Some hours before publishing this article, as many as nine hundred migrants were feared to have lost their lives in the warm vernal waters of the Mediterranean Sea following the capsizing of a ship in the Strait of Sicily, between southern Italy and Tunisia. The umpteenth massacre of illegal immigrants, namely men and women who pay thousands of dollars to people smugglers in order to board, which further underlines the profitable routes of regional human trafficking, the pillar of which lies in that hotbed of instability known as the Libyan state.
What’s happening in the seventeenth largest country in the world and one of the major African energy hub is the closest thing possible to what goes under the definition of ‘chaos’, a critical situation that highlights the culpable lack of strategy on the part of the military forces, mainly NATO with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Sweden, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, when it came to elaborating an effective plan for what would happen in the aftermath of the necessary end of the air and sea attacks, in a context characterized by rival militias having at their disposal huge quantities of weaponry that had belonged to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
To date, the outcome of the first Libyan civil war against the Raʾīs seems to be little in comparison to the messy, disorganized map of what used to be called ‘Libyan nation’ in the light of the second civil conflict fought between, on the one hand, the Islamist forces, guided by the Tripoli-based New General National Congress and defended by the coalition known as “Fajr Libya” (including Libya Shield Force, Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, Misrata, Amazigh and Tuareg militias and the National Guard), and, on the other, the Tobruk-based secular Libyan parliament, militarily supported by the so-called Libyan National Army (ideologically led by General Khalifa Haftar, ie the proponent of the “Operation Dignity” against Islamist armed groups in Benghazi), the Zintan brigades, as well as Warshefana and Toubou tribal militias.
Another destabilizing factor is adduced by the active participation of external regional actors, namely Turkey and Qatar in defense of the attempt of political Islam implemented by the first side, and Egyptian Colonel el-Sisi and the UAE monarchy in favor of the latter.
A situation of poor media visibility has partially mutated with the entrance into the Libyan ring by ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) through affiliated groups, in the second half of 2014. The jihadi leader, sniffing huge revenues from the exploitation of oil and arms/migrant trafficking (the latter taking place especially towards the Italian coasts of Sicily), had first probed the ground with his envoy Abu Nabil al-Anbari and subsequently made sure that the local Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam swore loyalty to the Middle Eastern-based caliphate, made Derna part of a self-styled Barqa Province within the IS. In early 2015, the media climax was reached through a series of events beginning with a terrorist attack on Tripoli’s Corinthia Hotel, later followed by a massive expansion in Sirte and, last but not least, the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. This latter event paved the Cairo government’s way for carrying out air strikes on Derna, with the dual intention of undermining the Islamists and, at the same time, pursuing its national interests in the bordering region of Cyrenaica.
A particularly active role in the Libyan crisis, at least in words, has been played by the Italian Government and its Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, whom has not ruled out a second military intervention “in the framework of international law” as an ‘extrema ratio’ if diplomacy, namely the mediation attempt between the two governments advocated by UN Envoy Bernardino León, fails. This reflects a deep relationship, especially economic, between Rome and Tripoli, which dates back to colonial times and was strengthened in the days of Silvio Berlusconi.
It all began in 1911, when then Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti declared war on the Ottoman Empire, which used to exercise a weak control over the North African nation. Initially conceived as a demonstration of the international prestige of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, as well as a gift to the public eye, whom saw Libya as a prosperous place and a probable migration destination (and, it goes without saying, with the influential support of some prominent industrial and economic lobbies) the Libyan adventure was to prove more difficult than expected. Consequently, the Italian troops were forced to change target and attack the Ottomans in the Aegean Sea. After the successful formation of the Italian dominion of the Dodecanese, the Sublime Porte finally agreed to sign the Treaty of Lausanne (1912), with which Italy gained de facto control of Libya. In the years following the conquest, Italian expectations of a fertile and prosperous country were to be clearly betrayed, so that the parliamentary opposition defined the colony as a ‘sandbox’ (in the words of Gaetano Salvemini).
The country’s borders as they are known today (and who knows for how much longer) were given its modern form by governor Italo Balbo under the fascist regime led by Benito Mussolini. Few years (and a significant colonization) later, in 1947, Italy lost control of its former colony, so Britain and France administered the North African spoils until the formation of the Kingdom of Libya (1951).
Although Colonel Gaddafi was the same revolutionary leader who had undertaken a tough process of nationalization with regard to local companies, as well as an estrangement of the Italian population once at the helm of the country (1969), in recent years the strategic cooperation between the two shores of the Mediterranean has paid off in different fields, primarily the energy sector, with a key role played by the Italian oil company ENI.
Up to now, there are two lines of thought on the situation in Libya. The first one is the diplomats’, which implies that mediation and dialogue are the only options to try to rebuild the social fabric in a country already torn by numerous internal conflicts. On the other, some politicians’ (mainly regional, but not only), which encourages a military intervention to oppose ISIS and the Islamists in Tripoli and the east, also bearing in mind their own national interests. Apparently, the diplomatic solution is the most sustainable in the long term: a further military intervention without an effective diplomacy would be equal to throwing more fuel on an indomitable fire, and could even make a coalition between ‘moderate’ Islamist forces with more extreme elements very plausible (as already, partly happens with Ansar al-Sharia, mainly known for allegedly being the mastermind of the attack against the US embassy in Benghazi). In sum, an Iraq 2.0.
In a time when both governments have no effectual grip on the people (and most likely on their associated militias, as well) and virtually no spending power, when oil production (on which government finances are based) has more than halved and tribes are rediscovering a yearning for independence, it is at least necessary that Tobruk and Tripoli do an exercise in humility in order to join forces against ISIL and its affiliates, in view of a broader collaboration within a government of national unity.
It is undeniably true that the above path is tortuous and somewhat tricky, but it’s either that, or even more chaos and deaths.