Geopolitics of the Libyan crisis

by Giuliano Bifolchi

The Libyan crisis directly interests Italy which in the last days tried to manage the escalation inviting in Rome Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Serraj without any success. In fact, the Italian attempt to conduct its personal diplomacy resulted in a disaster when al-Serraj refused to come to Rome as a sign of protest against the Italian government that since 2014 have supported Tripoli government and now with a late desperate move wants to protect its interests in North Africa creating a network of contact with the different Libyan local key actors as Haftar.

Any attempts of dialogue on the Libyan crisis have resulted in good intentions and nice words without any real strategy and outcome. The West has supported al-Serraj recognizing him as the elected leader of the nation but when in April 2019 Khalifa Haftar started his military actions with the goal of conquering Tripoli and rule the country no one stood against his action in support of Tripoli government. Indeed, instead of aiding al-Serraj, many foreign actors such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, and Sudan but also France and the United States have sent their military aid in eastern Libya favouring Haftar in his confrontation against Tripoli.

At this moment only Ankara is giving military support to al-Serraj because the EU members do not agree on the Libya scenario. As a matter of fact, France is sustaining Haftar via military advisers and hardware together with Russia, Egypt, Sudan, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. On the other side, al-Serraj is theoretically backed by Turkey, Qatar, Italy and Brussels.

From this scenario, it is possible to state that Italy once again has proved its inability to play a major role in the Mediterranean area although it has a strategic position and favourable connection with Libya and entire North Africa.

France and Italy are again adversaries as they have been in last years regarding migration crisis management: in fact, supporting Haftar underlines that France has different goals in Libya than Italy and would like to strongly impact the local energy market improving the presence and field exploitation of the French company Total to the detriment of the Italian company Eni.

In November 2019 Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya in the field of security and military cooperation which allows a Turkish military intervention on the Libyan soil after al-Serraj’s request. Therefore, despite the embargo, Turkey has supplied ammunition, armoured vehicles and military technology to Misrata, either directly or through the port of Homs. Furthermore, the memorandum grants Turkey a favourable position for the exploitation of underground resources on the Libyan maritime coast.

The Turkish presence on the maritime coast will impact and challenge the activity of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), the international organization formed by Egypt, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Jordan whose purpose is to exploit the regasification plants on the Egyptian coast as a hub for energy trade to Europe and the international energy market.

Egypt has interested in backing Haftar not only for its economic projects in the energy field but also because president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, after jailing his predecessor Mohammed Morsi and arresting and persecuting the Muslim brothers, wants to avoid the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in the region.

The Russian Federation sustains Haftar according to the Kremlin’s strategy in the Mediterranean Sea and the MENA region. Open sources and Intelligence agencies have confirmed the presence of Russian private military companies as the Wagner Group or RSB Group working on the Libyan soil to support the Russian economic presence, particularly in the energy market (i.e. Tatnef).

Even though the US President Donald Trump has several times expressed his personal will to avoid any other US further implication in the Middle East and North Africa, Washington cannot lose ground in Libya because of the strategic relevance of the country which links the Mediterranean Sea with the Sub-Saharan region. According to open sources, during the ‘War of the Toyotas’ against Chad in 1987, Khalifa Haftar was taken prisoner and sent to the United States via Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and reappeared in the country in 2011 during the Libyan civil war to lead Benghazi’s militants against Ghaddafi. At that time, he has a US passport and he lived at Langley a kilometre far from the CIA headquarter. Haftar – US connection shows the US strategy of toppling down the current government in Tripoli supported by the international community at the expense of Italy and in favour of France, Russia, and Turkey.