What Interests Does Italy Have in Conflicts of the Middle East?

Monday، May 29، 2017
What Interests Does Italy Have in Conflicts of the Middle East?

Through its involvement or non-involvement in the Middle East conflicts, including Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq in particular, the Italian government aims to achieve goals that serve its national interests, according to the view of the ruling elite. These goals include supporting stability in Libya, weakening ISIS, reaching a political settlement to the crisis in Syria, solving the conflict in Yemen and making profit from the so-called “economy of risk” in Iraq, all of which are interconnected interests that are locked into the orbit of Italy’s foreign policy. 

A review of Italy’s policies towards “chronic” Middle Eastern conflicts would indicate that it is underpinned by the following pillars:

1- Supporting stability in Libya. Italy seeks to reduce threats emanating from Libya after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, as well as the consequences of the collapse of its central authority, spread of militias, expansion of terrorist organization and the refugees’ influx. Due to Libya’s division between two rival governments, Italy’s policy has failed to achieve its goal and take a firm position, rather than a wavering one that changes according to whatever developments take place on the ground. Sometimes, Italy appears to be siding with the Tobruk-seated House of Representatives, the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and sometimes it also appears to be a supporter of the Government of National Accord of Libya (GNA) and the Presidential Council of Libya led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, especially after Italy re-opened its embassy in Tripoli in January 10, 2017. 

Wavering Position

Italy’s ruling elite recognizes that its stance regarding the Libyan crisis has been fluctuating constantly for six years now. This was evidenced by statements delivered by Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano during a joint press conference with his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir on February 20, 2017. Alfano noted that Italy’s decision to support al-Sarraj means that it chose a government that derives its legitimacy from the United Nations and that it should not be seen as choosing Western Libya over Eastern Libya. 

In recent months, and despite its support to the GNA, which is in compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2259, Rome appeared to be recognizing that it is vital to involve Haftar in the political process, and even perceive him as a contributor to stability in a united Libya. Within this context, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, during a joint press conference on May 17, 2017, with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, said that it would be a common interest for Italy and Russia, in the current situation, to work on expanding rapprochement between Libyan parties to make it as inclusive as possible to involve important stakeholders such as General Haftar. 

Italy’s interest in stability in Libya was reflected in its participation in international efforts to provide political solutions and combat regional conflicts. For Italy, this would counter the spread of arms smuggling, human and drug trafficking networks. A report published by the International Organization of Migration in April 2017, referred to the issue of human trafficking in Sabha City in southern Libya that has become a hub for migrant smuggling to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea. 

Combating Terrorism

2- Weakening ISIS. Terrorism is a major source of threat for Italy’s national security, especially after several Western capitals were hit by terrorist attacks. The Italian government bets on the view that it shares a common view with the US Administration of President Donald Trump, which aims to target airstrikes against ISIS’ strongholds by aircraft stationed in Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, Italy. The base is the nearest point to Libya for US jet fighters. This was reflected by Prime Minister Gentiloni’s visit to Washington on April 20, 2017, during which Trump stated, "I do not see a (US) role in Libya…I do see a role in getting rid of ISIS.”

Hence, it can possibly be stated that weakening ISIS in order to defeat it represents a shield against regional and international threats. It should be noted here that Italy’s approach to ISIS’ threats has been contradictory sometimes. Previously, in 2015, Rome opposed any foreign military intervention in Libya, and was content with supporting the Libyan government of Fayez al-Sarraj before it recognized the pivotal role General Haftar plays in the internal balance of power in Libya. However, the Italian government’s fears that ISIS militants could hide its fighters among migrants to reach Italy through the Mediterranean Sea to carry out terrorist attacks inside Italy. Such fears have forced Italy to change its foreign policy. 

In 2016, Italy officially made a proposal to decriminalize cannabis sales that would strike a blow against ISIS militants and Italian mobsters who are cooperating to smuggle hashish. Italy's top prosecutor Franco Roberti, who is also national anti-mafia and anti-terrorism chief told Reuters on April 18, 2016 that the main smuggling route for North African hash now runs from Casablanca, Morocco, through Algeria, Tunisia to Tobruk in eastern Libya, where ISIS controls the Libyan route and the coast along the Gulf of Sirte as security chaos grips the country. 

