Recent statements from Italy on Libya reflect a difficult position for Rome. Its strong colonial and economic ties have made it the West's main interlocutor to the regime of leader Moammar Gadhafi, but those same ties also mean that Italy wants to secure its interests in the country in the increasingly likely event that the Gadhafi regime falls.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Feb. 23 that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had perpetrated a "horrible bloodbath" on the population of eastern Libya. This follows a late-night telephone conversation between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gadhafi on Feb. 22. Italian media reported that Berlusconi used the call to deny claims made by Gadhafi in his Feb. 22 televised address that anti-government demonstrators had been armed with Italian rockets. Frattini's statement and Berlusconi's phone call illustrate the current contradictory nature of Rome's foreign policy with Libya. On one hand, Italy is the West's only interlocutor with Libya, forcing Rome to keep communications with Gadhafi open. On the other hand, Italy has to prepare for the possibility of either a post-Gadhafi Libya, or a Libya in which the government's writ does not extend across large portions of the country. This means Italy's focus when it comes to Libya is in securing its considerable energy assets and making sure that unrest there does not lead to an exodus of migrants toward southern Italy and Sicily. (click here to enlarge image)Italy has a lot at stake in Libya. Partially state-owned Italian energy giant ENI considers Libya its main foreign venture. ENI and Libya's National Oil Corp. jointly run the Greenstream natural gas pipeline, which has a capacity of 11 billion cubic meters per year. The pipeline was shut down Feb. 22 after production interruptions in the Wafa fields in southwestern Libya. ENI also produces around 250,000 barrels of crude oil per day in Libya, approximately 15 percent of its total output. However, Italy has also relied on the Gadhafi regime to prevent migratory flows into Italy via the Libyan coast. The Italian island of Lampedusa is only 225 kilometers (140 miles) from the Libyan shore, and Rome is worried that the flood of migrants it has been able to stem via cooperation with Tripoli could become an "epochal" wave if unrest descends into civil war, according to Frattini. Berlusconi is already in trouble domestically over sex scandals and the general economic performance of the country, so the last thing Rome needs is revelations in the Italian press of its decades-long relationship with the authoritarian regime in Libya. But paradoxically, this relationship has put Italy in position as the main go-between for Gadhafi's regime and the West. Italy's colonial history with Libya (occupying it from 1911-43) as well as economic links and solid bilateral relations (with Italy lobbying the European Union to remove the arms embargo on Libya in 2003-04) means the West is counting on Italy to talk to Gadhafi. Rome's problem, then, is that in order to secure its interests in the country, it also needs to be talking with potential alternatives to Gadhafi, such as tribal and military leaders. This is especially the case in eastern Libya, much of which is currently outside of government control. The first example of this double game emerged when Frattini said Feb. 23 that the province of "Cyrenaica is no longer under the control of the Libyan government." This statement comes after Frattini voiced concerns Feb. 21 over the "self-proclamation of the so-called Islamic Emirate of Benghazi," using the same phrasing that Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam used a night earlier to describe the eastern regions of Darnah and Al Bayda, which, along with Benghazi, had been targeted by the government crackdown on protesters in eastern Libya. The difference in Frattini's terminology just two days later is considerable. His initial statement indicates Rome's fear of a radical, Islamist eastern Libya that could threaten the security of Italy and Europe, whereas his use of the term "Cyrenaica" — as eastern Libya was known during Roman times, and then again during the period that preceded Ghadafi's ascension to power — in the Feb. 23 statement lends legitimacy to the autonomist-minded rebellions in the east. Rome has therefore eschewed offering full support to Gadhafi because it understands that securing its interests in post-Gadhafi Libya will require making links with his opponents today, in addition to wishing to avoid the international condemnation that such support would likely bring. That the Western country with the best intelligence and understanding of Libya is also alternating how it frames the conflict in Libya is a possible indication Rome recognizes that Gadhafi may not retain power for much longer. Ultimately, Rome does not have many independent options for a post-Gadhafi scenario in Libya. It has asked the European Union for help stemming the flow of migrants, but the support has been tepid. EU member states are refusing to share the burden of accepting a flood of refugees and asylum seekers that Rome expects. Frattini has said to expect 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants if Libya's government falls, saying such a wave of refugees would be 10 times larger than that of Albania in the 1990s. Frattini's mentioning Albania is instructive because Italy led U.N. Operation Alba to restore order in Albania in 1997. The 7,000-member multinational force helped prevent general anarchy and widespread looting after the collapse of a nationwide Ponzi scheme. Libya, however, is not Albania. It is a larger, more populous and already more explosive situation than Albania at the height of its anarchy in mid-1997. Thus, Rome will need to call for an international solution to the Libyan problem that involves as many of its EU and NATO allies as possible in order to share the burdens of potential Libyan spillover in the Mediterranean. However, calls for burden-sharing in a potential international action in Libya could also put Rome in a difficult situation, given its simultaneous role as the West's primary spokesman with Gadhafi.