The Libyan Challenge to Europe: A Conversation with Marco di Liddo


2015-03-05  By Robbin Laird

Recently, the Centro Studi Internazionali based in Rome published a report by Marco di Liddo and Gabriele Iacovino on Libya and the fluid situation in the country.

Obviously, the general situation involving ISIL in the region, Egyptian reactions and the general dynamics of the region feed into the Libyan situation, which, in turn, has its more general impact on the region.

I had a chance to discuss the report and the Libyan situation and Italian options during a phone interview on February 27, 2015.

The turbulence in Libya has a direct impact on Europe, notably upon Italy.

The outflow of refugees, the intersection of radicalism in the Middle East within Europe itself, and the dynamics within the region, all drive attention from the Italian state.

The report from Ce.S.I. highlighted the very difficult situation within Libya and its spill over consequences.

The full report can be read in Italian on the Ce.S.I. website or in the English translation provided by the Center which can be downloaded below.

Italian Report on Libyan Situation February 2015

According to the authors the situation in Libya calls for international intervention.

In recent weeks, with the Libyan civil war as a backdrop, we have witnessed the Caliphate of Bayda’s overpowering entrance into the scene, a jihadist organisation based in Derna and officially affiliated to the Islamic State of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Indeed, taking advantage of the serious instability that has characterised Libya since 2011 and in the context of the confrontation between the Operation Dignity secular militia and the Operation Dawn Islamist militia, the jihadist forces launched an unexpected attack aiming to conquer the country, starting from the city of Sirte and with the objective of reaching Tripoli. …. 

For Libya, 2014 was the year of the segmentation of the civil war into two fronts: the secular Nasserite front of General Haftar and the Tobruk Government; and the Islamist one of the Tripoli government, flanked by a collection of local militias, some dangerously close to the jihadist movement.

However, this division appears to be a political ploy to differentiate between the warring parties and does not reflect the political and military realities of the battlefield, with variable alliances and a web of magmatic and flexible agreements.

One of the more troubling statistics is that neither side seems to have the strength required to prevail over the other and, above all, the Tobruk and Tripoli governments are still far from any form of dialogue or confrontation.

It appears unlikely that, in the future, this situation will improve without incisive intervention from the international community….

The authors provide insights into the domestic situation in Libya but have written from the point of view of what outside powers can do, both with regard to the limits and the opportunities.

The birth of the Caliphate undoubtedly forces European countries to reconsider their foreign policy and defence strategy.

The Italian diplomats, in line with the trend that emerged in 2014, should continue the process of creating a united front for stabilising Libya.

In the last months of 2014, during the NATO and G8 summits, the government had opened an important channel of negotiations with the United Kingdom, and then continued intensive talks with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, two leading Arab players engaged in the fight against the Islamic Libyan radical militia.

Libya is, in fact, a theatre where many Middle Eastern actors are developing a role.

The search for stability also involves a close dialogue with these realities.

The Italian government has shown that it fully understands these dynamics thanks to its diplomatic position.

Relations between Rome and Abu Dhabi, for example, have grown in intensity in recent years and today the UAE is one of the most important Italian partners in the region.

Furthermore, the Italian government’s attitude to the new path taken in Egypt, with Prime Minister Renzi being one of the first European leaders to give support to President Sisi, creates improved dialogue with Cairo, increasingly pronounced in its influence in Libya.

All this in light of the fact that, thanks to its role in international diplomacy, Italy could have the strength to also engage Qatar in a diplomatic process.

Qatar is currently firmly supporting the Libyan Islamists, as opposed to the secular forces, which receive aid from the Emirates and Egypt.

The involvement of Doha in the search for a compromise to stabilise Libya seems inevitable at this time because of the role played by the Qatari authorities and the need to find a compromise, or at least some common points among all the actors in Libya.

In this context, the role of Italy as a negotiator could be crucial with possible positive effects for the future.

The interview with Marco di Liddo built on this foundation and he discussed ways in which Italy might broker an opening into the Libyan situation. 

The basic idea was to sponsor a conference in Rome, which would invite major Libyan factions to in effect sort out, with which the West could work to move ahead.  The challenge from the ISIL-identifiers is clear; but the West did not have a clear ally who could control the situation.

The challenge is to help foster the emergence of a center of power in Libya with whom the West could work and who would be able to provide enough stability to roll back the jihadist forces.

A pure military solution was not going to help for the jihadists would like nothing better than to use a Western intervention to mobilize local opposition and to provide hostages for you tube and other more lethal activities.

The challenge is to bring together Western organizing efforts with appropriate military instruments, and not to fall back onto military instruments as the first entry point.

The EU was obviously important, but the challenge was to launch an effective process to deal with Libya.  Here a lead role for Italy along with France could generate a process for change.

In short, to deal with an explosive security situation on the borders of Europe requires more than a military solution or a repeat of Odyssey Dawn.

Military means are part of the solution, but only to work with a coalition able to roll back the jihadist radicals.

This requires political initiatives as well as aid approaches.

The challenge is to shape an approach, one, which can combine the various aspects of power, and to make hard choices on who to work with and who to not. 

The report clearly provides an American audience with a better understanding of the situation in Libya and the challenges which need to be met.