In investigations, Italian police found evidence that Italian organized crime, which has long controlled most of the country's illegal drug supplies, and "suspected terrorists" in North Africa are trafficking hash together. According to Roberti, decriminalization or even legalization would definitely be a weapon against traffickers, among whom there could be terrorists who make money off of it. 

Some estimates indicate that the illegal drugs trade, which includes cannabis and hash, earns more than USD 36 billion annually for Italian organized crime. Roberti said international terrorism finances itself with criminal activities that are typical of the mafia, like drug trafficking, smuggling commercial goods, smuggling oil, smuggling archaeological relics and art, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion. 

Risks of Replication

3- Preferring a political settlement to the crisis in Syria. Rome’s position regarding the Syrian crisis has not changed since it broke out in March 2011. Rome does not oppose several European countries’ demands that Bashar Assad steps down, and that dialogue between the regime and the armed opposition be enhanced, while rejecting all forms of military intervention and supporting the fight against all terrorist organizations. This reflects Italy’s desire in not replicating the “Libyan scenario” in Syria.

It should be noted that Paolo Gentiloni, the former Italian Foreign Minister and the current Prime Minister, in a joint news conference on December 2, 2016, with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, emphasized that Italy’s traditional position is that a military solution is not going to resolve the conflict in Syria, and that Italy had affirmed this position three or four years earlier and constantly reaffirms it. He added that “we have to support every possible effort to end violence and provide a chance for delivery of humanitarian aid and launch the transitional process.”

Italy’s position can be attributed to several reasons, including that none of the involved parties in the conflict have been able to win the six-years war. Another reason is Italy’s compliance with the European and United States’ stand represented in the three Nos: No stability in Syria while Bashar Assad is in power; No transition while Assad is in power, and No reconstruction while the current regime is in power. 

Within this context, Prime Minister Gentiloni, in statements made on April 7, 2017, highlighted the need for solving the conflict in Syria through negotiations that involves the regime, the opposition forces, Russia and the United Nations. He expressed Italy’s support for the United States’ missile strike against the Assad’s regime Shayrat airbase in Homs province. Moreover, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano described the US strike as a suitable response to the regime’s aggression on civilians and a deterrent against its use of chemical weapons.

Economy of Risk

4- Benefiting from the economy of risk in Iraq. This was reflected in the Italian overseeing maintenance of Mosul Dam. Italy’s position on the current developments in Iraq is governed by two determinants, the first of which is curtailing ISIS’ expansion, with Rome being a member of the global coalition countering ISIS. The second is its desire to make economic gains in an environment governed by increasing risks, in ISIS-controlled areas in particular. 

On February 2, 2016, the Iraqi cabinet awarded a USD 2 billion contract to Italian Trevi Group to maintain and reinforce Mosul Dam on the Tigris river, 50 km from Mosul City. The deal coincided with former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi’s announcement in December 2015 that he planned to send 450 troops to protect workers carrying out repairs to the Mosul dam. 

Kuwait’s Mediation

5- Solving conflict in Yemen through peaceful means. Italy’s policy towards Yemen was consistent with the vision of several other European countries, especially with regards to efforts made by Kuwait to solve the conflict in Yemen as prelude to launch reconstruction and development. This was emphasized by Italy’s foreign minister Alfano and his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir during their meeting in Rome on February 20, 2017. 

Supportive Mechanisms

Achieving these goals would prompt the Italian government to put a number of mechanisms in place. These mechanisms are as follows: 

1- Continuing membership of the Washington-led global coalition against terrorism. In an April 7, 2015 interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the Italian Foreign Minister emphasized that his country is part of the US-led global coalition against ISIS, which is operating mainly in Iraq and Syria. He further noted that Italy may consider also contributing in the future to tackling militant groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. These groups, he said, must also be dealt with on a military footing.

