Libya strongman boycotts Italy peace summit

Libya strongman General Khalifa Haftar.
Libya strongman General Khalifa Haftar. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Libya strongman Khalifa Haftar boycotted peace talks in the Italian city of Palermo Monday, aimed at stabilizing the North African nation. His no-show is a diplomatic blow for Italy that has sought to regain control of the Libya peace process from France. 


Haftar's self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) said Tuesday that he had travelled to Palermo, but only to meet regional leaders on the sidelines of the summit, preferring to boycott the latter altogether.

Sources close to him say he is unhappy about the composition of the Palermo conference--too heavily weighted towards the Islamist factions inside and outside Libya, beginning with the two representatives from Tripoli: Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed government and Khaled al-Mechri, speaker of the Tripoli-based upper chamber.

They, like Aguila Salah, speaker of the Tobruk-based parliament and the other main player attending, are seen as close to Qatar, whom Haftar accuses of sponsoring terrorism in oil-producing areas of Libya.

"The fact that some of these Misrata militia are represented in the Palermo conference is seen as a reason for him not to go," explains Umberto Profazio, an analyst from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Haftar fought these same Islamist militias in 2016 during the battle for Sirte, located between the capital Tripoli and Benghazi.

"The fact that the Italian government is close to representatives of Misrata, Haftar's enemies," is problematic, Profazio told RFI.

Motivated by migration crisis

Italy, Libya's former colonial power, supports al-Sarraj's Government of National Accord (GNA). It has invested heavily on the UN-backed authorities to stem the flow of thousands of undocumented migrants arriving from the Libyan shores.

"Italy's interest, and it should be said publicly, Europe's interest, is about containing the migrant flow," says Mitchell Belfer, Director of the Euro Gulf Information Centre in Rome.

For Rome's populist government, a top priority is stemming the flow of migrants who exploit Libya's security vacuum in their quest to reach European shores, often via Italy.

"They're willing to empower al-Sarraj as long as he creates a seal on the vacuum that was left over by [Muammar] Kadhafi in terms of human smuggling and migration,” he told RFI.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini recently travelled to Qatar to discuss ways of boosting homeland security, a move that apparently angered General Haftar.

"He's not there to empower a peaceful transition in Libya, he's there to ensure that his constituents see him stopping the migrant flow," comments Belfer.

Italy's dual diplomacy

The problem is that Italy's foreign ministry has adopted a very different approach to its interior ministry when it comes to resolving Libya's crisis.

"The minister of Foreign Affairs has been really active in engaging Haftar," comments Profazio from the International Institute of Security Studies, after Enzo Moavero Milanesi visited Benghazi in Septemer this year to meet with General Haftar.

However, Italy's diplomatic efforts are being undermined by its own Interior Ministry's growing relationship with Qatar.

These conflicting agendas are not just within the Italian government but also between Italy and France.

"France and Italy are competing about the leadership of the Libyan peace process," explains Profazio, who says this rivalry is "exacerbating the conflict."

France has sought to legitimize the role of Haftar, seen as a bulwark against Islamists, while Italy, led by Interior minister Salvini is more concerned about stemming migration.

Limited outcome

In many ways, the Palermo conference is seen as a response to Paris' Libya summit held back in May, at a time when Italy was facing a political crisis.

The Paris conference saw the rival factions agree to hold elections on December 10. Seen as ambitious at the time, the date has now been pushed back to early next year by UN special envoy Ghassan Salame, who rather than shuttle diplomacy is seeking a national conference to reconcile Libya's tribal groups.

Now that Italy’s crisis is over, it wants to regain diplomatic control of the Libya peace process from France. But Belfer doubts whether the Palermo summit will produce much beyond a rote endorsement of the UN’s efforts in Libya.

"There could be one area in Fezzan, we could be looking at very narrow stabilization efforts there," he says.

The Fezzan region is known for its smuggling routes. It is a patchwork of tribal forces and ethic groups vying for control of the trade and the oil fields, as well as groups from Chad and Sudan.

"It ticks all the boxes," continues Belfer, "You'll be able to halt migration, plug one of the area that's been contested by the various parties."

But it won't lead to an end to the crisis, he reckons.

"We are not looking at a Libya-wide stabilization but we could look at the Fezzan region being stabilized," he said.

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