Commentary. The Italian government's desire to deal with the migratory flow emergency and Libya's instability has led to them cozying up to North African strongmen, including Khalifa Haftar, who was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the US.

Italian government courts Libyan war criminal, Khalifa Haftar

So much for the “Mattei plan” for Africa’s development, paved with the rhetoric of good intentions and, above all, business: the so-called “migratory flow emergency” and Libya being split in two (into three with the Fezzan) are leading the Italian government to stoop to dealing with all the North African strongmen big and small, whether or not they’re listed as criminals in one place or another. After all, since the longtime autocrats like Gaddhafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak fell in the Arab Springs of 2011, what we have today are their successors, who are no longer just jailers of migrants, like their forebears, but also human traffickers, pure and simple, cashing in and blackmailing again and again.

Among this lineup we find Khalifa Haftar, received on Thursday by Prime Minister Meloni at Palazzo Chigi and the day before by Foreign Minister Tajani. Haftar was a protégé of Gaddhafi, who entrusted him with the bloody Chad campaign in the 1980s. Disgraced after the Libyan rout at Wadi Al Dum, Haftar was taken prisoner by the Chadians. He was later freed through U.S. mediation and then spent 20 years in comfortable exile in Virginia, where he obtained U.S. citizenship. With the fall of Gaddhafi, he returned to Libya, accompanied by his sons Saddam and Belgacem, becoming a key player in coup attempts and “Operation Dignity” against jihadists.

In 2022, however, in his adoptive Virginia, a district court convicted him of war crimes and crimes against humanity, perpetrated, according to the complaints of numerous Libyan families, during Libya’s second civil war of 2019-2020, when Haftar laid siege to Tripoli and was later defeated by the drones of Turkish leader Erdogan, who is also banking on Libya for his geopolitical projections in the Mediterranean.

But there is no need for the Italian government to be too squeamish about this, since the Virginia court conviction brought no consequences at all for Haftar. After all, the U.S. government itself, a very on-and-off champion of human rights, recently sent its assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, Barbara Leaf, to Libya specifically to meet with Haftar. In the meeting, the two reportedly talked about the need to get rid of Wagner’s Russian mercenaries, allied with the general, and to reach an agreement to hold new elections, although no one really seems to believe in the feasibility of either proposition any time soon. The important thing, for now, is to pretend to believe.

And here we’re all pretending to some extent. Meloni had visited Tripoli on January 28, when she met with the premier of the national unity government, Abdulhamid Dbeibeh – another actor who keeps promising (and failing) to respect even the agreements on migrants, let alone human rights – while Haftar’s welcome in Rome took place with the mediation of Egyptian General Al Sisi after meeting with Tajani in Cairo in March. Back then, Tajani pretended to believe Al Sisi’s reassurances on the Regeni and Zaki cases, and then talked about containing migration flows and the need to put pressure on Haftar, a friend of Egypt, Russia, the Emirates and France. Meanwhile, as the Darmamin-Meloni case shows, the latter country is missing no opportunity to inflame the already tense situation between Rome and Paris.

More than half of the 2023 arrivals from Libya (10,000 out of 17,000) came from Haftar’s Cyrenaica, according to Interior Ministry data compiled by Agenzia Nova. Let’s be clear: this is not the first time we have paid homage to Haftar. In December 2020, Prime Minister Conte and Foreign Minister Di Maio flew to Benghazi to free 18 fishermen from Mazara del Vallo. But it appears increasingly urgent to get on his good side today, given that thousands of migrants have left Cyrenaica in recent months, with a 25 percent increase over 2022, according to UNHCR estimates.

Italy would be ready to sign an agreement on migrants, with money to militias and patrol boats to contain the desperation of refugees in concentration camps, modeled on the highly controversial and UNHCR-denounced one signed by Minniti in 2017 with Tripoli – but now with the troubling figure of a general who has already been convicted of war crimes.

But the general is no longer just the “strongman” of Cyrenaica. For the past few months, thanks to an agreement with Tripoli’s premier Dbeibeh, Haftar has once again become one of the decisive power players in Libya, despite the fact that in 2019-20 he tried to attack Tripoli without success, triggering months of civil war and causing hundreds of deaths. At the time, the Russians didn’t trust him either, and Wagner didn’t support his efforts to take the Libyan capital: this would have meant a new confrontation between Putin and Erdogan, who were already facing each other in Syria and Nagorno Karabakh. Moscow had chosen to come to an understanding with Ankara over Syria, which has recently returned to the bosom of the Arab world while negotiating with Egypt and Sudan over a possible military base on the Red Sea.

What are Haftar’s trump cards? Libya’s instability, from which Italy gets its gas (Greenstream) and oil. And, above all, the deep economic crisis in Tunisia (where Interior Minister Piantedosi is headed) and Egypt. In addition to all this, there is the aftermath of the war between generals in Sudan (Dagalo “Hemetti” is linked to Haftar and Wagner). His weapon for blackmail is the increase in migration flows that he partly controls, between wild deserts, failed states and uncertain borders. This is how a coup-conducting general, convicted of war crimes, is now becoming a “respectable” interlocutor.

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