic initiatives. Our main sin, in this context, has been probably represented by our incapability to add to our diplomatic action, abstractly valid, concrete forms of support to ensure a potential agreement.

In other words, we did not want, or we proved unable to, promote an European action – since an only Italian intervention would have been both unrealistic and insufficient – able to bring in Lybia a reasonable number of Boots on the ground in order to discourage any temptation to disregard what would have been formally agreed. Our only excuse is the objective difficulty to do so within an European Union concentrated only on its north-eastern border and where the only middle-sized power remained after the United Kingdom abandonment, France, has the absolute priority of concentrating its forces in the defence of what remain of its influence in francophone Africa.

However, thanks to our inaction, the Libyan stage, once an anarchic scene of local, religious, and tribal militias, has become in these years one of the main theatres of the current strife for global Sunni leadership. Indeed, the last months events have tragically demonstrated that there is no more choice between Serraj and Haftar – which are by now no more than minor figures of a puppet exhibition – but, instead, between two way more complex and articulated deployments which are now fighting at the doors of Tripoli. Two sides that make their moves with extreme unscrupulousness and clear and defined strategies. For the sake of an even enhanced intricacy – and not just for us, but also for the EU –, one of the main contenders, Turkey, is a friend/enemy with which we share NATO membership and decades of common policy, while its opponent, Russia, is an enemy/friend whereby we never shared anything formally but, for energetical interest, we would also like to approach in some ways.

However, despite the current situation and even though Tripoli could fall in any moment, we Italians remain nearly immobile, after having focused our efforts, for months, in the construction of a European naval force – which have quite vague tasks and objectives. We do not even realise how, with the Turkish and Qatari support, the Muslim Brotherhood is advancing in Tripolitania – the territory of our “proxy” Serraj. The Brotherhood is a formation that has a political wing, but it also maintains parallelly, and quietly, a terroristic and fundamentalist characterisation. If this presence will really take place in Tripoli, this could represent for the Muslim Brotherhood a steppingstone to destabilize the whole Maghreb – which is already afflicted by various problems of political instability.

It is therefore still logic or in our national interest to support the Serraj government – and so the Turkish/Qatari presence and the Muslim Brotherhood advance – in the current conditions? Shall we not at least ask ourselves if it would be not the case to choose what appears to be as a lesser evil and pass to the other side? Yes, it would mean to align ourselves with Russia, but also the US do that when necessary. It would be than necessary to change sides but, for once in our history, we should that correctly. Avoiding to replicate the Savoyard King and General Badoglio actions of the 8 of September 1942, that would mean to speak frankly and directly since the beginning, and precising openly to ourselves and to the other actors that some actions, controversial in other circumstances, become obliged when our national interest is at stake. And this is especially true in relations to vital sectors such as the ones related to the Libyan crisis.

It may appear as absurd to speak about these subjects in the moment that we are currently living, where the collective attention is focused only on the virus evolution. It is, however, always important to keep in mind that “out there” the world has not stopped, and that we will not be in the position to complain if we will discover bad developments in theatres neglected by us for too long.

Eastwest remains with Tripoli (by Giuseppe Scognamiglio)

Eastwest often hosts authoritative reflections and opinions, also divergent from the editorial line, which underline our magazine’s reputation as open to a healthy debate, especially when evolutions of international scenarios are envisaged. In this specific case, precisely the President and a key member of our Scientific Committee, joint authors of a traditional and very appreciated column, decided to publish an editorial on a very delicate issue, the post-Gheddafi Libya, expressing a vision which is original and in contrast both with the Italian government policy and with our editorial line.

Indeed, we choose since the beginning to side with the United Nations, for institutional and practical belief, and because we find way more shared values with Tripoli’s government rather than with the General Haftar adventure – supported by countries with very different agendas from the ones of Rome and Brussels (included France and its unrealistic post-Gaullist vision, and I say this as a convinced supporter of Emmanuel Macron).

This must be maintained with all the consequences deriving from our choice, such as a positive evaluation of Turkey’s intervention that, in these days, is consenting with its drones to the legitimate Serraj government to regain ground. We thank deeply the President Romano Prodi and the General Giuseppe Cucchi for stimulating our reflections with free and critical spirit.

This article is also published in the June/July issue of eastwest.

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