The Franco-Italian competition over Libya has been complicated by recent clashes in Tripoli, home to the Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj-led Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Rome, and attacks against the Libyan National Oil Corporation, a longstanding partner of Italy's oil and gas giant Eni.
Besides, the French-backed Libyan military leader, Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army controls the east of the country, called Italy an "enemy" last week and pledged to "liberate" Tripoli.
The ongoing turmoil threatens to upset Italy's plans to hold a conference on the situation in the country in November, announced by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in July; similarly, it casts a shadow on the prospect of December elections in the war-torn country championed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Sputnik reached out to Italian journalist and political observer Daniele Pozzati asking him to comment on the Franco-Italian spat over the North African country.
"We need to go back 10 years, to August 30, 2008, when Silvio Berlusconi, then prime minister of Italy, signed a treaty of 'friendship, partnership and cooperation' with Libyan president [Muammar] Gaddafi," Pozzati said. "In the press conference that followed, Berlusconi told journalists that 'thanks to the treaty we signed today, Italy will see a reduction of illegal migrants… and will benefit from increased quantities of Libyan gas and oil, which is of the best quality.'"
"Immigration control and energy supply: then as now, this is what the Italian interests in Libya boil down to," Pozzati explained. "Immigration because Libya is, due to its geographic position, the gateway for African immigration to Italy. Energy supply because Italy, one of the world's biggest economies, is also one of the poorest in natural resources, and hence relies heavily on imported gas and oil."
However, the established status quo was upset in 2011, when France with its NATO allies, the US and UK, invaded Libya and overthrew Gaddafi.
"The result is under our eyes: Africa's richest country has turned into a slave market for jihadists, as well as into the main terminal for migrant-smugglers. Rome has been quarrelling with Paris ever since," the political observer elaborated.
On May 29, 2018, Macron arranged a meeting with the UN envoy to Libya, Ghassam Salame, and various Libyan leaders in Paris. They decided to call general elections on December 10.
"The Italian government was not even consulted," the journalist pointed out. "Rome's irritation was great. Macron did not simply act out of spite against the new Italian government, and against [Interior Minister Matteo] Salvini in particular. Already on July 24, 2017, when Italy still had a pro-immigration and EU-loyal government led by then Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Macron arranged a meeting with Libya's most powerful leaders, Serraj and Haftar — then as now excluding Italy from the talks."
West vs. East: France and Italy on Opposite Sides of Barricade
According to intelligence firm Stratfor, dubbed the "shadow CIA," France and Italy were predisposed to find themselves on opposite sides of the barricade from the start. Rome attaches great economic importance to western Libya, where the Greenstream originates. Besides, Rome has maintained longstanding ties with Tripoli and Misrata, the country's major port city.
"On the migrant front, western Libya is the launching point for most African migrants sailing toward Italy," the intelligence firm writes.
These territories are under the control of the internationally recognized GNA, while Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Hafter is "unpopular" there "due to the prevalence of Islamist parties" in the west of Libya, Stratfor notes.
Referring to Conte's opposition to rushed elections championed by Macron in Libya, Pozzati stressed that one "cannot call elections until the country has returned to peace and normality, which is definitely not Libya's case."
"Fighting is still taking place. And no clear winner has emerged yet," the political observer said.
According to Guma el-Gamaty, a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya, France's push for a quick general vote in Libya could be "a coordinated step between France, the UAE and Egypt" to ensure Haftar's takeover in Libya "while he is enjoying a wave of rising popularity."
Additionally, Paris is pursuing commercial gains in the country, el-Gamaty remarked in an op-ed for the Middle East Eye: the French energy company Total has bought a 16.33 percent stake in Libya's Waha concessions from US Marathon Oil for $450 million this month, thus boosting its presence in the country.
"France made the better move by backing Haftar, the man in control of the army. Not so Italy," Pozzati opined. "But then the new Italian government inherits a choice — backing Sarraj — made by its predecessor. This is a choice that cannot be easily undone. Instead, Italy should have offered to mediate between the two, just as everybody else was backing one or the other leader. I believe that Haftar's hostile attitude towards Rome is partly due to his awareness that he will have to negotiate — he is negotiating already — with Italy, and needs to raise the stakes before sitting at the negotiation table."
On September 10, Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi met with Haftar in Benghazi. Commenting on the meeting, Milanesi said that they "had a long and cordial conversation which re-launched close relations with Italy, in a climate of consolidated trust."
Commenting on Haftar's previous harsh remarks against Rome, Pozzati opined that it was "also part of Paris's game."
"His hostility to Italy is too sudden and unmotivated to be genuinely his. We know instead how hostile Macron has been against the new Italian government, for example, over the immigration issue," the journalist emphasized.
Heavyweights: US and Russian Factors in Libyan Crisis
Still, according to Pozzati, Paris should not underestimate Italy's reach in Libya.
"If the recent past is a reliable guide to the near future, consider this: following the 2011 French-inspired NATO's military intervention against Gaddafi, and Libya's subsequent descent into chaos, only one energy company has so far been able, thanks to a network of local contacts, to keep its Libyan operations running: the Italian state-owned giant Eni," the political observer underscored.
"Let's see if he sticks to his words," he said. "But I don't see why he shouldn't, considering that Trump might benefit from Italian support in his quarrels against the EU, especially against the, admittedly unsustainable, size of Germany's exports."
There is also the Russian factor, Pozzati emphasized: "Russia is a very discreet, but highly effective broker," as it maintains ties with various players in Libya.
Haftar's working relations with Moscow "reduces his reliance on Macron, and thus gives the Libyan leader more room the maneuver in negotiation with, say, Italy," the journalist presumed.
In early August, the Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesperson, Ahmed Mismari, told Sputnik that "the Libyan problem also needs engagement from Russia and President [Vladimir] Putin himself."
According to the political observer, time will tell how the Franco-Italian geopolitical chess game in Libya will unfold.
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