The role of Italy in the Mediterranean

(To Umberto Camillo Iacoviello)

A nation that is struggling to find a framework for internal politics is unlikely to develop a coherent strategy for international relations. In fact, Italy lacks a foreign policy program at least since 2011, also due to the constant changes of government (7 from 2011 to today). The result of this instability is the loss of strategic positions in the international scenario, especially in Italy's natural area of ​​influence: the Mediterranean.

Turkey, driven by Erdoğan's neo-Ottomanism, is undermining the interests of political subjects operating in the Mediterranean - including Rome.

Turkey overtakes Italy in Libya

In the conflict between Haftar and al-Sarraj, Italy was initially aligned with the latter, the president of the Tripoli national agreement government asked for armaments to several countries including Italy, without receiving any response. Consequently al-Sarraj turned to Ankara, happy to accept Tripoli's requests to extend its influence in North Africa, after carving out an important role in the Horn of Africa. Italy then seemed to change (belatedly) ally by focusing on the general of Cyrenaica who meanwhile had already found support from other powers (Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates). With the usual moderation in April 2019 Prime Minister Conte had declared that Italy is not "neither with Sarraj nor with Haftar, but with the Libyan people", words of circumstance that in practice translate into an Italy almost irrelevant in the Libyan scenario.

Another defeat of Italian diplomacy arrived on January 8 this year: Conte after meeting Haftar had scheduled a meeting with al-Sarraj for the same day, who after hearing about the conversation between the Italian prime minister and the general, deserted the appointment.

In Covid-19, the focus on Libya has faded, but there have been developments in recent weeks. Already in the first months of this year the airports of Tripoli and Misurata have been made safe with operations led by the Turks, in recent weeks Tripoli has gone on the counterattack. On March 25, the National Agreement Government led by al-Sarraj launched the Operation Peace storm, a counter-offensive planned and coordinated by Ankara to lead the Gan and Syrian militias with the aim of securing the surrounding Tripoli area. In a few days they managed to conquer strategic positions on the east coast, freeing the coastal strip from Tripoli to the border with Tunisia. Haftar suffered a ruinous defeat in Sabrātā, where several officers were killed and soldiers were forced to flee to al-Watya air base.

There is only one certainty about the Libyan conflict: both sides depend on aid from abroad. In the case of Syria, both jihadist militias who fought in the ranks of the Islamic State and Al Qaida on the side of al-Sarraj, and mercenaries loyal to Assad, fighting for Haftar, are landing in Libya. The Libyan conflict brought the United Arab Emirates closer to Assad (the first in the Syrian war had supported the anti-Assad rebels), this as a result of a common commitment to contain Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya.

In April of this year, EU diplomacy also arrived, which initiated Operation EunavforMed Irini, which has as its purpose "the implementation of the United Nations arms embargo through the use of air, satellite and sea vehicles. In particular, the mission will be able to inspect ships on the high seas, off the Libyan coast, suspected of carrying weapons or related material to and from Libya in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2292/2016 ". The mission will also control illicit exports from Libya of crude oil and refined petroleum products, will deal with the strengthening of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy.

Despite the good intentions of the EU, it should be noted that the ships of the mission will be withdrawn if they were to start attracting boats loaded with immigrants, as Gianandrea Gaiani notes, this means that it would be enough for the Libyan contenders to send some boats carrying immigrants into the sea to get the go-ahead again for the naval transport of weapons. Tripoli receives the most damage from this mission and receives military aid by sea from Turkey, but if European ships were to encounter a ship carrying weapons by Erdoğan, could they engage in a naval battle with Turkey?1 And again, what will become of our economic interests, Eni in the first place, present on Libyan soil since 1959 if al-Sarraj led by an Erdoğan who is not very willing to dialogue will prevail?

In this conflict the Italian soldiers found themselves in danger several times, in January of this year 300 Italian soldiers - engaged in a humanitarian mission - found themselves in Misrata between Haftar's troops and Turkish forces; during the aforementioned Operation Peace storm, in the Abu Seta naval base, a mortar shot fell 250 meters from the Italian ship Gorgona, forcing the transport ship to move to a safer area.

With the advance of al-Sarraj's troops, dangerous criminals have been freed such as Ahmad Dabbashi, an expert human trafficker and oil smuggler. Shortly after the conquest of Sabrātā by Turkish forces and al-Sarraj, a boat with 2 illegal immigrants on board arrived in Lampedusa on May 69, sailed from Sabrātā, departures that did not take place when the city was under Haftar's control. .

The Turkish presence in the Horn of Africa

In recent years, Italy has returned to being interested in its former colonies in the Horn of Africa, albeit late and with a more marginal role than other European countries and especially with respect to Turkey. There Turkish Petroleum Corporation it extracts oil in Somalia and has also entered into agreements with neighboring Kenya, where Turkish private and state-owned companies can explore energy opportunities. Ankara wants to go further, points to an influence on the route between the Turkish Straits and Bāb al-Mandab (between the Republic of Jubuti and Yemen), passing from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean; as the military outposts of Doha and Mogadishu reveal.

