Forces loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar patroling in downtown Sebha, the biggest city in southern Libya Image Credit: AFP

Slovenia: Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, foreign powers have played a rather disruptive role, greatly contributing to the overall chaotic situation in the county.

The competition among international players for influence has intensified over the years with a rivalry between France and Italy being particularly fierce.

Since the popular uprising and NATO intervention which ended Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year rule in 2011, Libya has been split among different militias and two rival administrations—the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR).

Italy and France find themselves on opposite sides of a growing number of issues from migration to European integration.

Some observers see a personal rivalry emerging between French president Emmanuel Macron—who promotes liberal European values—and controversial Italian anti-migrant Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini—the most powerful figure in Rome’s ruling coalition.

“Libya represent a battleground between Rome and Paris over the leading role in the country. Current tensions date back to 2011 when France and the United Kingdom led a military intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Italy was against the intervention,” Giuseppe Dentice, Associate Research Fellow at Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) told Gulf News.

Libya, a former Italian colony, had always been a central focus of Rome’s foreign politics.

In the last few years, Italy has become a major transit route for African migrants coming to Europe.

Libya is also one of the largest suppliers of oil and natural gas to Italy.

Last year Italy’s new conservative government vowed to crackdown on migration—which it views as a serious threat.

It has always been in Italy’s interest to minimise instability in Libya.

Arturo Varvelli, Co-Head of ISPI’s Middle East and North Africa Centre, in charge of North Africa Studies, tells Gulf News that Rome has been investing political capital both officially and unofficially by hosting summits, conducting intense diplomacy, and trying to bypass the conflict between Tobruk and Tripoli by directly addressing municipal representatives, members of civil society, local actors, and tribal leaders.

In 2017, Italy and the government in Tripoli collaborated to combat human trafficking and strengthen Libya’s border controls to prevent migrants from departing from the coast of Libya.

Italy has also developed close commercial ties with Libya especially its energy-rich western region where Italian oil giant Eni has invested.

“It is in Italy’s interests to maintain positive relations with those in control of this part of the country by acting as a mediator,” Varvelli said.

On the other hand, France has primarily focused its efforts in Libya’s south—trying to reign in out-of-control militias and curb terrorism there.

Wayne White, a policy expert with Washington’s Middle East Policy Council explained that France’s focus on the Sahel/Southern Sahara is natural in order to protect its northern tier of Francophone sub-Saharan African states, especially Mali and Niger—both of which have been infiltrated by heavily-armed militias and terrorist groups as well as Tuareg separatists.

As a result, France has worked closely with Eastern strongman military leader Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and his Libyan National Army (LNA).

Paris is convinced that he is the only player able to re-establish order in the country.

“International divisions have put Libya at greater risk of civil conflict,” Jonathan M. Winer, a former special US envoy for Libya told Gulf News.

“Libyan factions will take advantage of any divisions they see among interested foreign leaders as opportunities to gain the upper hand.”

-Stasa is a roving freelance journalist