Libya: ostriches are dangerous on the Russian-Turkish chessboard

(To Antonio Li Gobbi)
28/12/19

In Libya the so-called "international community" has failed (not new). Above all, an Italy that from the Franco-British attack on Gaddafi onwards has never been able to express any autonomous political vision towards its former colony and that has supinated itself has failed and continues to fail (for myopia or cowardice) from time to time to solutions decided elsewhere (and this is not new!)

Nobody denies that, in an ideal world, the solution to the crisis should have been the result of a multilateral effort involving all the main international players with a view to a "comprehensive approach"1 UN-led (primarily political, economic, social and only limited military). Moreover, an approach that is always evoked (unfortunately only in theory) and regularly shunned (in real life).

This was not the case, and unfortunately, it cannot be done by now. The Libyan desert has in fact become the chessboard on which a new game to control the Mediterranean is played. The two chess players are both skilled, unscrupulous and finely calculating: the Tsar and the Sultan.

All this to the amazement of an increasingly unconscious Europe and less interested USA.

Do not think that there is only the non-despicable energy heritage of Libya at stake (which in any case represents 38% of the oil reserves of the African continent and which covers a significant portion of European consumption)

For both sides, the Libyan game is part of a much larger geo-political design.

Russia, which recently strengthened its positions in Syria and Egypt, aims to expand its area of ​​influence along the southern Mediterranean coast (a sea that has historically always been denied) and to acquire a "base" from which to operate in much of North Africa.

Russian expansion in the region responds to clear strategic needs of a nation that wants to go back to being a superpower. Thanks to an incisive and realistic foreign policy and a farsighted strategic “vision”, Putin is confirming himself as the only credible guarantor of stability in the Middle East and North Africa region. A guarantor who, unlike the various distracted and unwary tenants of the White House, does not abandon his "proteges" when they are in difficulty2 and which may appear credible, despite the country's limited financial resources, even in the post-war reconstruction phase.

Furthermore, thinking of Europe, towards which Russia is notoriously able to exert pressure from the East, Putin tends to propose himself as the reference power of many of the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, thus acquiring also a capacity pressure potential from the South, in a virtual enveloping maneuver.

For its part, Turkey dreams of a return to Ottoman greatness, idealized in comparison with a certain "ghettoization" of which it is proclaimed instrumentally victim today. The Sultan, moreover, had expressed interest in Libya when Gaddafi was still firmly in power. The relations between the Turkish Islamists and the "Colonel" date back to the end of the last century3. After Erdogan's election as Turkish Prime Minister in 2003, Ankara started fruitful collaborations with Tripoli in multiple industrial and commercial sectors and, at the beginning of the riots against Gaddafi, Turkey was one of Libya's main trading partners.

Furthermore, Ankara continues to show a decidedly instrumental attention towards a Turkish ethnic minority located in the Misurata area.4. This also serves to justify its interference as "protection of the Turkish brothers".

The Turkish understanding is not, however, only commercial and energy. Ankara's plan (which moves in unison with Qatar) is also to create a basis for expansion of "political Islam" in Libya (or part of it in case of partition of the country), with all that which could ensue for neighboring countries (Italy included).

In considering the situation, it is also necessary to take note that Erdogan today represents one of the main risk factors for Italy in the Mediterranean area. We have already received more than one slap from him (from the case of the SAIPEM12000 platform to the very recent redefinition of the EEZs, which also damages us) and we always "Christianly" bring the other cheek. In foreign policy, such an attitude has never paid off.

As soon as Al Sarraj, in constant difficulty for years, asked for a clear and concrete military assistance (he had actually asked us too) Turkey immediately provided its willingness to send a large military contingent to support it. Do not be fooled by the fact that the parliamentary decision is scheduled for January 7: it is a proforma. Parliament will approve enthusiastically and everyone knows it.

The Turkish military intervention will probably be concentrated in the western areas of the country, where Al Sarraj holds power on paper and where there are the greatest Libyan oil resources: yes exactly what they are (or, perhaps, we could already begin to say "they were" ) managed by ENI. Obviously this would only be a first step in the context of Turkish aims to acquire oil exploration concessions in Libya. Will Italy be able to impose itself to guarantee ENI's rights? The precedents do not give cause for optimism.

It is evident that an even more marked intervention by Erdogan alongside Al Sarraj, in the face of an ongoing Italian passivity, will not only sanction the total Italian irrelevance in the solution of the Libyan crisis, but will also involve other more serious risks. In fact, in this eventuality unfavorable solutions would be created in many sectors (from the exploitation of natural resources by ENI to the control of illegal migrations), sectors that probably had at the time led us to "aim", in the Libyan dispute, on the "most shabby horse" (precisely Al Sarraj). This would already be dramatic, but perhaps it would be the least danger.

