Interview. We spoke with Italian historian Angelo Del Boca about the violent flare-up in Libya, where General Khalifa Haftar has attempted to take Tripoli by force. ENI is evacuating its workers even as Salvini claims Libya is still safe for migrants.

Haftar ‘has no chance,’ says Libya scholar

Angelo Del Boca may be far along in years, but he is always informed and aware of what is happening on the other side of the Mediterranean. A historian of Italian colonialism, he is an expert in Libya, and, along with many other works of fundamental importance, he has written an authoritative biography of Gaddhafi. Angelo Del Boca is truly the go-to person to understand the new Libyan crisis, and we have asked him a few questions about the latest developments.

So, war has broken out again in Libya—yet it is a “safe place,” according to Minister Salvini.

But the truth is that the war never ended. In the almost eight years since the violent fall of Gaddhafi, the civil war that erupted among the hundreds of militias, self-proclaimed “governments” and “parliaments,” on three fronts that face each other geographically—Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan—has been tearing the country apart. Like I have said before, Libya looks much like Somalia, if we take an example from among the African countries: it is falling to pieces. From time to time, we have preferred to look the other way, but the consequences of the civil war have never disappeared there.

In the international media, the military offensive of the Benghazi leader is being described as unexpected, but decisive, as if it was aimed at unifying Libya.

However, it is not unexpected at all. Haftar—who, lest we forget, is one of Gaddhafi’s former generals, defeated in the war with Chad and captured and “recycled” by the CIA—has always been determined to remove the leader he considers to be a puppet: Serraj, the head of the government in Tripoli, the one with whom Italy, the UN and the international community are maintaining relations. But Haftar’s current initiative has blown up the image he had built up with the summit photos, in which he can be seen warmly shaking hands with everyone: Serraj, Macron, Putin or Conte. He is not a mediator, he would rather go to battle. This development is a great blow for the United Nations, whose Secretary General Guterres was just in Tripoli to discuss the Ghadames summit, which was supposed to take place in mid-April and approve the start of a transition period, with planned elections and unification processes.

Now, Haftar wants to achieve unification by force of arms.

It appears so, but he has no chance to succeed in this task. Proof of this is the fact that his offensive seems to have been halted already. The conquest of Mitica, the capital’s airport, a crucial objective, was said to be a done deal, but it has not been accomplished [editor’s note: On Saturday, Haftar claimed to have taken the airport]. On the coast, in Zawiya, his forces have suffered a defeat. Furthermore, it appears that the militias which were supposed to join up with him—likely one of the goals of Haftar’s initiative—are wary to do so, and maintain their formal ties to the Serraj government. This is true, for instance, for the militias in Zintan, a city where Seif Al Islam resides, Gaddhafi’s formerly imprisoned son who now aspires to run for office himself. Some of the militias have turned out to be Haftar’s bitter enemies, as is the case with the Misurata “army,” which is worthy of its moniker: while certainly not comparable in strength to Haftar’s overall forces, it is well-organized and armed to the teeth with modern weaponry. It is so strong that it has been functioning as the muscle of the Tripoli leader, resolving the clashes that have repeatedly sprung up with the many local Islamic militias, or with those that arrived after Gaddhafi’s fall. Now, the militias of Misurata are effectively in control of Tripoli, and the increasingly uncertain fate of Serraj is in their hands.

As of Saturday, ENI has officially begun to evacuate its staff. What does this mean for Italian interests?

Yes, this has only happened once before, in 2011, with the start of the NATO war. I think what it means is that at this time, after many members of the Presidential Council have fled Tripoli, including the head of the Libyan oil corporation, ENI no longer has partners in the capital that would be capable of ensuring  that its activities can continue safely. However, it appears that talks with Haftar, who has conquered many oil centers, are already underway.

Who is behind the general who is ruling in Cyrenaica?

Among those who are backing him, we certainly find France, with its oil interests, and Egypt, which functions as his logistical back-end. However, as we recall, Haftar also made a visit to Putin’s Moscow. And the US is also back in the game: they have appointed a new ambassador, Richard Norland, and are taking a more active role together with Saudi Arabia. It should be recalled that this was the region where the Americans suffered a historic defeat during the time of the Obama presidency and Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State: the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens at the hands of Islamic militias in Benghazi—who, just a few months before, had been the foot soldiers for the NATO war (led by the US and France) against Gaddhafi—is still an open wound for the US.

What is the position of the Italian government?

It’s paradoxical, but they seem to be supporting both sides. On the one hand, there’s Serraj, whom we have brought to power and defended militarily with our warships off the Libyan coast, and who Interior Minister Salvini keeps showering with praise. On the other hand, we’re also close to Haftar, the rising star and new player, with whom Prime Minister Conte has met recently. At stake is the crucial oil business, but also the other, truly “dirty” business: migrants. Salvini sees Serraj as the one who controls the militias, which he insists on calling “the Libyan Coast Guard,” because they block refugees from escaping from Africa, capture them and keep them in what are undoubtedly concentration camps. All this while willfully forgetting the memory of the many concentration camps that colonial and Fascist Italy built in Libya after WWI. Even now, as armed militias are engaged in open warfare, including naval combat, Salvini has the arrogance to say that Libya is a “safe haven.” No, it is not—just like it wasn’t during the time of Gaddhafi, who was making deals with Berlusconi, or during the period of the Minniti Code, which gave Serraj a veneer of legitimacy. Now, it’s Salvini’s turn to inherit the same disastrous strategy. And Libya won’t be a safe haven under Haftar either, should he manage to install himself as ruler in Tripoli.

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