Turkey's encroachment in western Libya puts Italy's interests at risk

Rome is trying to regain control of the Sarraj government to preserve its oil investment in Libya.
Tuesday 02/06/2020
Italy's Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte attends a news conference with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their talks in Ankara last January. (AP)
Italy's Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte attends a news conference with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their talks in Ankara last January. (AP)

TUNIS - Turkey's rush to dominate western Libya puts Italy's interests at risk. Picking up on that clue, the Italians have begun working to regain control of the Government of National Accord (GNA), keeping in mind that the members of this government entered the capital Tripoli in April 2016 aboard an Italian frigate and had unlimited Italian support. But in light of the military developments on the ground during the past two years, Rome decided to readjust its agenda in Libya.

A phone call made by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj reflected Italy's concern about Turkey's growing appetite in Libya, as the latter went beyond the limits of the task entrusted to it, which was to redress the military imbalance in Tripoli in such a way as to force Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA) to return to the political process.

The Italian prime minister expressed his country's concern about external parties continuing to send weapons to Libya, which it believes is further fuelling the conflict, prolonging the suffering of Libyan people and threatening Libya's neighbours and European security.

Conte stressed the need to return to the political process in accordance with the decisions of the Security Council and the outcomes of the Berlin Conference, pointing out that deciding the future of Libya should be in the hands of the Libyans alone and not with external hands, and praised the GNA’s shown desire to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis.

The Italian prime minister called for the speedy appointment of a new UN envoy in Libya to succeed American Stephanie Williams, stressing the need to resume Libyan oil production, which represents the wealth of all Libyans and their main source of income.

Rome shares the fears of all Western countries of the reproduction of the “Syria scenario” in Libya by placing the Libyan file in the hands of Turkey and Russia. The latter is accused by the United States of providing military support to the LNA.

In the midst of the Italian-French competition for influence and interests in Libya, Turkey managed to slip into Libya and achieve some control over a region vital to Europe’s strategic security from the south and its energy security since the very important underwater Greenstream Pipeline supplying Europe with Libyan natural gas runs through western Libya.

Italy and France are now confused about Turkish control of the land in Libya, and eye with great concern Russian projects that aspire to monopolise the oil potential of eastern Libya or share it with Turkey.

Turkey’s sudden surge in Libya had the tacit blessing of the United States, Britain and Italy, which had hoped to strike a new military balance in western Libya, where the LNA recently lost a number of important positions due to direct Turkish military intervention, the last of which was al-Watiya air base.

Italy's implicit support for Turkish intervention stems mainly from its fears of a possible victory by the LNA, which is an ally of France, a rival power in Libya. Haftar had accused Rome of siding with Islamists militias in Tripoli and the city of Misrata.

In 2016, Italy sent a military hospital to treat the wounded in the battle for the liberation of the city and area of Sirte from ISIS forces. The hospital was set up in Misrata military base, raising many doubts as to whether or not the Italian mission was essentially a military one carried out under humanitarian cover. However, the Italian mission did not help the Islamists repel the LNA’s attack on Tripoli, a stance that reflected Rome’s caution to not enage directly in the conflict between the rival governments.

Rome’s influence and role in Tripoli has declined since the end of the mission of Italian Paolo Serra as military adviser to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Serra was accused by some of working to secure Rome's interests in the Skhirat agreement, while others linked him to the military victories achieved by the LNA, especially after its control of the Sharara and El-Feel oilfields in the south.

Italian company Eni has invested in El-Feel oil field as well as the Al-Wafa field located southwest of Tripoli, the starting point of the Greenstream pipeline to Italy and Europe. Eni has also invested in the Bouri Offshore Field, 120km to the west of Tripoli on the Libyan coast.

The maritime demarcation agreement between the GNA in Tripoli and Ankara is seen as a real threat to Italy's interests, especially with Turkey's rush to explore for gas and oil in the eastern Mediterranean. On Friday, Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez confirmed that Turkey may begin drilling for oil in the eastern Mediterranean within three or four months, according to an agreement signed with Libya.

These statements seem to have deepened Rome's concern that Ankara intends to go beyond the limits set for its role in Libya; so it will seek to restore the warmth of its relations with the Tripoli government by supporting the current led by Sarraj. It is noteworthy that the Tripoli government is divided into two currents, one representing the Islamists and Misrata Alliance, led by Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha and currently considered the strongest current, and one representing Tripoli led by Sarraj.

The vice-president of the Presidential Council, Ahmed Maiteeq (Misrata representative in the council), criticised the Italian position on the attack carried out by the LNA on Tripoli, and his statements were considered a warning to Italy. Maiteeq said there have been many governments and countries that have helped and approached Tripoli when the latter needed help.

He recalled the November 2019 attack by Haftar's forces, which almost led to the LNA's takeover of Tripoli, and which led Rome to then engage in dialogue with Haftar. “Italy, however, and because it lacked political savvy and strategic logic, lost a partner in the Mediterranean, and it will be difficult for it to offset this loss in the future,” he said

Maiteeq's statements reflected the stance of the Misrata and Islamists' coalition within the Tripoli government regarding Italy. For his part, former Grand Mufti of Libya Sadiq al-Ghariani called to hand the wealth of all Libyans over to Turkey by granting Ankara absolute priority in oil and gas exploration.