Italy's Strategy Reversal on Libya

7 MINS READApr 22, 2011 | 12:16 GMT
Initially tentative in its approach to the Libyan crisis, Italy has stated its intention to dispatch military advisers to help the rebels and is leading efforts to plan naval escorts for humanitarian aid. Rome has deep energy, economic and strategic ties to Tripoli, and thus adopted a cautious policy early on. But with its NATO and EU allies backing the Libyan rebels, Italy was forced to choose between stalling — and thus opening itself up to charges it was taking Gadhafi's side over its French and British allies' side — or supporting the intervention and attempting to bring the crisis to a quick conclusion. Whatever happens in Libya, Rome's involvement in the country will not come to an end.
Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said April 20 that Rome would send 10 Italian military advisers to Libya. The statement was shortly followed by news that Italian Adm. Claudio Gaudiosi, in charge of the European Union's EUFOR Libya mission, would begin planning for naval escorts to accompany humanitarian missions to Libya. The EUFOR Libya mission also has not ruled out deploying ground troops, according to a Financial Times report citing an unnamed Italian official. The idea of the Italian government sending military advisers to Libya to help the rebels and leading the efforts to plan naval escorts — and potentially ground forces as well — for humanitarian aid is a dramatic reversal of Rome's earlier position toward the North African country. As recently as a month ago, Rome was cautiously hedging its position, careful not to completely sever ties with Tripoli due to strategic and economic interests. This policy has now ended and Rome has thrown its weight behind the Franco-British goal of regime change.

Italy's Hedging Strategy

Italy stands to lose more from Libya's instability than any other European country. Prior to the conflict in Libya, Italy received just short of a quarter of its oil and 12 percent of its total natural gas supplies from Libya. Italian energy major ENI has a tradition of operating in Libya dating back to 1959 that survived even the tumultuous 1980s, when Moammar Gadhafi and Libya were pariahs in the West. It has invested in a number of oil and natural gas fields, which in 2009 accounted for 15 percent of the firm's total global output. ENI also operates the $6.6 billion, 11-billion cubic meter Greenstream underwater natural gas pipeline that takes Libyan natural gas to Sicily via the Mediterranean Sea. (click here to enlarge image) The close ties between Rome and Tripoli go beyond energy relations. The Libyan sovereign wealth fund has invested in a number of Italian financial and industrial institutions. Italy has also relied on Libya to stem the flow of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea and to allow Rome to send back migrants for detention in Libya regardless of nationality. And Italy was hoping to realize a number of large defense deals with Libya in 2011. At the start of the conflict in Libya, therefore, Italy took a markedly cautious line that at times bordered on the pro-Gadhafi. Rome hoped to maintain a relationship with Tripoli because it was unsure — rightly so — that the rebels had any capacity to overthrow Gadhafi or that air power alone could effect regime change. Examples of Italy's hedging strategy abound:
  • Rome initially opposed any direct intervention in Libya, as evidenced by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini's Feb. 21 statement on Libya that "Europe shouldn't intervene, Europe shouldn't interfere, Europe shouldn't export [democracy]." Frattini also said Rome was concerned about the "self-proclamation of the so-called Islamic Emirate of Benghazi."
  • ENI continued to pump natural gas from its fields in western Libya despite the shutoff of the Greenstream pipeline. According to ENI statements, it was doing this so that it could continue to provide electricity to the Libyan people. Meanwhile, ENI CEO Paolo Scaroni stated in March that European sanctions against Libya should be scrapped and that the conflict in Libya had not hurt relations between the Italian energy giant and Libya's National Oil Corp.
  • Rome was slow to freeze Libyan assets in Italy, even after an EU decision at the end of February that mandated that all Libyan assets in the bloc should be frozen.
  • Once it became clear that its EU and NATO allies were serious about the intervention, Italy decided to commit seven air bases to the effort but continued to hedge its involvement. Rome, for example, threatened to force foreign air assets off its bases if a NATO mandate was not agreed upon for the mission. Once the enforcement of the no-fly zone began, Rome continued to stress that its jets operating over Libya were incapacitating Tripoli's air defenses "without firing a shot." Indeed, even as recently as April 14, Frattini said Italy would need to hear "strong arguments" from the rebels in order to make the decision to begin firing on Libyan targets.

Rome Reverses Its Policy

The Libyan rebels did not welcome Rome's stance. As the Libyan National Transitional Council began to be seen as the sole representative of the rebellion, and as the sole representative of the Libyan people by France and Qatar, it began issuing poignant statements about the future foreign relations of a post-Gadhafi Libya. The opposition council made clear that those European countries that had helped the Benghazi-based rebels (i.e., France and Britain) would enjoy a privileged relationship with Libya. It seems that Rome decided at this time to break with Gadhafi. The decision was in large part made for Rome by ENI, which sent Scaroni to Benghazi at the beginning of April. The CEO followed his visit with several phone conversations with the rebel leadership. The negotiations between ENI and the National Transitional Council initially produced little proof in the media that a grand bargain had been struck, but subsequent statements from Rome illustrated a clear shift in tone. Almost immediately following the Scaroni visit, on April 4 Italy became the third country to recognize the opposition council as the only legitimate representative of the Libyan people. On April 11, Frattini said neither Gadhafi nor any of his family members could be part of the future of Libyan politics. And on April 14, Rome confirmed that it no longer had any official relations with Tripoli. Since then, reports have emerged in Italian media that Rome is already supplying the rebels with weapons via Qatar. While ENI may have provided the impetus for Rome to make a firm change in its stance on Libya, the writing was already on the wall for Italy. France and the United Kingdom's support for the National Transitional Council at the very minimum would mean a divided Libya and thus protracted instability in North Africa, directly across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. Rome could not support Gadhafi in a proxy war against its NATO and EU allies. It therefore could continue to hedge and stall, which only perpetuates instability in the region, or declare its support for the intervention to try bring the conflict to a close as soon as possible. In the meantime, Italy can use its support as leverage to exact concessions from the rebels so long as that support is needed. Italy's role in Libya will not end with Gadhafi's downfall, nor will it end if the rebels lose and Gadhafi retains power. There are reports in the Italian media that Italian businesses and intelligence operatives are continuing to maintain lines of communication with Tripoli and elements of the regime. While Rome is supporting the rebels diplomatically and likely with weapons — in addition to the newly announced decision to send advisers to Benghazi — it is sustaining these links with the regime as a form of insurance in case elements of Gadhafi's inner circle, excluding the Libyan leader himself as well as his close relatives, retain a role in the power structure in Libya. Of the European countries, Italy has the most on the line in Libya and the longest tradition of involvement. Even though Rome initially seemed to support Gadhafi, the rebels recognize Italy as an ideal market for post-Gadhafi Libyan energy products and know that Italy has proved itself open to Libyan investments. And ENI has a history of operating in the country and is committed to investing in Libya in the long term. Both Rome and the National Transitional Council have thus put their disagreements of a month ago behind them and decided that business — and removing Gadhafi — comes first.

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