A Libya eventually "pacified" thanks to the political, military and economic support of Turkey and Qatar would, willingly or unwillingly, become a laboratory for the dangerous experiments of the Muslim brotherhood and more fundamentalist political Islam. The country could become both a base from which Sunni fundamentalism would try to expand in the rest of North Africa, risking to destabilize Egypt and Algeria (which have already had some not insignificant problems with Sunni fundamentalism), and a potential "sanctuary ”From which to relaunch the Islamist project towards Europe. All this within a few hours of sailing from Italy.

On the margins of this dangerous "chessboard", nothing seems to move: Italy, the European Union and the United States appear disinterested and inert.

Given, however, that Libya is on the doorstep of our home and not of others, given that neither the EU, nor the US of Trump (which could dictate US foreign policy for another 5 years), nor - much less - France Macron will never give us a hand in this regard, worries the passivity with which national political authorities deal with the problem, as if they were convinced that continuing to do nothing (or limiting themselves to convenient phone calls with interested leaders) before or then the problem solves itself. This is not the case!

Ostrich policy does not pay: someone else will certainly be able to intervene and impose "his" solution, but that DON'T will take into account Italian concerns and interests.

Similarly, it is too late and the situation has deteriorated too much to think that reaching any lasting solution should not pass also (I would say almost above all) through a military phase. In fact, even to get seriously around a negotiating table it will have been necessary, first of all, the recognition of the respective skills also under the military aspect. Military capabilities that will depend both on Haftar and Al Sarraj above all on external military aid that can actually be used and spent in the comparison, or by those put in place (clearly or not) by the respective sponsors.

Italy, on the other hand, always fearful and hesitant, seems to continue to deny the evidence and hide behind unrealistic statements such as "the solution to the Libyan crisis can only be political, not military " and to dream of an improbable “Stabilization process that is inclusive, intra-Libyan and that passes through diplomatic channels and dialogue". Statements which, read in view of the situation on the ground, they denote exclusively our inability to be relevant and our terror to take a clear position on a crisis of which Italy (due to its guilty passivity from 2011 onwards) is also jointly responsible.

We have now reached the point where (given our position in the Mediterranean) it is no longer possible to remain at the window waiting for the evolution of events and we can no longer afford positions of impartiality and neutrality in relation to the geo-political match that it is being played in Libya.

Let us not delude ourselves that we are able to propose ourselves as super partes mediators, because we would not be credible. We were unable to mediate at the beginning of the conflict, when perhaps we could have proposed ourselves in this capacity to Al Sarraj and Haftar alone. Now that it would be a matter of mediating between Russia and Turkey, we would be ridiculous just to think about that role!

Even all the discussion about a "special envoy" for Libya seems just another excuse to waste time. Regardless of the caliber of the designated, who can be a top-level broker, when the vital interests of the two opposing factions and their powerful and unprejudiced strategic sponsors clash, what can a broker expression of a government devoid of ideas, awareness of national interests and, above all, of character?

Let us not be under the illusion that we can once again exempt ourselves from taking on difficult positions, waiting to join (as usual) some supranational Organism. In fact, it seems to me that neither the will nor the ability of the EU to take a position in this regard can be glimpsed on the horizon (and, please, forget NATO which in Libya has already done enough damage).

It is obvious that by clearly choosing which side to stand, in this geo-political confrontation that has found fertile ground in a torn Libya (also because of us) we would pay all the consequences of the choice and, surely, we would pay dearly. All possible options are full of unknowns, risky and expensive (politically, economically and, perhaps, even militarily).

Where instead, as it seems, we will continue to choose not to choose, to wait for others to resolve the Libyan crisis for us, we will continue to have no say and we will lose anyway, regardless of the future development of the crisis (that there is a success of Haftar or Al Sarraj or more likely a Russian-Turkish agreement on the type of Syrian for a compromise solution and sharing the areas of respective influence).

It is true that taking a position on the Russian-Turkish geo-political confrontation, which could have anything but irrelevant effects for the entire Mediterranean, whatever the position you take, you will expose yourself to very serious political and economic risks. Moreover, continuing to ignore that what we are going to play in Libya is a game for the control of the Mediterranean and passively suffering the consequences of what others will decide for us, it is not said that we expose ourselves to lesser risks.

Continuing to make ostriches, we will end up with capons.

1 Known in the UN and NATO context as "Comprhensive Approach".

2 See the case of Bashir Assad on the one hand and the Kurds on the other.

3 In this regard, it seems certain that the Islamic Call Society (controlled by Gaddafi) has helped the Turkish Islamist party (AKP) in its rise to power.

4 Karaghla tribe, dating back to the beginning of the Ottoman occupation, nowadays present, as well as in Misrata, Tripoli, Zawiya and Zliten The tribe although not exceeding 5% of the population is described as politically and economically influential.

Photo: Kremlin / Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri / Prime Minister's Office / Twitter