Marco Di Liddo is the Analyst in charge of the Africa Desk at Ce.S.I. – Centre for International Studies. Moreover, he is also responsible for the Desk covering the former USSR. He holds a degree in International Relations at University of Trieste and a Master in “Peacekeeping and Security studies” at the University of Roma Tre (Rome).

In 2011, he was teaching assistant in Contemporary History at University of Trieste. As an expert on Africa as well as the former USSR, Di Liddo has been frequently interviewed as commentator on national TV and Radio programmes aired by public broadcaster RAI, Radio Vaticana and TV2000. 


Several recent actions by Italy highlight their concerns with developments in Libya.

In a recent article in The Guardian the challenge of refugees was highlighted.

More than 1000 refugees have been saved in the Mediterranean north of Libya in the past two days but 10 people died at sea, Italian officials have said.

A flotilla of rescue vessels, including from Italy’s coastguard and navy, and three cargo ships saved 941 people in seven separate operations on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the coastguard and two cargo ships rescued 94 migrants whose motorised dinghy was in distress 40 miles (65 km) north of Libya.

Survivors were ferried to southern Italian ports. The migrants rescued on Tuesday had been aboard five motorised dinghies and two larger vessels. One of the larger boats capsized and 10 people were later found dead.

For months now, hundreds – sometimes thousands – of migrants fleeing conflicts or poverty have been reaching Italy every week on smugglers’ boats from Libya.

 Italy’s interior ministry said 7,882 migrants arrived in the first two months of this year, compared to 5,506 over the same time in 2014. A total of 170,000 migrants and asylum seekers were rescued at sea by Italy’s coast guard, navy and other vessels including cargo ships last year. It is believed the tally will be higher this year.

And concern over the direct security threat from the turbulent situation in Italy has lead to deployments off of Libya by the Italian navy.

According to a March 1, 2015, Reuters story Italy began their annual naval exercises focused on Libya.

Admiral Pierpaolo Ribuffo, the officer in command of exercises, said the operation was not directly connected with the crisis in Libya, where Italian energy group Eni has significant offshore oil platforms and other assets.

But he said the presence of naval vessels in the area could help improve security.

“We’re training our ships and our men, that’s all. Our activity has nothing to do with other scenarios,” he told Italian news agency ANSA in comments that were subsequently released by the navy.

“Obviously the presence of ships at sea also means security, deterrence and dissuasion,” he said. “But that’s normal, it’s like police patrolling the streets.”

Italy, whose southern islands are only around 300 kilometers from the Libyan coast, has led calls for a global diplomatic push to stabilize Libya, where two rival governments are fighting for control and where Islamist militants have gained a growing foothold.

It has also offered help in training a regular Libyan army but has ruled out any peacekeeping mission for the moment.

Concern over attacks on targets in Italy has been heightened by video messages from groups associating themselves with the Islamic State movement, stating that Rome was a target and by press reports that militants could reach Italy on migrant boats.

In effect, what is happening under the pressure of the ISIL movement and other dynamics in the region, the Euro-Med region is becoming a highly interconnected zone within which security is increasingly important. 

The EU has been good at giving aid; not so good at providing security imported from turbulent regions in the neighborhood.

And that is increasingly true for the Euro-Med region. The dynamics of change in the region intersect with internal dynamics in Europe to create a fluid situation.

This has led in part to the European Union trying to revitalize its so-called Neighborhood Policy (ENP) to deal with its neighbors in the East and the South.

According to an article by Eric Maurice published in the EU Observer on March 5, 2015:

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and neighborhood commissioner Johannes Hahn launched Wednesday (4 March) an ideas paper on the EU strategy towards its neighbors in the east and south.

The EU member states, the 16 ENP partner countries and civil society in the East and South of Europe will be involved in the assessment of the actions undertaken so far.

A first consultation with the southern neighborhood will take place in Barcelona in April. The Eastern Parternship will be reviewed at a summit in Riga in May.

A full proposal for a renewed strategy to spend will be presented next autumn. Over €15 billion have already been budgeted for the period 2014-2020.

Whereas the Neighborhood Policy has until now mainly been about projecting EU soft power to help develop democratic standards and free trade, the focus now is set to be more on protecting Europe from the consequences of its neighborhood instability.

In future, the EU should put “a new emphasis on energy security and organized crime”, as well as terrorism and the management of migration flows, said Hahn.

The EU is also considering co-operating with “the neighbors of the neighbors”.

In a clear reference to energy issues, the consultation paper mentions “Russia and partners in Central Asia”.

The paper also suggests that the ENP could conduct “post-conflict actions as well as related state-and institution-building activities”.

In a neighborhood which is “less stable than ten years ago”, the EU will shift from generic policies to differentiated approaches with its Eastern and Southern neighborhoods as well as between countries in these two regions.

“In a number of areas, the reform agenda has stalled, in part due to competing interests, in part because not all partners seem equally interested in a special partnership with the EU under the model of pluralism and integration”, says the paper.

The EU “needs to move from an approach very much based on the evaluation of progress to a more political approach”, said Mogherini.

But it is difficult to have a neighborhood policy, if the neighborhood is in flames. 

This is in effect the challenge with regard to Libya.