Reboot time: Operation Sophia and Italy’s tortuous Libya policy

A new mandate for Operation Sophia could be just what the Italian government is looking for – but much will depend on what the lead players in Libya do next.

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It comes as little surprise that the proxy actors involved in the Libyan crisis are already failing to implement the agreement signed in Berlin just last month. The final declaration of the conference held there included respect for the United Nation arms embargo on Libya and support for consolidating the truce. But UNSMIL, the UN mission in Libya, has already reported violations of the embargo, in the form of new weaponry entering the war-torn country.

In response to the Berlin agreement, Russia and Turkey proposed an interposition force that would have helped them both consolidate their positions in Libya. (Each stands behind the main Libyan antagonists in the conflict, respectively: Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and leader of the Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Serraj.) But, also in response to the Berlin agreement, Ursula von der Leyen and high representative Josep Borrell published a joint statement making their own proposal, which was for a permanent check “to be put in place, under the auspices of the UN”. The EU’s apparent preference is for a more flexible surveillance mechanism, which would minimise the risk of military confrontation. With this aim in mind, and given that the military and political conditions for a multilateral peace mission on the ground in Libya are missing, the EU began to look to Operation Sophia for a solution. So, at an extraordinary meeting of the Political and Security Committee on Libya held shortly after the Berlin summit, Borrell proposed refocusing the Sophia mission on monitoring the UN Libya arms embargo.

The Borrell solution deprives Salvini of the chance to issue accusations of creating a new “pull factor”

The EU NAVFOR MED (“Sophia”) mission was launched in 2015 to target illicit trafficking in the Mediterranean. Since then, and following the so-called “migrant crisis”, the mission is estimated to have saved around 50,000 lives in the Mediterranean. But last October, the EU agreed not to redeploy the search and rescue ships “temporarily” suspended in April after Italy’s government (at the time, a coalition of far-right and populist parties) threatened to veto the entire mission. The then interior minister, Matteo Salvini, claimed that the search and rescue ships were a “pull factor” that encouraged migrants to leave Libya and cross the sea. 

The Borrell solution suits the relatively new Italian government, as it deprives Salvini and his League party of the chance to issue accusations of creating a new “pull factor”. In a first step, the Political and Security Committee has agreed to provide operational guidance on enforcing the embargo, followed by a formal restructuring of the mission’s mandate and changing its name. Indeed, Borrell even offered Italy the chance to be seen to play a leading part in expanding Sophia’s capabilities, by deploying Italian satellites and aircraft to support the mission.

Italy has long made mistakes in its Libya policy. Its current position is one of maintaining “equidistance” from the two antagonists of the Libyan crisis, Haftar and Serraj. But this has not helped it meet its strategic goals, which range from managing migration flows to accessing energy markets. Italy was one of the main supporters of the creation of the GNA in 2015-16. But when it began to think that Haftar could take the whole country – compromising Italian interests, particularly in Tripolitania and Fezzan – Rome then shifted from fully supporting the GNA to trying to get closer to Haftar. This won it no favour with the field marshal. What guarantees could Rome give him that Cairo, Abu Dhabi, or Moscow were not already providing? In attempting to cosy up to Haftar, the Italian government lost the influence it had previously enjoyed with the GNA – which in turn began eying up Erdogan’s Turkey for support and protection. “Equidistance” came to mean little more than getting oneself squeezed out, and retaining virtually no role as a possible mediator in the conflict.

The prospect of Russia resolving the crisis – which would also have necessarily involved Turkey, and would unlikely have met European and Italian interests – was deemed of a particular concern in Rome. For these reasons, it quite willingly supported the Germans once they agreed last year to taking the lead on resolving the crisis. Rome positioned itself as the junior partner to Berlin, partly too with a view to responding to French historical activism in the Libyan crisis. Italy has also requested the United States to re-engage in Libya, in order to guarantee the ceasefire and to provide it with a renewed primary role. Italy would like to recreate the partnership with the US that allowed the creation of the GNA in 2015-2016 and in which Italy played an important role thanks to a sort of political delegation that the Obama administration gave to Rome.

Italy is now concerned that the new Operation Sophia may favour Haftar and penalise Libya’s GNA

Despite the Berlin agreement, ructions between the two broad sides continue. Last week Emmanuel Macron – who favours Haftar – accused his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of violating the embargo and breaking his promise to stay out of Libya after Turkish warships, accompanied by Syrian mercenaries, were spotted travelling there. Italy, in turn, is now concerned that the new Operation Sophia – if its monitoring component carried out only by sea, as is currently envisaged – may favour Haftar and penalise Libya’s GNA by leading to a constant stream of complaints about Turkey. At the same time, Italy fears that Operation Sophia could give an effective green light to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which supply weapons to Haftar over land as well as by sea.

In the end, the Italian government gave a cautious welcome to the Berlin summit’s final declaration on Libya, largely because it helped reposition Europe at the centre of managing the crisis. However, the aftermath of the conference has shown that the sponsor states do not believe the EU is ready to take the lead. In effect, they are still continuing to feed the two warring sides on the ground. If the EU formally changes Operation Sophia’s mandate, then this could influence the course of events – but it seems unlikely that individual EU member states will agree a mandate counterproductive to their own interests. This is true of Italy as much as, if not more than, any other member state. The Italian government continues to grapple with the issue of migration, which remains high among domestic political concerns, and will also look with worry on any renewal of Sophia that it believes carries with it negative geopolitical implications.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Rome
Senior Policy Fellow

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