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Since the 2011 revolution against Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libyans have often blamed outside actors for their continuing woes. Too frequently, this grievance has been overstated and used as an excuse to minimize the hard compromises that Libyans themselves need to undertake to achieve a durable peace. Over the last year, however, both France and Italy have played a more intrusive role in Libyan politics, undermining rather than supporting the UN-led peace initiative. Italy’s new populist government has introduced anti-immigration measures that threaten to keep hundreds of thousands of migrants stranded in Libya, with potentially disastrous results. At the same time, the French-Italian rivalry over migration, the future of Europe, and the question of whether Paris or Rome should be the leading international voice on Libyan affairs is compounding Libya’s already serious problems.
Italy is now organizing an international conference on Libya set for November 12–13. Rome has an opportunity to help the UN advance several crucial elements of its peace efforts, including organizing Libyan national elections and reaching a lasting security arrangement. Conversely, if the Italian government uses its conference to sideline UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salamé, fight publicly with the French, and trumpet its policies on migration, it will further confuse Libya’s chaotic politics.
Libya has long been important to Italy. A former Italian colony, it is now both a major transit country for African migration to Europe and a major supplier of Italy’s oil and natural gas. Rome’s interest in the country has only grown since 2014–15, when hundreds of thousands of migrants, most of them from other parts of Africa, began arriving in Libya to attempt the crossing into Europe.
Italy’s current government is a populist coalition between the left-wing Five Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing League.Since taking office in June, the government, led by the anti-immigrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has made reducing migration its top priority. Although arrivals were already falling, Salvini introduced a new policy—rejecting all migrant boats, including humanitarian vessels run by nongovernmental organizations, until other European states agree to take in more arrivals. As a result of these restrictions, drownings have become more frequent, with one study estimating eight deaths at sea per day since the beginning of the new Italian policy, compared to only three per day last year.
Italy’s new migration policy could have disastrous knock-on effects in Libya. Libya is already home to over 650,000 migrants, and Rome’s migration crackdown will condemn them to stay there, worsening the horrific conditions in its migrant camps and leaving migrants vulnerable to other types of exploitation. The other steps that Italy has taken or proposed—including funding the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrants at sea and deploying Italian troops to guard smuggling routes in the country’s south—will polarize Libya even further.
In order to secure its interests in the country, Rome has also sought to seize the diplomatic initiative—at least publicly. On July 31, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—a political novice elevated by Salvini and M5S leader Luigi Di Maio—visited the White House, where he announced a plan to hold his own conference on Libya, now scheduled for November 12–13 in Palermo. Trump praised the Italian government and acknowledged “Italy’s leadership role in the stabilization of Libya and North Africa.”
This was a critical endorsement for Conte, who is seeking to displace French President Emmanuel Macron as Europe’s most important leader in Libya. Macron, since entering office, has viewed Libya as an arena to demonstrate his foreign policy bona fides. In July 2017, he hosted a meeting in Paris with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj—whose internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) controls Tripoli with limited actual authority—and the strongman leader of Libya’s east, General Khalifa Haftar, in an effort to coordinate a cease-fire and plan for national elections. Yet the initiative was poorly coordinated with the international community, which threw its weight behind the more comprehensive UN Action Plan announced by Salamé in September 2017. This action plan called for an update to a stalled 2015 cease-fire, an inclusive national conference, and an agreement among Libya’s rival factions to approve a new constitution and electoral law, and prepare for elections by the end of 2018.
Salamé has worked tirelessly over the last year to bring Libya together through the official UN process. Although the French claim to be helping Salamé, their loosely coordinated diplomatic efforts allow Libya’s factions to play France off the UN and its key backers in the West. In May 2018, Macron invited four Libyan leaders, including Serraj and Haftar, to Paris to sign off on a plan to hold elections by December 10—a date widely regarded as impractical. Macron sought to jump-start the UN’s plan, but he only gave further reason for Libyan obstructionists (including those not invited to Paris) to delay good faith negotiating with the UN. Further, in a slight to the incoming Italian government, Macron scheduled the summit a week before the new coalition was formed so they could not attend at a political level.
Many have argued, including French and Italian officials, that their dispute over Libya is a product of France and Italy’s divergent interests in the country. Italy’s economic interests lie in Tripoli and the country’s west, controlled by the GNA, while France is concerned with bringing a semblance of order to Libya’s lawless south; a combination of smugglers, criminal networks, and terrorists threaten Paris’ traditional sphere of influence in the Sahel region, where it has 4,500 troops currently deployed. This has supposedly led France to favor Haftar out of the belief that he is better positioned to restore security and root out Libya’s jihadists.
French-Italian differences are motivated more by politics than by divergent interests in Libya.
However, French-Italian differences are motivated more by politics than by divergent interests in Libya. Macron considers himself—and France—to be the standard bearer for the EU, defending liberal values and international cooperation in a time of rising populist nationalism. Naturally, he sees the new Italian government as a threat to his political vision. In a June 21 speech, Macron compared the spread of populism to “leprosy” and warned Europeans against those who “hate Europe”—a thinly veiled reference to the Italian government. Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the M5S, fired back, “The real leprosy is the hypocrisy” of Macron, who in June had criticized Italy’s stance on migration but refused to allow a rescue ship with 600 migrants to dock in France. Macron doubled down on his views in his September speech to the UN General Assembly, proclaiming, “France will be there to ensure the world does not forget that the din of nationalism always leads to the abyss.” With France’s Libya policy run out of the Élysée and Salvini serving as the most powerful figure in Italy’s coalition, this rivalry is sure to persist—at the expense of Libyans.
The November 12–13 Conference in Palermo provides an opportunity for Italy to make a contribution to Libya’s peace process, but only if Conte and Salvini will elevate the role of the UN and minimize their competition with Macron. Despite its flaws, the UN process remains the best chance for stabilizing Libya. Salamé has closed some important gaps between Libya’s rival governments and identified remaining roadblocks. Starting from scratch with a new process (and a new envoy) would almost certainly lead to renewed violence absent negotiations. The Italians should recognize that reinforcing Salamé’s leadership role will be the only means of advancing Rome’s primary interests in migration and energy.
There are a few specific areas in which the Palermo conference could make a contribution to peace. After years of largely ignoring the country’s militias in favor of the political factions, in September the UN Support Mission in Libya negotiated a cease-fire among the Tripoli militias. Italy should help the international community to build on this cease-fire and advance a comprehensive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration plan for these armed groups. The conference could be used to develop a mechanism for sustaining a wider dialogue among the groups in Tripoli and beyond, and consolidating international support for the effort.
For its part, the Trump administration should support Libya’s political stabilization without playing favorites among France, Italy, and other outside actors such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The United States does not need to take ownership of the Libyan crisis, but it must play some role in its resolution. In July, for instance, when Haftar’s forces seized some of Libya’s oil reserves and threatened to sell the oil outside the GNA-aligned National Oil Corporation, the United States stated that such sales would violate a UN Resolution and expose buyers to U.S. and UN sanctions. This strengthened the legitimacy of the UN process and forced Haftar to back down. Neither Rome nor Paris could have achieved that result without diplomatic and economic warning from the United States. Washington should be similarly prepared to help the UN maintain its central role in Libya’s stabilization, rather than allowing Paris or Rome to hijack the process. In this way, Trump can avoid deeper involvement in Libya’s dysfunctional politics while making a positive contribution nonetheless.