2- Avoiding disagreement with international powers that play an effective role in some regional conflicts. This is especially so with regards to Italy’s relations with Russia concerning the crises in Syria and Libya. That is, Rome maintains contacts with Moscow about countering terrorism in Libya, while ensuring that it understands Russia’s view about the crisis in Syria. While several European states voiced severe criticism of Russia’s policies after it bombarded Aleppo City in October and November 2016, Italy adopted a different approach opposing the imposing of sanctions on Moscow. Italy explained this opposition by noting that economic sanctions would not force Moscow to engage in negotiations to reach a political settlement to the crisis in Syria. 

3- Operating patrols along the Libyan coastline. This concurs with the Italian government’s initiation of training of its naval forces and coast guards and use of advanced radar systems to prevent migrants from heading towards Italy. This was evidenced in statements delivered on several occasions by Italy’s Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti who stressed that the battle with human traffickers cannot be won in international waters and that it must be fought in Libya’s territorial waters. Rome and other European capitals face the biggest migrant wave since WWII. The average flow of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing severe conflicts and hard economic conditions in their countries in the Middle East and North Africa has doubled. 

4- Reliance on the roles of small NGOs, especially those relying on special financial grants to carry out migrant rescue operations off the Libyan coast. These include Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), SOS MEDITERRANEE and Proactiva Open Arms, which use ships dedicated to operate in seaports. Some voices within the Western media warned against possible collusion between human trafficking networks transporting migrants from Libya and operators of ships that wait offshore. These NGOs responded to the accusation saying that their intervention was prompted by the failure of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, to control borders and curb threats associated with migration. 

5- Channelling humanitarian aid to conflict zones. This was evident in Italy’s humanitarian support to Libyan areas, including medical supplies to Libyan hospitals in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). 

6- Seeking help from tribes to control borderlines, such as in southern Libya. On April 2, 2017, the Italian Interior Ministry finalized a peace agreement between the head of the Shura council of the Awlad Suleiman tribe, Masoud Omar, and the chief of the Tebu tribe, Mina Saleh Kalma, in the presence of deputy head of the GNA, Abdulsalam Kajman, and a delegation from Libya’s Tuaregs. The reconciliation was sponsored by an Italian NGO called Arci Porco Rosso. The signing of the peace agreement came after three-day negotiations in Rome stipulates that “A Libyan border patrol unit will be operational to monitor Libya’s southern border of 5,000 kilometres.” Securing the border in southern Libya means securing the border in southern Europe, according to the Italian Interior Ministry. 

The agreement also provides comprehensive reconciliation and payment of damages for both tribes that Italy will pay. It further provides for removing armed formations from government departments and surrendering arms to the army and police across the south while removing social protection for criminals and forming a joint committee to oversee the implementation of the agreement, which also aims to combat a smuggling-based economy. 

7- Promoting security cooperation with Libya’s neighbours and Tunisia in particular. This is driven in particular by the spreading phenomenon of what is called death boats that carry migrants from slums surrounding the Tunisian capital to European countries. Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui and his Italian counterpart Angelino Alfano signed an agreement to enhance measures to counter clandestine migration and human trafficking. The agreement was signed during a state visit to Italy by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, the first visit since the Jasmine Revolution broke out in 2011. 

Italy also hosted regular meetings to discuss the consequences of the Libyan crisis. In the most recent such meeting, held in late May 2017, European and North African countries supported an agreement signed with the Libyan government to combat human trafficking. 

In conclusion, the Italian government’s policy towards conflicts in the Middle East aims to prevent expansion of terrorist groups to its southern border. This concern was reflected by the Italian interior minister who warned of the danger of proclaiming an Islamic caliphate at the gates of Italy, which followed threats by ISIS in 2015 declaring that the terror group had reached southern Rome. Moreover, Italy reached understanding with the world powers such as the United States and Russia, and opened communication channels with major regional powers to reach peaceful settlements to domestic conflicts and crises such as in Libya and Syria, while investing in the economy of risk to make trade gains, as is the case in Libya and Iraq. 

Keywords: YemenSyriaLibyaItaly