Just in Somalia there is the largest Turkish representation abroad, with one of the largest military training centers outside its borders, the one that trains local security forces against Al Shabaab terrorists. However, the terrorists themselves "monitored almost all the cargoes sent by Erdoğan with medical aid for the coronavirus epidemic. At least four flights since the first case in Somalia in mid-March."2 Strange Turkish contradictions in Somalia. For this reason, it is legitimate to think of relationships of understanding between Al Shabaab terrorists and Turkish secret services (MIT) in the release of Silvia Romano. A journalistic investigation in Turkey revealed close relations between Somali terrorists and Turkish intelligence, an issue soon covered up by the son-in-law of Erdoğan, a member of the powerful Albayrak family that is doing gold business in Somalia3. In the liberation of women, the Italian government has only put capital and Ankara will not forget this favor.

In addition to having dealt with Somali terrorists, we remember that payment to a terrorist organization is explicitly prohibited by Article 2 of the New York Convention signed and ratified by our country4, the image of Italy is also compromised in Egypt, since we have done business with Cairo for 871 million euros by selling war vehicles and in a short time condoning the question of Giulio Regeni to the al-Sīsī regime and also the recent arrest of the researcher of the University of Bologna Patrick George Zaki.

Italy in the Greek-Turkish conflict in Cyprus

Remaining in the eastern Mediterranean, it is in Cyprus that Italy is showing itself more present to defend its interests. Ankara has sent a drilling vessel in the North-East of Cyprus to carry out surveys for oil wells, with the intention of going to the Exclusive Economy Zone, in the aforementioned zone the operating licenses are in the hands of the Italian Eni and the French Total. Erdoğan continues to claim the rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which is recognized only by Turkey itself and Turkish Energy Minister Faith Donmez has sentenced "To the other actors, who are outside the region and who are putting in place forms of cooperation with Cyprus, we say not to delude ourselves because they will not achieve results. That they will not participate in illegal stratagems no one will stop Turkey in its pursuing goal in a certain way ". The reference "to other actors" is clear, it is Italy, France and Greece.

France must defend Total's interests (but it is also driven by the fact that it has not risen to carve out the role it aspired to have in Libya and Syria) and in addition to selling weapons in Nicosia for 240 million euros, it also started to military exercises with Cyprus and Greece, the same thing did Italy that in 2019 sold two ships to Cyprus: the Posidonas 1 and Nireas 1, and in the last months of 2019 it has engaged more in the Cypriot sea by sending four units of our fleet in five months5also carrying out exercises in Cypriot waters to show its presence in Turkey. This happened while 130 Italian military units were still in Turkey for the NATO mission Active Fence to defend Ankara from Syrian attacks.

Foreign Minister Di Maio has called for dialogue with Turkey which, from what emerges from the words of Minister Donmez, does not want to know, despite the outstretched hand, Italy has done well to follow France in raising its voice by sending strong signals in Ankara, while the EU has so far limited itself to proclaiming threats against Erdoğan.

What future for Italy?

The Mediterranean is more alive than ever, there are several subjects who aspire to extend their influence in the natural crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia6; for this reason in recent years there has been, and continues to be, a race for naval rearmament; the main subjects of this rearmament are in order of importance Turkey, Egypt and Algeria. The latter in March 2018 with a presidential decree unilaterally extended its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) by 400 km, reaching 12 km from the coasts south-west of Sardinia invading our fishing and energy exploitation areas. Italian diplomacy has once again proved to be accommodating, responding not with an immediate request for the return of that area to Italy, but declaring itself willing to dialogue with Algiers, coming to terms on how our EEZ must be redistributed with the Algerians.

This attitude of the Italian government may not be surprising, since Prime Minister Conte in May 2019 visiting the "Citadel of peace" in Rondine (Arezzo), speaking to some students he said that the government has joined the campaign Leaders for Peace which aims to reduce armed conflict through a generation of pacifist leaders. During the meeting, he stated that the Italian state would renounce the purchase of five rifles to support the initiative "It may seem that they are few but it was not easy, there were budget items already made. The Defense administration complained that there would be five people without a rifle. I said 'okay, they will go to the rear to talk about peace '. " Serious claims, because while the Italian government would like to arm our soldiers with flowers and colored chalks, those who undermine our interests in the Mediterranean and Africa are arming themselves to the teeth.

If Italy continues to fall victim to self-defeating pacifist rhetoric, and will not be able to use the armed forces - not to extend - but at least to defend its interests, Italy is destined to perpetual irrelevance.

The Cypriot exception gives us hope, but more efforts are needed. It is a period of great changes and a strategy for foreign policy is urgent for Italy, primarily for its natural area of ​​influence: the Mediterranean. We are aware that even the single death of an Italian soldier would have a huge impact on public opinion no longer accustomed to the sacrifices that political geography requires in order not to disappear from history, but if we stop thinking big we will not only end up becoming a periphery, but also a land of conquest.

We should make our own what Leopardi wrote in his Thoughts - "Mankind and, from the individual on the outside, any small portion of it, is divided into two parts: some use arrogance, and others suffer from it."7

1 Military breakthrough in Tripoli displaces Italy, Gianandrea Gaiani (Limes 4/2020)
2 Al Shabaab, more money and less cut throats. What the Aisha case teaches, Francesco De Remigis (, 12.05.2020).
3 “Diplomacy of hydrocarbons” and jihadists from Libya to the Horn of Africa, the Turkish influence undermines the Italian influence, Marco Cesario (Daily Atlantic, 22.05.2020).
4 Convention bearing the explicit name of "International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism".
5 In the Mediterranean, a race to naval rearmament, Alberto de Sanctis (Limes 4/2020)
6 Here we have not dealt with the Chinese penetration that deserves a separate discussion.
7 Thoughts (XXVIII), Giacomo Leopardi (Rizzoli universal library, 1988)

Photo: web