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Italy Reopens Embassy in Libya With an Eye to Migrants, Russia

  • Henry Ridgwell

FILE - A car drives past the Italian embassy in Tripoli, Libya, Jan. 10, 2017.

Italy reopened its embassy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli this week, the first Western country to do so since 2015, when a worsening conflict between rival factions allowed Libya to become the major gateway for migrants to Italy.

Angelino Alfano, Italy’s foreign minister, described the embassy reopening as a “great gesture of friendship to the Libyan people” and promised more controls on migration from Libyan shores.

Analyst Riccardo Fabiani of the Eurasia Group says Italy’s move is partly driven by domestic politics.

“Everybody knows that migration will be the key topic during the next electoral campaign. So the government is basically trying to intervene,” he said. “What they would like to do is basically to help the Libyan security sector, the Libyan militias, to stop the migrants before they reach the coast.”

FILE - Sub-Saharan migrants are rescued by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO at the Mediterranean sea, about 20 miles north of Ra's Tajura, Libya, Jan. 12, 2017. About 300 migrants were rescued Tuesday from three dinghies by members of Proactiva and Italian coast guard.

FILE - Sub-Saharan migrants are rescued by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO at the Mediterranean sea, about 20 miles north of Ra's Tajura, Libya, Jan. 12, 2017. About 300 migrants were rescued Tuesday from three dinghies by members of Proactiva and Italian coast guard.

Migrants and Russia

But Italy isn’t just aiming to stem the flow of migrants, it also wants to counter increased Russian influence in Libya’s fragile politics.

Libya’s Tripoli-based national unity government is suffering internal divisions as it struggles to establish legitimacy. A rival administration rules the east of Libya, overseen by self-styled strongman General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army.

Last November, Haftar met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow to ask for military help. This week, after the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov docked in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk, Haftar was invited on board to meet senior military chiefs.

Eurasia Group’s Riccardo Fabiani:

“General Haftar is the perfect, I would say, interlocutor for the Russians because he is very much keen to re-establish the old order in Libya. And it’s very similar to the situation the Russians have faced in Syria — supporting somebody who wants to re-establish order, re-establish control over Libya.”

Moscow’s backing for Haftar sets up another arena of potential rivalry between Russia and the West.

Russia vs. the West

“It’s clear that their end goal is to support Hafter, to make sure that he can win and rule Libya, and to increase their influence in the region,” Fabiani said. “It’s very clear that they are waiting for (Donald) Trump to be the next president in the U.S. and to understand what are the new rules of the game in Libya.”

If those rules change, analysts say the involvement of foreign powers would likely further destabilize Libya’s precarious situation.

On Thursday, one of the factions — the National Salvation government, led by self-declared Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell — claimed it had seized several ministries in Libya’s capital, in an apparent miniature coup. The U.N., which established a third government in Libya last year, denied the claim.

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