Matteo Salvini on the Shores of Tripoli

Guest post by Ted Malloch and Filipe Cuello

The slow escalation of Franco-Italian tensions has so far been relatively amicable. Demands for paintings and sculptures looted during the Napoleonic wars can be easily dismissed as brotherly banter and resolvable.

A proxy war in Libya, on the other hand, is something quite different.

Last week, Khalifa Haftar – the French-backed head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) – decided to engage hostilities and start shelling Tripoli, the capital of the rival “Government of National Accord” (GNA).

They were supposed to sit down with the UN to negotiate a peace accord, but Haftar chose the warpath.

Salvini has accused the rebels of carrying out a military coup.

Italy’s interest – as well as that of their hardline Interior Minister, who is in charge of border security – is clear. Destabilizing Libya for the third time in ten years will lead to yet another influx of migrants fleeing from the unnecessary conflict. Salvini has declared his certainty that terrorists would abuse the relief corridor to infiltrate Europe.

A EU statement condemning Haftar was blocked by Paris for advocating a UN-mediated solution to the conflict.

EU policy on Libya has failed to staunch the flow of migrants so far. Bucking the multilateral approach, Salvini took to negotiate a bilateral deal with Tripoli – which may be the source of his support.

Safeguarding the widespread Italian-owned gas infrastructure is another. Haftar, an old Gaddhafi hand, is trying to replicate Col. Muammar’s old racket – the bizarre hostage situation: Pay me or you get a boatload of hostages.

All in all, Haftar’s greatest mistake may have been the failure to win quickly.

Matteo Salvini’s statement that the “blitz has failed” left a little twinge of regret for what could have been. The Tripoli government relies on thick networks of organized crime to keep the peace.

France’s efforts to impose Haftar aside, there is one more bit of historical backdrop to consider: President Sarkozy’s initiative to unseat Muammar Khadafi in 2011 – which was opposed by Silvio Berlusconi.

Fate has inverted these positions – France wants to let Haftar off the hook, while Italy wants to intervene in defense of Tripoli.

There are ways this could escalate. Italy has the planes for a no-fly zone, which would decimate Haftar’s air superiority.

The Tripoli-based GNA has no planes, if Salvini can even that score, or even provide air support for a GNA counterassault; the narrative would be very different.

United Nations support and recognition for the Tripoli-led GNA is another factor to consider – An Italian incursion into this conflict would have the blessing of the International Community, to say nothing of Italian gas giant, ENI, whose Libyan operations are extensive.

Ensuring one of Europe’s main supplies of oil & gas stays stable is certainly in America’s and the EU’s self-interest.

It also bears mentioning that Salvini’s Lega Party needs a good showing in the European Elections in May, where much of the future EU policy on the “Neighborhood” will be decided.

Macron, already isolated in EU diplomatic circles on issues like Climate Change and Trade with the US, would become even less of a consensus leader for the bloc.

The story of Salvini’s ascendancy in Europe would include defeating Emmanuel Macron in a proxy war in Europe’s neighborhood and stopping more migrants – perhaps the first of many victories to come.

A Roman triumph could be organized to celebrate his victory – Salvini Africanus Invictus. 

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